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Southport, Manitoba, Canada
Steve Pomroy is a professional flight instructor and aviation writer. He has been teaching since 1995 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, Class 1 Instructor and Aerobatic Instructor Ratings, military QFI, and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He's written and published three flight training books through his company, SkyWriters Publishing, and has several other books under development. Steve currently teaches RCAF pilot candidates on their Primary Flight Training course.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Piloting as a Profession: Part 3, Self Regulation

... Continuing from the previous post (Part 2, Are We Professional?) and considering the question, "Can pilots self-regulate without compromising public safety?":

There has been lot’s of debate over the aviation industry’s ability to self-regulate. There are all kinds of theoretical reasons why we shouldn’t be allowed to self-regulate—most of them based on flawed or incomplete theory, frankly. But, as they say in engineering, data trumps theory. There are plenty of other disciplines where self-regulation has been successful and effective—medicine and engineering come immediately to mind, but there have been others as well.

One of the problems with the self-regulation concept is that many people interpret "self-regulation" as "no rules and no oversight", which would indeed be likely to cause problems. In fact, there have been examples of this approach, and they have invariably proved unsuccessful. So, in order to effectively discuss self-regulation, it’s important to clarify what self-regulation means, and to make a distinction between different approaches.

One example of self-regulation is what we are seeing with the implementation of SMS (Safety Management System for readers not familiar). SMS basically amounts to individual companies regulating themselves without oversight from regulatory authorities or other industry groups (some regulators may disagree with me on this point, but let’s call a spade a spade—any oversight that exists is superficial at best). Some companies are really good at regulating themselves, and they make SMS look good. Some other companies are ... um ... not so good, and SMS gives them the opportunity to get worse. The program has been roundly criticized by the Auditor General, primarily due to the lack of proper oversight. Similar criticisms have been forthcoming from industry insiders.

This SMS-based example is distinct from the self-regulation of a profession. The self-regulation model of a College is that of a whole industry self-regulating with legislative oversight from parliament. A whole industry necessarily takes the long-term view when making decisions. This may not be the case for individual companies. Further, the interests of a whole industry are far more likely to be aligned with the interests of society than those of a single company. There are certainly counter-examples of this (for example, I could now rant about the ongoing and unnecessary shortage of doctors in Canada), which is why oversight is needed, but the general trend is valid.

Bearing this distinction in mind, could pilots, as an industry-wide group, successfully self-regulate? Could they balance the needs of the profession and industry against the needs of society?

If you’re of the mind that pilots cannot self-regulate, then I would have to ask, "Who should regulate us?". Who should regulate the operation of complex machinery, the operation of which requires knowledge of aerodynamics, meteorology, navigation, engines and propulsion, electronics, communication protocols, airspace structures, ATC procedures, aircraft certification, human factors, crew resource management, etc.? Politicians? Really? How can a person (or group) who doesn’t understand the system regulate the system?

We need to be regulated by a group who is knowledgeable and who is not tied to the status quo except to the extent that it works, which it sometimes doesn’t. Further, pilots are at the sharp end of the industry. If our passengers (and/or folks on the ground) are in danger, so are we. So we have a clear vested interest in improving operational safety for the benefit of society. This means we have an interest in managing both short-term and long-term risks to enhance operational safety.

Individual pilots almost never have the power to initiate positive change—even if they do recognize the need and the manner in which it can be accomplished. As a group, not only can we make better, more forward-looking decisions, but we would have the power to implement and enforce these decisions.

The bottom line here is that not only are we capable of self-regulation, we (and society) need it. Will there be errors made along the way? Sure. We’re talking here about a system designed and managed by humans. There will be errors. But this doesn’t need to be a deal breaker—the political status quo is certainly no better. The inherent motivation of self-regulated pilots will drive us to identify and correct errors as they happen, or in the short-term afterward. Further, pilots are just one component of the system. Our efforts are augmented by those of Air Traffic Controllers, Maintenance Engineers, Dispatchers, etc. These groups will continue to be regulated independently of pilots—either by Transport Canada in accordance with the current status quo, or through their own self-regulation arrangements.


Happy Flying!

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