Thursday, January 27, 2011

Culture de la Sécurité

If you are paying attention you noticed we’re using French words.  And the reason is the current news regarding Air France and its safety practices and safety culture.

The principal finding of an independent study of the airline’s operations was a lack of “strong safety leadership at all levels of management" as reported in a January 26 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article.*

While Air France has refused to make the report public, a review by the WSJ stated that the study was “sharply critical of broad aspects of the safety culture”.

Over the previous several days there have been articles in the WSJ preceding and attending the completion of the independent study.  The first of the articles** previewed some of the findings and provided favorable commentary based on an understanding that Air France would be making the report public (“Air France to Disclose…”).  This was characterized as a move toward greater openness on the part of the airline and commented, “safety experts said it was unusual for a large company, especially an airline, to give outsiders such latitude publicly to expose gaps in safety systems.”  And quoting Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a global air-safety advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Va., "It's extraordinary that they are willing to release the results," said Mr. Voss. The process "gives me confidence there will be follow-through."

Well, in a follow-up article the next day, when receipt of the study results was announced by Air France, the reaction was disappointment as the airline indicated it would not release the report or its recommendations.  Nonetheless the airline trumpeted its actions:

“According to an Air France news release, the report said that creating the outside review team ‘in a public manner and providing it a broad charter’ to examine flight safety ‘was a courageous act’ and an example of safety leadership ‘rarely seen in today's international aviation industry.’” ***

In deciding on whether Air France should be awarded the Légion d'honneur, one might also consider that the current safety study was undertaken in the wake of four serious crashes between 1999 and 2009 (the most recent being the flight from Rio to Paris that went down mid-Atlantic).  In addition, it follows a prior safety study,

“Finished in 2006, that report was distributed to more than 4,000 company pilots and was widely praised for its frankness about shortcomings within the carrier. Although Air France has said its executive committee made formal decisions to implement the report's recommendations, critics of the airline continue to maintain management didn't aggressively pursue the changes.” (Jan 24, 2011)

I think we’ve seen this before.  Think about the safety studies after the Challenger crash, but not really implemented and then the disintegration on reentry of the Columbia.  Or BP and the Texas oil refinery fire followed by the Deepwater Horizon last summer.  Obviously safety assessments, no matter how strong and how independent, ultimately require the subject organization to implement changes.  We think the current Air France report correctly fingers safety leadership by management “starting at the top”.  And it never fails in these situations that top management describes as its highest priority…...can anybody guess……that’s right, it’s “safety first”.  (Jan 26, 2011)

Perhaps if it was safety first Air France might be releasing the study and its recommendations.  Wouldn’t that help make real its safety priority and wouldn’t such transparency help ensure that the recommendations are actually implemented?   We have commented in prior posts on transparency and we will continue to emphasize its importance to safety culture across all industries.

*  A. Pasztor, D. Michaels and D. Gauthier-Villars, “Air France Panel Cites Wide Safety Deficiencies,” (Jan 26, 2011).

** A. Pasztor and D. Michaels, “Air France to Disclose Review's Criticisms,” (Jan 24, 2011).

***  A. Pasztor, “Air France Enhances Safety Efforts,” later re-headlined “Air France Withholds Key Report,” (Jan 25, 2011).

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