Genuine communication and excellent people skills underpin great safety at aerodromes.
For a start, really listen
When operators of aerodromes – both controlled and unattended – talk about ‘communication’, they mean a two-way exchange. They don’t mean a one-directional series of instructions from the airfield managers to aerodrome users.
Yes, the newsletters and the email bulletins are important for practical updates about what’s going on at the airfields.
But what really seems to make the difference between a great aerodrome vibe and one that’s not so great, is whether users feel their opinions are valued.
At Marlborough Aero Club – the owner of Omaka aerodrome – the CFI, Ben Morris, says his team make sure they actually listen when the airfield users offer an opinion.
“If we were to just go ahead with something without listening to them, we’d inevitably have to pick up the pieces later. But by keeping them in the loop and genuinely seeking their input, we find even if the result doesn’t go the way they would like, they still seem to be pretty good about things.
“If there’s ever a bit of friction between users, we really listen to both stories first. For instance, if the rotary operator may have started to get into the habit of using a non-standard circuit direction, we’ll ask why, instead of shoving the rules down their throat.
“I think it’s really important we give users the opportunity to say why, and then see if we can come to some sort of arrangement that works for everybody.
“That approach is great for morale, and very, very good for the culture at Omaka.”
Chief Flying Instructor at North Shore Aero Club, Daryl Gillett, says their first priority, too, is to just listen.
“Not immediately overriding or challenging their argument or their viewpoint. We really try to understand where they’re coming from.”
Taupō Airport Safety Manager, Steve Petersen, says the same thing applies at his aerodrome. “Not everyone has the same agenda, but they’re happy that everyone is listened to, which makes it always an open debate.”
And it’s not just at unattended aerodromes. At controlled Tauranga Airport, the chief executive, Ray Dumble, says the potential for conflict between the varied and many aerodrome users is 'huge'.
“But at every safety meeting, each operator is listened to, and their input clearly valued and considered.
“Over the years, I’ve said, ‘Look, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it this way’. And the guys have said, ‘Well, actually, have you thought of this?’ And I’ve ended up, after their input, doing it a different way.”
The door is always open
Back at Omaka, Ben Morris operates an open-door policy.
“I want everyone to feel like they can come and talk to me about things. If I can’t speak to them right then, I make the time to follow up as soon as I can. It takes a big effort sometimes for people to come to see me, especially if they’re self-reporting. I don’t want them go away again thinking what they had to say was unimportant.
“I think being approachable and responsive is hugely important.”
The open door is for questions too.
“We don’t want pilots to feel like they have to know everything from the start. We want them to be unafraid to ask questions of me and the other instructors,” says Ben.
Safety Manager at Tauranga, Pam Walters, agrees it’s important that users feel comfortable enough to say, ‘Hey, can we catch up over a coffee and talk about this thing?’
“That’s way better than bottling it up until the next scheduled safety meeting, and in the meantime, letting whatever the problem is, explode.”
How harmonious and how safe the culture is seems directly connected to the quality of the relationships between users, and between aerodrome management and users.
Taupō Airport General Manager, Wayne Wootton, says it’s good communication, once again, that underpins good relationships.
“This is my fourth aerodrome and the comms here are very good.
“Everybody has their say around the table and every comment is regarded as valid.
“Doing this well, I think you start to earn their trust and their respect, and then you begin to work together as a group, through issues that crop up.”
For Tauranga’s Pam Walters, building good relationships starts with something as straightforward as doing a ‘perimeter walk’.
“Occasionally, I walk past all the operators’ hangars, dropping in to say ‘hi’ and catching up with whatever is going on with them.
“I believe it’s the most valuable talk you can have.”
Daryl Gillett says better cooperation, and therefore safer results, come when you know well who you’re dealing with.
“Everyone would realise that if you approach an individual or an operator, and you’re pretty direct and abrasive, you’re probably not going to get very good results.
“But we know that, at North Shore, there are some operators who do appreciate a fairly direct approach – they want to get straight to the point, and can’t be bothered with niceties.
“Tim (Marshall, the club’s safety manager) has been around a long time and knows which approach is best with which user.”
Daryl Hone, the president of the Tauranga Aero Club, says the club does its bit to build ‘familial ties’ among the various parties at the aerodrome.
“Every Friday night, we invite anyone on the airfield to come to us for a social, and a chat about the week, and about what’s happening in flying.
“We encourage new people to attend, to become part of the Tauranga Airport ‘family’. We welcome them to the club and they can see we have – as does the whole airport – a really positive vibe. They, in turn, buy into, as ‘the way things are round here’.”
The importance of role models
Taupō Operations Manager Kim Gard says the safety team don’t want to be perceived as ‘the aerodrome police’.
“I don’t want to develop this culture where they come to us every time they’re unhappy about something.
“Sure, we need to know about it, but we don’t need to be involved in every minor discussion.
“They know how we operate in terms of resolving issues around safety, and I like to think they model their approach on that.”
‘Modelling’ how issues, even conflict, can be negotiated for the best safety results is practised also at Tauranga.
Tauranga Aero Club’s Daryl Hone says that, traditionally, fixed-wing club pilots and rotary operations don’t necessarily see eye to eye – their needs being very different.
“But we have a very, very busy aero club in a neighbourly relationship with a very, very busy helicopter operation.
