In an industry driven by established procedures and rules, how do airlines drive through positive changes in safety, operations and culture? Capt DAVID MORIATY, RAeS Human Factors Group talks to Capt RICH LOUDON, human factors lead at Alaska Airlines about how it updated its aircrew briefings.

Alaska Airlines has been a early adopter of iPads for EFB. (Alaska Airlines)

In September 2017, we published an article in AEROSPACE entitled ‘Briefing Better’. This was based on the work done by Alaska Airlines to introduce a more flexible briefing format to better suit the modern flight operations environment. This article prompted a lot of interest from pilots and airlines. We also know that many similar initiatives that have their origins in the flight operations or training departments are often unsuccessful because the people who are driving these initiatives don’t necessarily have a clear idea of how to manage this type of change, especially if they have an operational rather than a management background.

Rather than writing a general article on change management, we decided on a Q&A format. As you will see, this provides a practical example of some general techniques that can be used to manage change and it also provides more detail on how this specific change in briefing style was achieved. We hope this will be useful for those who would like do the same in their own airlines. We would recommend you read the original article first and a link to this can be found at the end of this article.

AEROSPACE: What triggered Alaska Airlines’ desire to change their briefing style?

Captain Rich Loudon: When we looked closely at audit results, we saw a near doubling in the ‘error rate’ over a period of time when it came to briefings. On closer examination, these ‘errors’ were, in fact, cases of non-compliance, mostly omissions. The underlying cause was not entirely clear but may have been the result of a number of innovations and improvements over the years such as the tremendous increase in automation on the flight deck. Over time, the proven reliability of these types of innovations resulted in a lot of the elements of the traditional briefing becoming less relevant and therefore crews weren’t briefing them. The watershed moment for us was the UPS accident (UPS 1354, 14 August 2013). When you look at the report, the crew did a textbook briefing. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the briefing format that prompted them to consider the threats that ultimately killed them. We realised that our briefing procedures were almost identical to theirs.

We wanted some corroboration from some experts, so we went to every instructor in the company and explained what we were thinking. Across the board, instructors told us that they thought departure and arrival briefings had become too long, lacked relevance, were mainly one-sided and had become a rote box-ticking exercise. They knew intuitively that one pilot staring out the window waiting for the other one to finish talking wasn’t right. The reason no-one had dealt with this before was because it was a ‘sacred cow’ – there are some things that we do because we have always done them. It is easy to think that when the safety record is solid and our safety record certainly didn’t give us any cause for concern. Why mess with that?

AEROSPACE: Did you find the stakeholders were open to change?

CRL: We knew the internal audit results, the pilot surveys and the UPS accident were compelling but we also needed some academic support. Stakeholders are normally very cautious of change because, ultimately, they are accountable and so they need a preponderance of evidence and sound research. We had plenty of circumstantial evidence but what we were missing was the solid, scientific evidence. We read Klein, Rasmussen, Kahneman, Reason and other human factors experts in order to assemble a convincing proposition. Because we had done our homework, it turned out to be an easy sell. You really need a good presentation that you can use to walk stakeholders through your ideas. For readers who want to bring in a change like this, the material you need to convince your leadership is already out there. (Further guidance at the end of the article).

AEROSPACE: Did you do any other research?

CRL: We learned some valuable lessons from other operators who had tried to change their briefing format. They warned us that merely issuing a bulletin to crews and then expecting everyone to change their briefing style on the effective date would do nothing more than create unnecessary confusion and chaos. When a group of developers come up with something new, they usually think that ‘everyone will see their proposal as a great idea’. However, this is rarely the case. Stakeholders and pilots need to not only be given the proposal but also the reasons behind why the proposal is being made.

AEROSPACE: What did you actually do to roll out the change?

CRL: We started a year in advance and we used as many communication channels as we could think of: quarterly computer-based training, CRM courses and our company newsletter.

The order in which we presented information was important as well. In Q1 we provided feedback on the audit evidence that suggested pilots weren’t briefing according to procedures. In Q2 we showed them feedback from surveys and interviews about what pilots and instructors really thought about the briefings which explained why pilots weren’t briefing ‘by the book’. We also trialed our new format with some instructors.

"

The reason no-one had dealt with this before was because it was a ‘sacred cow’ – there are some things that we do because we have always done them."

This was also the opportunity to get all the instructors on board with the new format. In Q3 we used the UPS accident as a case study in crew training. We also trialed the new format with line pilots and used their feedback to refine the training package. Finally, in Q4, we presented them with dedicated training about the new briefing style. We were also careful to use soft language when we wrote the new procedures so that pilots who didn’t feel comfortable using the new format right away also had the option to use the old briefing style.

