Motivation By Fear From the Tombstone Agency

We were just subjected to another mandatory FAA “training” video at work last Saturday.

A few weeks ago we watched a different video that made analogies between air traffic control and NASCAR racing.  It’s not the first time we’ve seen training videos comparing our job to auto racing.

What’s telling is that the FAA seems to think race cars driving at high speed on the edge of control for entertainment is similar to what air traffic controllers do.  Do they also believe then that crashes and collisions are an inevitable part of the air traffic business?  Do they really think air traffic is a thrill sport?!

Controllers routinely watch training videos that include air traffic errors with the idea that we learn from others’ mistakes.

This latest video had a different approach however.  It was purely a reaction to air traffic accidents and incidents with very little (if any) instructional value whatsoever.

It was entitled “Heads Up Safety” and featured a “panel” of FAA managers, and showcased some air traffic related accidents/incidents (including the radar display playback of Scott Crossfield’s fatal flight into convective weather on 4/19/06), a playback of a terminal radar midair collision, as well as an animation of an incident where two aircraft cleared for takeoff on the same runway almost collided.

It also featured numerous excerpts of TV news clips about some of those accidents.

One of the final lines in the video stated something like, “Stay out of the courtroom; stay out of the media; avoid the nightmares.”

The video demonstrates why the FAA is known as the “Tombstone Agency.”

It’s purely reaction to public criticism and media exposure following fatal accidents.

Controllers often see new procedures and policies in response to accidents even when the FAA was well aware of the problem before and chose to ignore it.  Safety is only a problem in the FAA after someone dies.

As the video made clear, what’s most important to the FAA is simply staying out of court and staying out of the news.

As long as the FAA isn’t in the news because of an accident or incident apparently its managers believe it’s doing a good job.  Never mind about a real plan to try and assure that goal.  It shows an absence of a proactive attitude towards safety issues.

Forget about the underlying systemic problems.  Forget about all the safety issues that are presented to the FAA by its employees that are ignored.  Never mind the outdated equipment, broken equipment and bad, confusing or missing procedures.

Just make safety happen.  Make us look good.  “Avoid the nightmares!”

The video offered very little in the way of instruction.

For instance, the runway incident was clearly a mistake by the controller.  There was nothing instructional about showing the error; it was a screw-up.  Even a non-controller knows you don’t clear two aircraft for takeoff on the same runway at the same time.  So what purpose did it serve by showing it in the video other than to simply terrify controllers?

If you don’t care about staying out of the courtroom and out of the media, here’s a little personal incentive for you:  “Avoid the nightmares!”

That’s motivational leadership, FAA style!

Fear tactics don’t motivate people to do their jobs better; it just gives them more stress to deal with while they are working.

This would be analogous to the car manufacturers forcing their designers to watch cars wreck and people die to “motivate” them to design better cars…

The FAA must think air traffic controllers are ignorant of the potential consequences of mistakes made while working, otherwise why did they feel the need to make a video like this?

Not that I’m surprised that the FAA doesn’t believe its controller workforce is a bunch of highly trained professionals who do their best at their jobs (but being human sometimes make mistakes).  After all they already made it clear that they think I don’t even know when I can take a bite of food.

But air traffic controllers do understand the seriousness of their jobs.  It’s every air traffic controller’s worst nightmare to be somehow causal in an accident.

Anything the FAA could offer to controllers to decrease their workload and provide them help in reducing the potential for mistakes would be welcome.

Instead, my employer forces me to watch a video showing how controllers can be involved in fatal aviation accidents, and then immediately afterward expects me to work air traffic.  That’s pretty twisted.

Instructional videos make sense, but there was absolutely nothing for controllers to learn from this particular video other than to simply not make mistakes (because mistakes can kill someone and make the FAA look bad), and that the FAA thinks fear is a good motivator.

Maybe that should all be put on the controller position relief checklist:  “Don’t make mistakes.  Remember, your mistakes can kill someone.”  Check.  “Stay out of the news and the courtroom.”  Check.  “Avoid the nightmares.”  Check.

The video shows that the “performance based organization” of the FAA really measures success based on how many times it’s sued and/or ends up in the news.  It’s also why they employ spokesmen to repeat the phrase to the media, “Safety was never compromised” whenever there’s a problem that’s exposed, in spite of the fact that it often was.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

It’s demonstrative of how the FAA reacts to accidents and incidents instead of proactively to known/existing safety concerns.  It’s why they’re the Tombstone Agency.

It’s a seriously flawed approach from an alleged “safety culture” organization.

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