“That’s because we talk to each other, and if something’s not working for either organisation, we can usually sort it out between us.”
Those types of relationships mean most issues are resolved well before any of the quarterly scheduled meetings.
“That’s because Harry’s gone and talked to Jim, for example, about how he wants to change his helicopter operation, ” says Tauranga Airport’s Chief Executive Ray Dumble. “Or he’s sought Jim’s opinion about changing the low-flying area procedures.”
All in this together
James Stokes is the managing director of Glenorchy Air, and chairman of QMUG – the Queenstown and Milford Users Group – the longest-operating users’ group in the country.
“At its core, QMUG is a safety promotion organisation,” James says.
“Although we compete for business, we also understand that safety must trump competition.
“One accident will affect us all.
“In Milford, fixed-wing and rotary aircraft are flying in an exceptionally confined environment. At Queenstown, the fixed-wing and helicopter operators are all sort of mixed in together, which is quite unique compared with other aerodromes. The mountainous terrain around both aerodromes is also a permanent added risk to safe operations.
“So in such challenging environments, I think everybody ‘gets’ that working together – even when there’s friction between different users – is essential for a safe and efficient operation.”
Probably because of the challenging environment that everyone in QMUG operates in, the group is very active between scheduled safety meetings.
“Our safety officers proactively communicate with the fixed-wing and helicopter operators. And we have a really good culture of our chief pilots, training managers, and safety managers being able to talk really, really openly as well.
“Sometimes we’ll have meetings among senior people when those high-level issues need to be discussed.”
Daryl Gillett agrees that having as safe a culture as possible, is about having everyone ‘on the same page’.
“We make it very clear that our safety team is ultimately there for the users’ benefit and their safety.
“We want them to understand that the approach, or whatever actions we’re going to take, are designed only to keep them safe. ‘Let’s go on a bit of a journey together here, to work out what’s best moving forward’ sort of thing.”
Kim Gard, at Taupō, agrees. “With the implementation of safety management systems, it became apparent at Taupō Airport that we were all in this together, with a common goal to provide a safe and compliant operating environment.
“Even when it gets a bit heated between parties, really our goal is all the same – operating in a safe environment.”
A just culture and reporting
Daryl Gillett says that when the club has to talk to pilots who fly outside the rules, it takes a learning approach.
“The more they understand the reason for your advice – and that it’s about educating them, not being punitive – the more likely they are to accept it.”
But Daryl urges pilots to understand that filing a CA005 is sometimes part of that process.
“It’s really important that, where the threshold is met, occurrences are reported to the CAA. In this way, the CAA has the data needed to justify investment in safety initiatives.
“Filing a CA005 is not a disciplinary action.”
In such situations at Omaka, Ben Morris maintains the ‘let them have their say’ approach.
“People tend to be more open about reporting when they know we’re not going to jump down their throat.
“Even if somebody’s done something a bit outside the rules or our operating procedures, and we’ve got to chase them up about that, we give them the opportunity to tell their side of the story.
“Because quite often, people are not deliberately uncaring about doing something wrong. So it’s about educating, rather than accusing.
“If we give them the opportunity to speak, and to ask us questions about what they should have done, they’re a lot more accommodating and a lot more reasonable when we try to reach a bit of an agreement with them about their flying, or a plan to improve it. They’re also more willing to admit fault.”
Daryl Gillett believes the occurrence reporting rate at North Shore is pretty good.
“I have no doubt there are things happening that people try to hide, but as long as we have that ‘bring everyone on the safety education journey with us’ attitude, and make sure they understand that’s what it’s all about, I think we’ll sustain, maybe even improve, our already good reporting rate.”
At Taupō, Steve Petersen also uses the educational approach, although he still encourages pilots who’ve breached a rule or been involved in an incident to file their own 005 report.
“They do need to take ownership of what they’ve done, but beyond that, our approach is not to blame, but to try to educate.”
Why a user group?
James Stokes of QMUG says an energetic user group allows participants to have real influence over what happens at their home aerodrome.
“You can argue your point more effectively, but if you’re not involved and then something happens that you don’t like, you don’t have much sway at all.
“When we had issues around the integration effects in Queenstown, our chief pilots and senior persons from both fixed and rotary wing met with Airways to develop new operating procedures. That took weekly meetings over a couple of months.
“I think there was a fair amount of anxiety about whether or not the integration would slow down aerodrome operations, but I think by working together, we were actually able to make it work pretty well.”
Kim Gard at Taupō recounts a story about how a good safety group can work for everyone’s benefit, and for safety.
“Some of the operators had been talking about the need for a new FATO (helicopter final approach and take-off area).
“So we got all the airfield rotary operators together. Everyone got to voice their opinion about what the issues were and what a solution might look like.
“But in listening to what each person had to say, we all realised that the FATO wasn’t the main consideration – there were much easier and more practical solutions to address the perceived issues.”
Kim says building and maintaining a healthy and robust aerodrome culture does not happen overnight.
“You have to build and strengthen relationships with your stakeholders. You have to earn their respect and take them with you to that realisation that they need to work as an invested group, to find the best outcome to any situation.”
Kim says key to this are availability, transparency, and delivery.
“Being honest, and always providing a response, even if it is not the answer tenants and operators want, is better than not responding at all.
“This earns respect between all the parties.”