“Keep your seat belt securely fastened until advised by a crew member that it is safe to get up and move about the cabin.”
~Flight Safety Briefing
It was one of those moments. A planeload of passengers – 140 of us, including me – were all good to go. We’d boarded, taken our seats, put up our tray tables, stowed our hand baggage under our seats, placed our seatbacks in the full, upright and locked position – and buckled our seatbelts, of course.
Time to push back, and taxi out. Evidently 139 of us were good to go; one wasn’t quite so good. He decided he really needed to go. So, he got up, headed down the aisle to the forward lav – which happened to be situated the middle of the plane – and set about to take care of his business.
What happened next was totally predictable. Since no flight attendant was able to intercept him in route, we waited. And waited. And waited.
There was zero chance that this plane was moving anywhere until he’d finished his business, returned to his seat, and buckled up. Eventually he did – to the smattered applause from some fellow passengers. Then, the plane was pushed back from the gate.
That is how this process works. Every single time.
For upwards of two decades, I’ve been asking industrial leaders the world over about their toughest safety challenges. There’s always a long list of challenges, and compliance – in all its variations, like taking shortcuts and not following the rules when the leader isn’t around – invariably shows up every time I ask.
I say “just about” because I am absolutely convinced that time – finding the time to lead and manage safety performance the way it is supposed to be – is the toughest safety challenge every leader in operations on the planet faces.
How much time do you think it would it take for a leader (you, for example) to get 100% compliance on all the safety rules that apply to your operation?
Probably a question that you’d rather not have to think about. But one I regularly think about when I board an airplane.
Buckling Seat Belts on Airplanes
I thought about interviewing that passenger who headed up to the lav. If I’d asked, “What were you thinking?” most likely he’d take that as an insult. Or none of my business, so I passed on that opportunity.
Had I, I’m guessing the honest answer would be one of these three.
Stop right there: in that one simple sentence lies a big part of the compliance problem. Leaders don’t usually ask why; instead they assume they know the answers, when they’re really guessing. When asked, followers don’t necessarily answer with the truth.
Making a lot of this a guessing game.
So noted. But let’s guess.
1.“I didn’t know getting up to use the bathroom was a problem.”
When you fly as often as I do, you know all the rules. Starting at the security line: what you take out of your briefcase, and what you don’t even pack in your suitcase. Where to stand to board the aircraft; how to stow your luggage on board the aircraft; when to put your cell phone away; when to get out your computer.
And when stay buckled in your seat, like at the point of departure.
You also know what will happen if you don’t follow those rules. Which is exactly what I was thinking as I watched my fellow passenger stand up and head for the loo. “Geez, I gotta connection to make. I hope this isn’t a case of…..”
2.“This was an emergency.”
I’d like to give the person the benefit of that doubt, so maybe it was. In which case, the five-minute pause was a lot better than the alternative.
3.“Buckle up? Seriously? Just another dumb rule that nobody really has to follow, right?”
Seat belt laws have been around for a long time. Compliance has steadily crept up to the point that 90% of passengers in the States buckle up. Of course, that means 10% don’t, and it’s not because they don’t know. Or that it’s an emergency, so they can’t.
But for some reason, they don’t. As to why, don’t ask me. Having seen the things I’ve seen, I always buckle up. You’ll have to ask them. I have a theory as to what they’ll tell you, but every hypothesis should be tested.
Statistically there is a one in ten chance that the passenger on my flight figured buckling up on an airplane isn’t any different than buckling up in the car. If so, it’s their life, their choice, isn’t it?
Not on an airplane!
Hazards: Big Versus Small
These days, there’s a line of thinking about industrial safety that finds fault with leaders for obsessing about the small things, like slips, trips and falls. Pay attention to really serious hazards! In logic, that’s the fallacy of either/or. There are only two choices, and they are mutually exclusive. Choose wisely.
Fortunately, the people who run the airlines are not guilty of thinking like that. Otherwise, I would not be getting on any aircraft where I am not the only passenger.
Nobody wants to arrive safe and sound at their destination more than me. So that aircraft I’m boarding darn well better be airworthy and reliable. The people flying the airplane better be well trained and well-equipped to do to what they are doing. I am not an expert on aviation safety, but I do read the flight safety reports, and there are certain airlines that I will not fly on.
You and I know that commercial aviation is the safest means of transportation, exactly because the people running the airlines – and building the aircraft – are focused on flight safety.
That said, an aircraft landing safely and passengers departing the aircraft alive and well at the end of the flight are not the same thing. There are ways passengers can get hurt sitting in their seats….or not sitting in their seats.
Picture there’s an emergency and you need to get out of the plane fast. You’ve got to climb over all the baggage the person sitting next to you has piled up in front of their feet, and around the fully reclined seat from the passenger sitting in the row forward.
But it doesn’t have to be an emergency. The plane hits a patch of rough air on takeoff, and that computer on the lap of the guy sitting next to you goes airborne. So does his latte.
Or that guy coming back from the lav gets airborne as well. He winds up sitting on your armrest….with your arm pinned between him and your seat.
You’re thinking “That’ll never happen.” I’m thinking, “Things like that have happened. That’s why there’s a rule.”
“And with my luck, when it does, it will happen to me.”
Which was exactly what I was thinking, while that passenger was in the lav, tending to business. I’m happy to see there are rules – and even happier to see the rules being enforced.
And if the airlines stop enforcing the rules, I’m not getting on an airplane where 10% of the passengers aren’t sitting in their seats when they’re supposed to, buckled in when required, stowing their luggage under their seats…
All Rules Matter
Compliance is one tough challenge. So much so, leaders can be tempted to look for escape routes. Who could blame them? I sure wouldn’t. Engineering this challenge out of existence is the stuff of genius.
But don’t fall victim to the either/or fallacy: either ingenious technical solution or live and let live. By that logic, until the day comes when airline passengers get locked into their seat like they’re on some thrill ride at an amusement park – bars down before the plane is pushed – passengers will be free to roam the aisles and use the lav whenever they darn well please.
There is always going to be a need for compliance and enforcement. If not for the good of the individual, then for the welfare of the others who may be put in harm’s way. It’s that way on an airplane, and it’s that way at work.
And, if you really are serious about sending everyone home, alive and well at the end of every single day, keep obsessing about those seemingly small requirements – because they matter, too.
Finally, don’t give up on full compliance. The airlines do a pretty darn good job of that. As to how they do that, it starts with those three flight attendants who really are there for your safety. Charged with enforcing the safety rules, which they do.
With a whole lot of help from the rest of their management.