Planes, Trains & Automobiles: The Transferability of Safety Lessons From the Aviation Industry

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Collaboration is the key to safety says Christopher Hart, Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board appointed by President Obama.

In this exclusive interview, Hart insists alternate modes of transportation needs to take a page out of the book of the aviation industry, which managed to increase productivity while maintaining a high safety rate.

The Honorable Christopher Hart is the Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Honorable Christopher Hart is the Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

CH: I’ve been in transportation and safety issues for quite a few years. I first started at the NTSB in 1990 when I was appointed by President George H. Bush to be a member of the board. I did that from 1990-1993 and then returned in 2009 when I was appointed Vice Chairman by President Obama. So, I’ve been in transportation safety for a long time. I thoroughly enjoy it and it’s very gratifying to see an enormous number of safety improvements because of the NTSB.

HH: What collaborative transportation safety and productivity lessons can the oil and gas industry learn from the commercial aviation industry, which underwent an industry-side, collaborative process to identify, prioritize and address potential safety issues?

Well the aviation industry has done something I have not seen at such a level before or since. It was in the mid-90s when they were concerned that their accident rate, which had been coming down for a number of years, had become stuck at a plateau. They were concerned about that because they knew that the volume was going to increase and, unfortunately, what the public sees is not the rate of the accidents, but the number, or the volume, of accidents they see. So, when the aviation industry looked at the volume rate they were very concerned and that’s when they decided to do something that was out of the box. The out of the box thing they did was to collaborate. It’s been an enormous success story in a lot of ways. In only 10 years they went from this stuck, flat accident rate to reducing that rate by more than 80 percent. In so doing, they also improved their productivity, which flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Usually, when you improve productivity you hurt safety and vice versa. They did it without the process creating any new regulations and they also did it in a way of collaboration that resulted in minimal unexpected consequences. That’s always the big problem in any complex system; when you make changes in one part of a complex system you often get unintended consequences.

Since safety is front of mind for both industries, will you explain how collaboration from key participants in the industry – the manufacturers, employees, vendors and regulators – led to a safer transportation and logistics operation without sacrificing performance and productivity?

Not only did it not sacrifice it, it improved it. My theory on that is, unlike the usual process of improving safety in a regulated industry, which is where the regulator says, “I see a problem and here’s the solution. Here’s the solution that you guys need to implement,” this is a very different process because by collaborating all of the members who have a stake in the fight – all of the ones who have a dog in the fight – are present at the table. So, in the case of aviation it was the manufacturers and the airlines and the pilots and the air traffic controllers and the regulator all have a seat at the table. All those players at the table, while they’re there to talk about safety, they’re thinking about their own productivity. So, what that means is that in the real world they’re not going to put an idea on the table if it’s going to hurt their own productivity.

Would you share some tips for managing the expectations of key stakeholders? Those who have a vested interest in streamlining transportation and logistics issues may have different interests than those executing the plan. How do you ensure everyone who is involved in the problem is also involved in the solution?

The way to get collaboration started is difficult to be sure and I think that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t seen it more. When people see that it’s beneficial to everyone at the table it’s a huge win-win for everybody that participates the snowball starts rolling and it builds up momentum. So, once the process is started, once you have some progressive leadership, that’s when the players fall in line because they too can benefit from this collaborative process.

Will you briefly touch on the transferability across modes? You were mentioning mobile and automation …

The NTSB is looking at all the modes of transportation and we’re finding that a lot of issues that we see in one mode are actually common in other modes. Take, for example, fatigue. Most commercial transportation is 24/7 and humans are not, which means we see fatigue in all commercial transportation. There are lots of lessons to be learned from one mode that’s transferable to another mode. We’re seeing unfortunate use of personal electronic devices in all the modes and one of the lessons learned regarding portable electronics devices is very transferable.

What does the future of transportation security and safety look like to you?

I’m very optimistic about the future because of the collaborative process. Collaboration has a huge opportunity to promote productivity and safety – not only in transportation, but in a lot of industries. There’s enormous applicability of this very powerful tool across the modes.

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