Crew Resource Management in Business Aviation

CRM training may appear to be a costly proposition but the costs, which are insignificant anyway, far outweigh the benefits

Issue: 3 / 2014By S.R. SwarupPhoto(s): By SKY Wings

Date, August 2012; the occasion, an annual Crew Resource Management (CRM) training and certification programme underway in the training faculty of a leading airline. Among the trainees were eight pilots sitting in rapt attention, from the Business Aviation (BA) arm of a leading corporate house. The average age of the pilots was 58 and the average flying experience 14,000 hours. Bald or greying, these pilots were flying the most modern business jets in the world; experience and wisdom were their forte. Most had military background and tonnes of combat experience to boot. The rest of the class consisted of flight attendants and airline pilots of varied age groups and experience. Most of these preferred the backseat in the class, especially in the dimly lit areas.

The instructor, a veteran navigator with a military background, had been a CRM instructor for the past several years with the airline. Every day of his career with the airline, he had gone through the motions of conducting the CRM class with monotonous regularity. The basic module of the training programme having remained unchanged over the years, the content, illustrations, visuals and conclusion had undergone some change. It had been mandated by the company that CRM classes had to be attended by both flight attendants and pilots to enhance training value.

With the initial introductions over, the instructor got ready to commence the lecture. From the dimly lit corners in the rear seats came a loud request from a flight attendant to switch off the lights. The instructor was shocked and surprised by the sensed insolence in the tone, but by now he was accustomed to the informality in civilian life. He politely inquired as to how a dark classroom would help. Pat came the reply, “It would help me sleep better. After all, that is what CRM lectures are meant for.” Regaining composure, the instructor switched off the lights, put on a video and slinked away. For the veteran BA pilots, that just about summed up the CRM lecture.

Even though research into CRM began in the early 1970s, it was only in the 1980s that it was adopted as a concept by the aviation community. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. What began as a training tool soon progressed to error management and finally metamorphosed into a programme to manage and deal with all potential threats. Along the way it also enlarged its scope and incorporated various other related and unrelated ideologies. From a safety-enhancing concept, it transformed itself into a dinosaur taking into its fold every function and department along the way. The jargon used to employ and enhance CRM was impressive particularly in presentations. Since it was ‘safety-centric’, it looked good during meetings. It was also cost additive. But then no one objected to the costs either, since it would make them look ugly.

By the beginning of the 21st century, CRM had assumed gigantic proportions. It had encompassed almost all departments. Starting off from the cockpit it had, over a short period of time, taken into its fold everyone from the CEO to the porter. Everyone was identified as a stakeholder and contributor to flight safety and all were expected to deliver. To add to the management’s misery, cost continued to spiral. After all, no one was prepared to compromise safety. In a ‘management-centric’ boardroom, operations acquired primacy and demanded maximum attention. Cockpits became the focus of discussions and budgets. This was not the intended path for the aviation industry.

Aviation is all about making money. Pilots were expected to work and managements to manage. Pilots were meant to fly and safety was their baby; managements were meant to decide, direct, budget and finally, count the profits. To be part of the safety net meant accountability. So vested interests stepped in. CRM, as a concept, has been hijacked, cornered and caged. It was locked inside the cockpit never to rear its head ever again. Every time something went wrong, ‘CRM failure’ was regarded as the cause and the pilot, the culprit. It was concluded that CRM began and ended in the cockpit. And the regulator had no time to even understand the concept of CRM. So he chose to play dumb.

Now there is a renewed focus that CRM is a valuable concept whose time has come; a precious management tool that needs to find its proper place. A safety net, which was once dismantled by vested interests, needs to be spread again. It is all the more significant since BA is not all about making money only. Safety of its high profile passengers demands that the managements understand and ensure good CRM practices.

The BA Environment

BA forms a very minor and insignificant part of operations for any business house. The exceptions are, of course, the ‘Charter Operations’. BA by itself is a costly proposition. Hence, managements view it with a mixture of envy, hatred and forced acceptance. They are compelled to accept the existence of the BA arm in their midst since it involves the ‘Chief Patron’ and more importantly, his better half. Increase in expenditure for safer flight is not popular with the managements. Amusing as it may sound, the management may not think twice about removing even life jackets and lifeboats as a cost-cutting measure if regulations permitted. Hence, finding CRM its due place is an uphill task.

Contrary to popular belief, CRM does not begin and end in the cockpit; it actually begins right at the top and ends at the termination of a safe flight. And by that it means CRM begins in the CEO’s office or the board room and ends in the cockpit. So the foundations of safety infrastructure are laid in the halls of management and not in the cockpit. However, as is evident, no accident investigation has ever gone beyond the cockpit. Few investigators have the knowledge of CRM or the gumption to start their investigations from the top of the CRM chain. Accident investigation boards limit themselves to the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) read outs and never look at the management decisions, which could have had a bearing on the accident.