AEROSPACE: Can you describe the training package in more detail?

CRL: It was a dedicated 30-minute CBT module. One of the features that I think made this package really effective was that it wasn’t just about how to brief in the new style but it was also about why we think this way is better. We literally had a green ‘WHY’ button on numerous pages of the training package. For example, on the page saying that the threats would now be covered at the start of the briefing, the WHY button would explain the scientific evidence for this change, eg the primacy effect. The pilots appreciated being given the professional courtesy of being told why we think they should brief in a new way.

We also included video examples of the new briefing format. In producing these videos, we chose respected representatives from the Training and Human Factors committee of our pilot union to show our line pilots that the change was a collaborative effort. They had to demonstrate briefings for a variety of threat levels, complexity and with varying levels of familiarity with airports and varying proficiency levels among pilots. In one example of a low threat, high familiarity departure, the briefing lasted about 20 seconds. We would then ratchet it up with more threats, more complexity and more unfamiliarity. This was a great way of showing how the briefing needed to be scalable according to risk. We then did the same for arrival briefings. It was time consuming to make videos like this but it was worth it because seeing is believing. Finally, we included a FAQ of all the questions we had been asked during the development process.

How do airlines push through change in flight operation procedures? (American Airlines)

AEROSPACE: How did you encourage uptake in the early days?

CRL: For the first two days after the new procedure became effective, we deployed management and instructor pilots across all our bases starting at 5am both mornings. These pilots would drop by each plane, knock on the flight deck door and say ‘Hey, how are you guys doing, today’s the big day – new briefing format. Any questions, suggestions or concerns?’. Our goal was catch that first wave of departures in order to set the stage for how this thing would roll out. It was hard but it was so worth it because it was noticed.

AEROSPACE: How do you maintain the programme? Did you find it needed any refinements?

CRL: We had good results. We averaged about a 95% compliance level with the new format by observing line checks and line-oriented simulator sessions. We also provided case studies on the few flights where the outcome could have been improved if the new briefing style had been used more effectively. We gave them a follow up lesson at least once a year, along with presenting them with relevant data that we have about the new procedures.

AEROSPACE: How long did the entire process take for you?

CRL: It took us two years from inception to rollout. Part of the reason it may have taken that long is because we were one of the first airlines to do this and the first year was mainly confirming that there really was an issue and making a plan of how to solve it. If people decide the idea has merit and decide to follow in our footsteps, they may be able to do it in a year.

AEROSPACE: If you did it again, what would you do differently?

CRL: When we did our initial trial with the instructors, they came back to us and said we should reconsider the ‘C’ (Considerations) from T-P-C (Threats – Plans – Considerations). We went to the fleet captain to get his advice and he thought about it and said that we should keep it because there needs to be some sort of wrap-up at the end of a briefing, especially for the days when there is a lot to consider. There has been some suggestion to change this to ‘Contingencies’ as it’s a better trigger word for pilots. We haven’t made that change but we do tell people who ask about our process that if they can come up with a better way to summarise and conclude the briefing, go for it. We’d be interested to see what they come up with.

Conclusion

To take just one change management model, ADKAR, it is clear why the team at Alaska Airlines were so successful in managing this change. For every line pilot in the airline, they needed to instil the following:

● Awareness of the need for change – done by presenting audit results and the UPS case study
● Desire to support and participate in the change – giving and receiving feedback about how instructors and line pilots viewed the current briefing style
● Knowledge of how to change – the training package which presented practical guidance and examples of the new format, as well as the evidence as to why these changes are being implemented
● Ability to implement the change – a change in the written procedures that allows the use of the new technique but doesn’t mandate it if the pilot doesn’t yet feel comfortable with it
● Reinforcement to sustain the change – recurrent training on the subject and case studies that demonstrate its usefulness in day-to-day operations
In the increasingly dynamic environment in which we need to operate, it has never been so important to know how to effectively manage change in order to allow procedures to keep pace with the new challenges that we must face. The experience of Alaska Airlines shows how this can be done with great success.

 

Resources

Original article – www.aerosociety.com/news/briefing-better/
Further material on how Alaska Airlines successfully managed this change process can be found on the RAeS Human Factors in Flight Operations and Training (HFG[Ops]) website – www.raes-hfg.com/hfg-ops-membership
LinkedIn group: Royal Aeronautical Society Human Factors Group – Flight Operations and Training
Captain Rich Loudon is an Instructor Evaluator and leads the Human Factors Working Group for Alaska Airlines. richard.loudon[at]alaskaair.com

David Moriaty
11 September 2018