Are You Safe Or Lucky? Depends On What You Are Measuring


It goes without saying that aviation is full of risk.

In many ways, we are in a golden era in aviation when it comes to safety. Fortunately, we are experiencing one of the safest periods in our industry. Many professionals attribute this in part to the acceptance and broad use of Safety Management Systems (SMS).

This year at Aviation Linq, we are going to devote significant time to writing about safety programs. Everything from basic theory to complex issues, particularly those issues that are important to our core market, small and medium sized Part 135 and Part 91 operations.

In this article, we are going to take a broad look at organizational safety and highlight some general topics to consider.


Management Dilemma and the Safety Space


Safety can be a complex subject. Hopefully, it’s a given that aviation operators want to operate safely but here is the dilemma:

Production vs. Protection

Production is a given and a great thing.  That’s why you are in business.

Protection (safety) is required as well, if you want to keep operating. However, we cannot simply buy new airplanes every time an issue comes up.



Here’s what can happen:

      Too much production and not enough protection    Too much protection and not enough production


Often, the reality is that aviation operators move up and down within a safety space between these two extremes.

Why is that important?

It constantly changes and your margins of safety change with it.


Consider the following:

You make a strong investment in safety and hire multiple safety people. Zero accidents and few incidents. You are operating at a high safety level but eventually let go of your safety team due to a decrease in business. You are guaranteed to move toward the low end of the safety space and increase the risk for your operation.

Do you have any idea where your organization sits within this safety space?



Are we safe or simply lucky?


At an organizational level, can you truly answer this?  Most cannot.

The answer to this question lies in reporting and data collection.  I showed this picture in a previous article, but it is worth mentioning again.


We must understand that “we don’t know what we don’t know”.  If you are not actively pursuing information from those who are doing the job, you cannot answer this question.

Relying on luck in aviation is not terribly appealing.

Are we safe or simply lucky?  The answer to this lies in voluntary reporting and data collection.

I guarantee every day some of your employees think – why are we doing it that way? Or, wow that was a close call again.  Remember, your staff has 100% knowledge of conditions that could lead to an accident. Upper Management 4%. Not good odds.

Your organization needs to get this information. In safety speak, it’s like striking gold!

Also, safety programs can be very broad in nature and can manifest themselves in lots of different ways.  Sometimes we think we have invested in a safety program, but have we really?


Let’s start with one of my favorites-



Any time I go into a business (particularly aviation) and see a sign like this, I cringe. I have no idea what this even means from a safety perspective.

Ask yourself again – Are we safe or simply lucky?

This is not a good measurement of safety. Unfortunately, this is the safety program for a lot of organizations.

Just some basic points to consider here:

  • Having a sign that displays this information is not a safety program. Periods of time between “reportable accidents” (whatever that is) does not constitute a safe workplace.
  • NO ONE is going to report anything!

Imagine being the person who just blew everyone’s “safety bonus” because of human error. Great.

The Concept of Practical Drift

It is such an important topic for aviation safety, I could write an entire article on this subject. But let’s start with some basics.

“Practical (or Procedural) Drift” is defined as a mismatch between procedures or rules and actual practice.  In other words, it is the slow and steady drift away from the way the organizations want things done. Without trying to be too dramatic, this can have serious and possibly catastrophic outcomes.

 Practical Drift is inevitable and is rooted in human nature. This is going on every day in your organization. Do you know at what level and for how long?



Scott Snook’s (2000) “practical drift” theory provides some interesting questions.



He defines practical drift as “the slow uncoupling of practice from procedure”.  He concludes that the typical response of tightening procedures and increasing penalties for failure to comply would inevitably lead to the same pathology because in time, the new procedures would also be ignored.


Instead, he urges professionals and managers to realize that the important question is not how to fix pilot error, crew inaction or even practical drift.

The more fundamental question is, what can be done given this reality of human behavior? How can practical drift be addressed if not with increased and tighter rules?

Based on current research, the answer seems to be a Safety Management System (SMS) that specifically fits your organization and is used on a consistent basis. This includes making a strong case for non-punitive, voluntary reporting systems such as ASAP.


As we said at the beginning of the article, you don’t know what you don’t know and that is dangerous.

“Practical Drift” is happening in your organization right now.  Do you know at what level and for how long?

Safety is the most important subject that we can discuss in aviation.  Developments in this field are changing rapidly for the betterment of the industry.

One of our goals at Aviation Linq is to ensure that the smaller Part 91 and Part 135 companies have the same access to these safety programs as the larger companies do.  Your aircraft, employees and people you fly are just as important.

Happy and Safe flying!