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Friendship between Pilots Decreases Flight Safety

Abolishing piece-work payment for pilots as well as reduction of using fixed pilots combinations could help to improve air transportation safety, according to Anton Nakonechny in his recent study

Anton Nakonechny, postgraduate student at the Higher School of Economics, presented his research ‘Safety Culture in Russian Airlines: Socio-Ethical and Organizational Issues’ at the 14th HSE April International Academic Conference.

In 2011, Russia was the most dangerous country in the world in terms of air transportation. Flight safety in Russia is nearly half that ofthe world average, according to statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). While globally, one air incident happens every 500 flights, in the Russian Federation it happens once every 275 flights.

The reason for 80% of air incidents, according to statistics from the International Aviation Commission, is not technical error but the human factor, which means the quality of personnel training and their work. Anton Nakonechnyhas analysed the factors promoting or limiting the development of a positive safety culture. He understands safety culture to includethe qualifications and the personal and psychological preparedness of all flight participants.

The study used documents from the International Civil Aviation Organization, air incidents databases, federal aviation rules and the RF Air Code, as well as non-structured interviews with industry experts and also surveys ofair crews working in Russian airlines.

Pilots turned out to be responsible romantics

Nakonechny painted a portrait of the professional groups of pilots and flight attendants. In the structure of labour motivation for pilots the contents part prevails over the material one (the average pilot’s monthly salary in Russia is 250,000 to 300,000 roubles). An important factor is also communication with likeminded people. At the same time, among the motivation structure of flight attendants, the main factor is the material one. Communication with likeminded people is the second most important professional value. The opportunity to have interesting and important work, as well as employment stability are the next most important values for flight attendants.

Figure 1. Labour values

 PilotsFlight attendants
Communication with likeminded people39,2% (3)50,0% (2)
Prospects for career growth11,3%16,7%
Opportunities for continuing education19,6%16,7%
Opportunity to have interesting and important work86,6% (1)41,7% (3)
Appropriateremuneration of labour61,9% (2)58,3% (1)
Acknowledgment of my work by colleagues14,4%33,3%
Confidence in employment, work stability24,7%41,7% (3)
Social importance of the profession22,7%8,3%

Source: A. Nakonechny, 2013

The choice of a pilot’s profession is influenced by the romantic image of the profession, the creative nature of the job, and family traditions: the profession of pilot is often chosen by those who have a pilot as a parent. If we speak about flight attendants, their decision to fly was primarily based on the fact that they understood they would earn a good salary. Unlike pilots, flight attendants often choose the profession as a result of their currentsituation.

Figure 2. Reasons for choosing the profession

 PilotsFlight attendants
Creative nature of the job47,1% (3)35,3% (2)
Romantic nature of the profession59,8% (1)35,3% (2)
Opportunity to earn a decent salary41,2%58,8% (1)
Family tradition52,9% (2)17,6%
Compatibility with education18,6%11,8%
Current life circumstances2,0%35,3% (2)

Source: A. Nakonechny, 2013

A fixed salary guarantees safety

Anton Nakonechny detected two main factors preventing a culture of flight safety from developing: the piece-work payment system, and the dominance of an informal type of relationship among the air crew.

Piece-work payment forces the pilots to ‘race for flying hours’. The average share of the fixed part of the pilots’ salary in large Russian air companies is 30%. And 87% of respondents in the survey answered that they would like to increase the fixed share of their wages. A willingness to fit in with the employer’s requirements results in pilots sometimes sacrificing safety. For example, they choose to make a second approach during landing rather than land on an alternate airfield, or agree to take offduring unfavourable weather conditions.

The domination of informal, friendly type of relations between the air-crew also reduces flight safety. Employees with friendly relations are more likely to take part in activities such as mutual protection and ‘friendly’ covering of each other. They are more tolerant of their colleagues drinking alcohol the day before a flight.

In addition to this, in those crews with close relationships, an authoritarian and paternalist type of management prevails, which removes the second pilot from the decision-making process. In such a system, the second pilot rarely gives voices his opinions – which could sometimes be vital – to the captain. A more equal type of relationship would be more practical, where staff feel comfortable informing each other about mistakes and decisions made.

Anton Nakonechny concluded by saying that often the professional goals of pilots come into conflict with the social and organizational conditions of their work. In order to improve flight safety, the research author recommends abolishing the piece-work payment system for pilots and introducing a fixed salary, as well as cultivating a more business-like relationship among the air crews, which will mean changing the current practice of fixed crews.


Author: Maria Selivanova, May 07, 2013