Airport Professional Culture

I love the concept of culture. Obviously, those in the safety game are familiar with the concepts of safety culture and just culture but I like to think about it more generally as a way of managing people and ensuring good performance. For me, the power of understanding culture stems from the idea that all individual behaviour is influenced by the culture that surrounds that individual.

What is Culture?

Short answer: no one agrees on the answer. 

Long answer: I think about culture in two ways - what I think of it as and how it works. I describe culture as the personality of a group of people. That group can be a small team, an organisation/business, a city, a country or any way of grouping people.

The personality analogy isn't perfect because the "strength" of a culture will vary depending on how much the individuals in the group align to the key characteristics of the group. For example, apparently French people like wine. You could say that the French have strong wine culture. Culture could probably better be described at the aggregation of the personalities of the individuals in the group and the common traits that shared between more of the individuals will shine through as the group's personality. The trap with cultural assumptions will always be that there is at least one french person that doesn't like wine.

The second part of the answer is how does this view of culture work? It works through feedback. We all exist in a complex and dynamic environment with lots of other people around. Their behaviour comes to us in the form of a stimulus, we think about it, either consciously or subconsciously, and then behaviour. Other people take that stimulus and either react positively or negatively. The behaviour is then either reinforced or not and this becomes part of our personality (or in complex technical speak, our cognitive framework.

Well, that started to get heavy there. Let's try a picture to help. As a shortcut, I've added a direct line between the culture and the personality that will become important below but it is important to remember that it is the feedback loop that develops culture.

The Multi-culture-verse

It starts to get really funky when you identify that because we each belong to a number of groups that we are influenced by these different cultures. I am an Australian living in New Zealand*, I work in the Aviation Industry, specifically for the Queenstown Airport Corporation Ltd. I am a male, caucasian, university graduate who rides his bike to work and is married with three kids. That's a few groups there and to some extent I share traits with all those groups (no, I don't wear lycra).

For convenience sake, let's focus on the more predominant cultures in most people's professional lives - national, organisational & professional. I've picked these because smarter people than me have done great research in showing that these groupings exist independently. See Hofstede for a setting of the scene and Helmreich & Merritt for some deeper aviation and medicine-based analysis.

Most people would consider it obvious to say that Americans are different to Chinese people, that BHP Billiton workers behave differently to Google staff and that Pilots, Doctors and Lawyers have strong professional cultures.

Now this isn't just some academic discussion now, I think we have a problem in the airport industry (at least in Australia but I suspect elsewhere as well).

No Airport Experience Necessary

No doubt due to growth in aviation and, in some parts of the world, an ageing population coming into retirement, there is a need for airport personnel and this is both good and bad news. I like the sound of lots of opportunities for an airport-geek like me but personnel shortages may be imminent if we don't attract, train and retain enough people, let alone, good people.

The response by some organisations, most likely out of necessity, is to cast a wide net and flag that "no airport experience necessary" in their job advertisements. This isn't a problem for entry-level jobs, of course, but it is a little un-nerving when it is included in manager or executive-level positions.

Please, don't get me wrong, I acknowledge that we need now and will continue to require the injection of fresh people into the field. But if we don't put in some measures we will find the profession and the industry struggling to maintain an acceptable level of performance.

Our Culture

Airport managers don't have a strong professional culture. There are obvious reasons for this. Firstly, a manager's role at an airport might vary between airside operations, terminal operations, property, ground transport, retail and on and on. The size of airports and their organisational structures can vary significantly around the world.

Compare that to pilots who have a pretty well defined job and the organisational structure around them (first officer, captain, chief pilot, etc.) is fairly standard regardless of organisational size or jurisdiction. In addition to this, the culture of pilots is supported by tokens such as uniforms and badges, a shared language and a selective training process that provides a shared history for successful candidates.

What Can be Done?

Firstly, this industry has already been doing things to develop a stronger airport management culture for those already within the industry - see the Australian Airports Association's Mentoring Program, ACI & ICAO's Airport Management Professional Accreditation Program (AMPAP) and the American Association of Airport Executive's Accredited Airport Executive (AAE) program.

But I don't think these programs address the introduction of increasing numbers of people without airport experience jumping entry-level positions and missing out on formative skills and experience. I am not advocating an extensive boot-camp-style-basic training where only the best of the best make it through nor am I suggesting uniforms, badges and hats.

Instead, we should be looking at introducing some basic training for airport managers that could either be completed as a pre-requisite for applying for an airport manager role or very soon after winning such a position.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. One of the big hurdles would be to define what the pre-requisite training should include and I am interested in finding our what people think on that front.

So if you are interested in looking at this idea some more, I would love your input via the questionnaire below. Comments and other feedback are also always welcome.

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Image credit: A dodgy photoshop job on a photo by Aylmer

* As any expat knows, the world gets interesting when you are no longer within the culture that has influenced you for most of your life. Yes, even though New Zealand is relatively similar to Australia, it's not the same and the narcissism of minor differences demands I be outraged at NZ's insistence that my thongs be called jandals.