Trust & Accountability

Recently, I sat in on a presentation on a subject I know quite a bit about. I like doing this as it is typically good to get a different perspective on a familiar subject. In this instance, it wasn't so much the actual subject matter but a couple of associated topics which got stuck in my mind.

The actual discussion point being put forward by this presenter was that instrument approach plates provide very little or no information to pilots on the level of clearance provided to them between their flight path and ground obstacles.

From this, the concept which got stuck in my mind was trust. Pilots have no choice but to trust, almost blindly, that the instrument approach procedure designer has done their job and provided sufficient clearance for them to arrive safely on the ground.

This, of course, is not earthshakingly new or insightful. There are plenty of such relationships in aviation, ATC to pilot and maintenance engineer to pilot are two other examples. What got stuck in my mind is that we rarely talk this concept up (i.e. promote it) as an essential part of our culture on which, we rely everyday. We also tend to see it as a frontline operator thing and not a management, regulator or social concept.

Also recently, I was speaking to an aerodrome inspector from another country about our regulatory approach to aerodrome certification in Australia. She was quite surprised in Australia's system which can see a large certified aerodrome make major changes to it facilities (e.g. build a new runway) without approval from the regulator.

In the aerodrome sphere at least, Australia has created a system by which the operator of a certified aerodrome has earned the regulator's trust. CASA has granted that certificate in the belief that the operator has the ability to make safety decisions on their own. This is facilitated by safety management system regulations and CASA's approach to surveillance. Once an aerodrome operator has their certificate, they are, n many ways, masters of their own destiny.

However, this, and other forms of, trust do not negate the concept of accountability. In fact, I think it enhances it. As Uncle Ben said, "with great trust comes greater accountability"*.

Nothing should or does stop CASA, or any other interested party, from asking a certified aerodrome operator to provide an account of their actions and decisions. And through the operator's SMS, this should be easy to provide.

Not all parts of Australia's aviation system are structured this way, but I think it is the way of the future. To get there, we need to continue to work on SMS as a concept and a practice, as well as reforming our regulations to focus on the decision-making process rather than prescriptive requirements.

Trust is such an essential part of our system from the frontline to the halls of government, but it is so rarely discussed in simple and plain terms. It might be time to go back to basics and discuss with industry participants what we are willing to trust and in whose hands. From there we could structure our regulatory system appropriately. It might be a bit of a dream at the moment but I think we'll get there.

* I might have muddled that one up. It's been a few months since I've watched Spider-Man.