Unlike the airlines, in a BA environment, pilots are fewer in number. They have no choice but to integrate and get along as they are wedded to the organisation for life. In most cases they spend longer hours with their aviation colleagues than they do with their families. Hence empathy, coordination and good relationship cannot be glossed over or taken for granted. To add to this understated stress is the requirement of delivering a ‘zero error product’ day after day throughout one’s lifetime. The cargo is precious, the mission always challenging. Failure is unacceptable, success taken for granted.

Under these circumstances, the requirement for good CRM measures to be put in place becomes imperative. Only good CRM can bridge the gaps in safety and make every mission failsafe. But then CRM is a management function. For this to happen, one needs a management, which understands CRM, its importance and its place in air safety. An organisation needs a CEO who understands that CRM begins with him, one who strongly believes that a safe flight begins in his office and ends in the cockpit.

This is not a mirage or impossible to achieve. How often do you see CEOs or anyone other than the aircrew attending CRM lectures? Not once probably and nowhere certainly. The imperative is for managements to embrace CRM, imbibe it and actively involve themselves in training and implementation. This is especially so in BA where managements are far removed from aviation activities but are required to take major decisions involving safety management and efficiency enhancement.

Role of Management in CRM

Aircraft fly at 45,000 feet and managements work on the ground. They may ‘see’ but they would lack the ‘vision’. Issues affecting safety would be routine for them since they have not acquired the skills to view them in the correct perspective. So when a Chief Pilot requests them to sanction a six monthly recurrent training programme for all his pilots, they shoot it down quoting the cost addition. They fail to realise that the issue is safety and not an employee perk. They overlook the fact that their decision could result in an unsafe flight putting the life of their patrons at risk. Industry practices are alien to them since they cannot take their eyes off from the balance sheets.

Similarly, issues regarding flight duty time limits (FDTL), crew rest and meals appear more as perks than safety-related issues. But then the blame does not rest at their door. They have simply not been exposed to the mechanics of aviation and the business of air safety. It is difficult for organisations to believe that CRM is a ‘collective responsibility’ and not a ‘one man show’. And a good starting point would be to mandate all managements to embrace CRM training. After all if one is expected to solve problems, one better acquaint himself with the subject. Since fewer people are involved in aviation management in BA operations, this would be easily achievable. CRM training may appear to be a costly proposition but the costs, which are insignificant anyway, far outweigh the benefits. Strong will is all that is required.

It is no secret that whenever the Chief Pilot opens his mouth it costs money for the management. So managements love to hear him and forget it the moment the meeting is over. But then safety does not come cheap. CRM is a ‘management function’ and not a ‘pilot function’. Just because the CEO is not in the cockpit it does not mean he is absolved of the responsibility of safety of operations. Now if a pilot harps upon CRM, it is only because he sees something going wrong and has a solution in sight. And for managements to appreciate it, they need to be smart, intelligent and mature. That will only happen if they are a part of the CRM process. They need to consider taking the onus of its implementation. And here is where the regulator comes in.

Role of the Regulator

At the moment, it appears the regulator has no clue about the role of management in CRM. He is barely managing to keep his head above water, what with the Federal Aviation Administration and the International Civil Aviation Organisation blaming him for incompetency. This notwithstanding, it is a good idea to take a look at how a regulator can contribute to enhancing the role and efficiency of CRM.

The need of the hour is a regular CRM audit of all BA operations. For starters it would convince managements that they are a part of the CRM loop. At the moment, CRM is hardly mentioned as long as an aircraft lands safely. It is remembered once a year by the management and the regulator when the certification falls due. CRM is discussed by the regulator and the management only after an accident/incident. By then the only protagonist not available to offer his defence is the late pilot and so CRM ends with him; the rest live happily ever after.

To conduct an audit, the regulator needs to install a template or put in place an infrastructure model. This needs to be based on the ISO 9000 or any other quality assurance model. Communication structures and processes, responsibility and accountability, institution of SOPs and orders and grievance redressal mechanisms should form a part of this model. CRM training and certification should be made compulsory for all personnel involved in the decision-making process. If you do not know aviation, you have no right to take a decision.


Never has any one single factor played a more important role or displayed greater potential than CRM in aviation safety and operational efficiency. CRM is an organisational character, the results of which are manifested in the cockpit. It is not a trait developed in the cockpit and left behind after a successful flight. CRM is a faith, an all-pervasive lifestyle which results in a safe cockpit. It is not a tool to be deployed after an accident but a principle to be employed proactively to prevent accidents.

CRM is not a ‘one-day-a-year’ affair. It is not a certificate; it is an ideology, a belief and a lifestyle, not a trait imbibed in the cockpit and practised at home; it is character developed in schools, on the playfield, honed at homes and in offices and finally, taken to the cockpit. That is where it can make a difference between life and death.

After flying for various commercial airlines, the writer has been flying a G550 for Birlas and is based in Mumbai.