As seen in the AeroSafety World publication.

The aviation community still debates what the term means — and how to achieve it.



For the past several years, professionalism has been one of the most widely used words and fervently discussed topics in aviation. Pilot and air traffic controller professionalism made the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) Top 10 “Most Wanted” list in 2011. It was the focus of a 2010 NTSB forum and a 2009 Air Line Pilots Association, International white paper.

It has been the subject of countless articles and blogs in the years since then. Whether it’s an accident post-mortem determining that pilots behaved in an “unprofessional” manner, a CEO declaring his employees are the “most professional” in the business or leaders calling for an industrywide elevation in the level of professionalism, aviation is reaching for improvements in this area to make continued gains in safety and to attract future talent.

One of the challenges is the lack of a common definition. Ask any 10 people in the aviation industry to define professionalism, and while some basic themes tend to remain consistent, you will hear 10 different definitions, each placing greatest emphasis on the traits most important to an organization or segment of the industry. If it is true that an organization cannot manage what it cannot measure, it is also true that the industry cannot manage what it cannot define — clearly, succinctly and across organizational boundaries.

Professional behavior is something we all know when we see it. It was cited often with respect to the flight crew’s ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after both engines were damaged by bird strikes shortly after takeoff (ASW, 8/10, p. 57). Unprofessional behavior just as readily has been cited in other accidents, such as some attributed to the flight crew of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed during an approach (ASW, 3/10, p. 20). Distracting, nonoperational conversation by the Colgan crew below 10,000 ft contrary to regulations, inadequate monitoring of airspeed and the captain’s failure to effectively manage the flight, for example, were among contributing factors in the loss of control–in flight (LOC-I) accident that resulted in 50 fatalities.

But that’s an oversimplified juxtaposition to make while the full concept of professionalism is much more complex. For one thing, while many emphasized technical mastery of flying as the hallmark of the professional, in the Hudson landing, it was not only the skills of Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles, the captain and first officer, respectively, that prompted the industry acclaim they received. It was their overall performance to high expectations, including unflappable calm after a startling event, quick decision making and total focus on duty and critical priorities. It was, for example, Sullenberger’s twice walking the length of the cabin after evacuation to confirm no one was still aboard, although the airplane had begun to fill with water and to sink.

As the many regulatory, LOC-I risk-reduction and pilot licensing and training changes have demonstrated since the Flight 3407 crash, how much of pilots’ performance and response to threats can be attributed to their professionalism alone can be a tricky question. Systemic questions — experience, training, acceptability of ratings on routine flight checks — are among numerous factors to consider. Airlines often struggle with realism in their expectations. What aspects of professionalism can be trained and influenced by an employer, and which are more intrinsic aspects of individual character?

“Companies always advertise that they are the gold standard, but no one has defined what that is,” says Richard Walsh, who serves on the board of directors of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and in recent years was chairman of NBAA’s safety committee. Professionalism is the same, he said; until a clear, industry-accepted definition emerges, no one can really know what level they actually have attained.

Technical Proficiency

Among people who work in aviation, casual definitions of professionalism typically touch on two components: technical proficiency and emotional/relational proficiency. Guenther Matschnigg, a former senior vice president of safety and flight operations at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), says professionalism means “adherence to procedures and regulations; knowledge, experience and the willingness to do a job with the best information. It’s also a value,” he adds. “Don’t violate anything. Stick to the rules and don’t deviate.”

Similarly, in a March 2011 presentation, NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt said that professionalism “is a mindset that includes precise checklist usage, precise callouts, precise compliance with SOPs [standard operating procedures] and regulations, and staying abreast and current with knowledge and skills.”

On the pilot side, recent efforts to advance technical professionalism have included the United States last year increasing the minimum number of flight hours for first officers to fly for a commercial airline from 250 to 1,500 and requiring an airline transport pilot license; the institution in many countries of the multi-crew pilot license, which takes zero-time students to the right seat of an advanced airliner, embedding the multi-crew environment, threat and error management, human factors awareness and airline-specific SOPs throughout the training program; and introduction of revised training methods, to name a few.

