Air Transport World

Airline safety: whose responsibility?

"Let's be careful out there" was the parting admonition each day from Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the television police drama "Hill Street Blues." A single reminder, forcefully and directly administered each day, may be all that's needed to promote safety in an organization the size of a police precinct. In the airline industry, however, it's a different story. A major airline may have hundreds of aircraft and tens of thousands of employees stationed throughout the world. With operations of such size and diversity, system safety becomes a complex and demanding concern.

Some airlines maintain specific departments devoted to safety. They serve as safety advocates or, as the manager of one such department put it, as the operational conscience." Others have not seen fit to establish units designated safety," arguing that safety should be the concern of everyone involved in operations.

Those that have safety departments would agree on the last point but in their view, a safety staff can help the airline as a whole to maintain safe performance. Robert W. Baker, executive VP-operations for American Airlines, told ATW. "You can't rely on a safety department to keep you safe. The guys who fly and fix the airplanes are the guys who create safety for an airline. The safety department acts as consultant to those operating groups."

Therefore, American's safety department consists of just 16 staff members. "I have a small staff and it needs to be small," says John A. Feil, managing director-safety. "The bottom line of safety is the functional manager's responsibility. I can't go out there and do his safety job for him."

Northwest: "No need"

Northwest Airlines is one of the carriers that functions without a safety department. "Our experience hasn't shown the need for it," an airline spokesman said. But National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member John K. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.