“We felt very strongly that the training, how it is being done in modern aircraft, needed to be improved and adapted,” said Matschnigg, citing IATA’s introduction of competency-based and evidence-based training. The former entails teaching candidates until they are deemed competent in a skill, rather than concentrating on completing a specified number of training hours. Evidence-based training requires pilots to demonstrate competence in managing the most relevant threats based on operational evidence, including industry data. For example, Matschnigg says, most airlines’ checks in a simulator still require the flight crew to respond to a V1 cut, an engine failure during takeoff, even though today’s engine reliability means this situation rarely happens relative to other threats. “I’m not saying you should never do it, but technology has advanced beyond training today,” he says. Emphasis should instead be on handling situations that present higher-priority risks based on flight data analysis. For instance, in the February 2010 issue of IATA’s Airlines International, Matschnigg noted that “there was nothing that trained pilots for a high-altitude stall, even though we have clear evidence that this can be a real risk.”

Ron Nielsen, a retired airline captain and industry expert who is often called on to provide input on topics related to professionalism, says training of technical competencies based on evidence of threat prevalence should extend to addressing the issue of maintaining a sterile cockpit below 10,000 ft, a causal factor, as noted, in the Flight 3407 crash as well as at least three other fatal U.S. accidents since 2004 (ASW, 10/08, p. 38; 11/07, p. 38; 4/11, p. 16).

“There are human limits to imposed stoicism,” says Nielsen. “If I were training pilots, I would try to invite them into non-operational conversation [during simulator training] so if they make a mistake, they can experience firsthand how getting sucked into conversation can cause an error. We should be practicing in the simulator what we truly experience in the cockpit.”

Relational Proficiency

Technical competence is unarguably a foundational element of professionalism, but Sumwalt’s list of traits that make an aviation professional includes one additional line: “The ability and willingness to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I am wrong.’” That is where the discussion begins to cross over into the softer, but equally important, side of professionalism — the ability to effectively manage relationships and interactions with others. This aspect tends to be not only harder to measure, but for pilots and mechanics, who tend to be highly precise, analytical, data-driven and individualistic people, it is also very challenging.

Nielsen, who participated on a discussion panel in the NTSB’s May 2010 forum on professionalism in aviation, defines professionalism as “encompassing two aspects: technical competence and social competence. A professional is someone who is fully self-aware of his own personality and how he impacts others.” A captain acting with expected professionalism, for instance, intentionally creates an atmosphere of open communication, he says. Such an environment is critical for a safe and highly functioning team, and, therefore, this is considered an essential aspect of professionalism. If the captain’s interpersonal behavior style is more domineering and dictatorial — and he or she allows that style to set the tone in the cockpit without awareness of its impact — it can make the first officer reluctant to speak up about a problem.

“In the first 15 minutes in the cockpit, the other guy [first officer] is making an assessment about whether he can risk telling me what’s on his mind,” Nielsen explains. “Current aviation training doesn’t address personal style, and it needs to, because the things that naturally make a good pilot — being task-driven, direct and precise — can create problems in the cockpit.”

Those on the corporate side of aviation say this relational dimension of professionalism is critical. Asked to define professionalism, Sheryl Barden, president and chief executive officer of Aviation Personnel International (API), starts by pointing to the ability to communicate and manage relationships. “What is your demeanor and your bearing? How do you handle tough situations with a client?” she says. Corporate pilots, for instance, must be able to skillfully communicate problems — such as the inability to land at the flight-planned destination — and present solutions to top executives and high-net-worth passengers accustomed to successful outcomes on demand. Professionals can navigate these kinds of interactions in addition to being masters of their craft and seeking continued development of their technical skills.

These softer skills are tough to measure, as noted, and it may be nearly impossible to document a return on investment from training on these skills, some observers say. The industry spends little time training on softer skills, but that may need to change. API has been in business for more than 40 years, and Barden says she is among those noticing a shift in the behavior of some of the people now coming into the workforce. There have been many anecdotes about some millennials — those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — presenting challenges related to individual professionalism that the industry must address, she says.

“Aviation is a very precise career demanding excellence and the ability to follow a lot of rules. You can’t make it up as you go along or just decide you’ll do it later, as we are seeing in many of our millennials,” Barden said. “The concept of ‘I want it all now’ is also a factor because this is an industry that doesn’t put ‘me’ first. This is going to be one of the hardest challenges we face as we move forward: How do we adjust to meet the values of the next generation?”

Barden is not the only one who has noticed these changes, and she is watching their implications for professionalism in aviation. Brad Stemmler is director of operations at Aviation Search Group, an executive and technical direct placement search firm to the aviation industry. He has dealt with people — both those already in the industry and those hoping to enter — for 16 years, and says the newest generation tends to be less comfortable than previous generations with what older workers consider relational basics, like a handshake and eye contact. Long accustomed to communicating via electronic devices and to becoming “friends” at the click of a button, the ability to manage difficult conversations with confidence and mastery does not seem to come readily to some individuals in this generation, he argues.

Another challenge millennials face in presenting themselves as aviation professionals involves the myriad online outlets in which their lives and demeanor are portrayed. Social media has blurred what once was a clear line between personal and professional lives. “If someone has put their life out for the public to see, they are making a conscious decision to display themselves in a certain light,” Stemmler said. “Potential employers are certainly interested in how they have done that,” as it can be revealing of a person’s values and character traits.

He is quick to add that while social media makes the non-technical side of professionalism more complex, the basics of professionalism have not changed. In addition to being technically proficient, he says, a professional in aviation “demonstrates appropriate behavior — courtesies, appearance and respect — toward others in the workplace. We all know when we interact with a professional. There’s a certain acumen, a polish,” he says. “You walk away pleased with the engagement. You appreciate the courtesy and respect they’ve shown you. You walk away confident in their competence.”

Giving Back

As with every generation before them, millennials in general need coaching and development in order to be and to grow into employees recognized for professionalism. A willingness to mentor and bring along the next generation of workers must be included in any definition of the word professional in aviation, says Dale Forton, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA). “The mark of a professional today is someone who learns, earns and returns to their industry,” he says.

Learning encompasses not only the initial aviation education, licensing and ratings that enable a person to get their first job but also ongoing training and education that keep people technically proficient and continually up to date on best practices. Earning simply refers to a person’s ability to make a living in an aviation career, the dictionary definition of professional.

Returning is “the final and true mark of a professional,” says Forton. “Your conduct, your character, your ethical responsibilities and standards all get ‘topped off’ when you return to your industry. Volunteer. Participate in a career day. Get involved in chapters like PAMA. Bring new people into the industry. Create a positive image of the profession. We all need to give back.”

NBAA’s Walsh agrees. He defines professionals as those who pursue “continuous improvement to excel in their role” and people “committed to sharing and developing the talent around them.” This works in two directions. A professional must have the expertise to mentor and the humility to be willing to be developed. Walsh said he has noted “a real paradigm shift” over the last two or three years in this area, with growing numbers of intern programs, value-sharing across different corporations, job shadowing and other human development initiatives.

Still, we as an industry have a long way to go, these observers agreed. While Walsh believes the business aviation community recently has made “incremental progress” in instilling professionalism, the economic challenges of the past five years combined with globalization of corporate aviation adversely have affected those efforts. Perhaps most revealing of how far we have yet to go in cultivating widespread professionalism is individual awareness. “When I do talks, I always ask pilots, ‘What is the difference between an amateur pilot and a professional pilot?’” Walsh concludes. “A lot of them can’t define it.”
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