Professionalism is broadly defined in a number of ways. A major university in the United States defines it as “the conduct, behaviour and attitude of someone in a work or business environment.” Merriam-Webster defines it as the “conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.” An additional definition is “the following of a profession (such as athletics) for gain or livelihood.”
By that second definition, anyone who makes their living as a pilot, engineer, air traffic controller, dispatcher, flight attendant or ground crew is a professional.
But in aviation, particularly in business aviation, where not all pilots earn their living from flying aircraft, but rather fly aircraft to benefit their businesses, a more nuanced definition has long been sought.
Robert Sumwalt, chair of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said in 2010 that “[p]rofessionalism is first and foremost an attitude, but is manifested by a series of behaviors consistent with that attitude. One definition of professionalism includes ‘meticulous adherence to undeviating courtesy, honesty, and responsibility, plus a level of excellence that goes over and above the commercial considerations and legal requirements.’” In the same speech, he said, “A hallmark of an aviator's professionalism is insistence on strict adherence to procedures, checklist usage, and sterile cockpit compliance.”
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)’s Safety Committee has defined professional in aviation as “the pursuit of excellence through discipline, ethical behavior and continuous improvement.”
According to NBAA, improved professionalism can have an immediate and positive impact on safety, elevate business aviation’s reputation in the eyes of the public, regulators and the public, and shift the industry’s focus beyond surviving to leading and thriving. From a safety perspective, an initiative to increase professionalism can increase transparency, information sharing and self-correcting behaviour, and prevent egregious acts of unprofessional behaviour.
NBAA has outlined the following personal and organizational professionalism characteristics:
- Character, including integrity, honesty and responsibility
- Attitude, including service mentality, determination and inititiave
- Engagement, including performance, improvement and participation
- Competency in vocational skills, including expertise, training and good communication
- Image, including maturity, etiquette and discretion,
- Continuous improvement, including culture, management and resiliency.
More on these traits can be found on the NBAA website.
Accidents and Incidents
The following accidents and incidents have been linked at least in part to unprofessional behaviour.
- DH8D, vicinity Buffalo NY USA, 2009 On 12 February 2009, a Bombardier DHC-8-400 on a night ILS approach to Buffalo-Niagara airport departed controlled flight and was completely destroyed by ground impact and subsequent fire. The Investigation found that the Captain had failed to effectively manage the flight and that his consequent response to a resulting stick shaker activation had been completely contrary to applicable procedures and his training, leading directly to the loss of the aircraft. The aircraft operator’s normal approach procedures were also determined to be inadequate and it was noted that prior to the accident, sterile flight deck procedures had been comprehensively ignored.
- CRJ1, Lexington KY USA, 2006 On 27 August 2006, a Bombardier CRJ100 cleared for a night take off from runway 22 instead began take off on unlit runway 26. It was too short and the aircraft ran off the end at speed and was destroyed by the subsequent impact and post-crash fire with the deaths of 49 of the 50 occupants - the First Officer surviving with serious injuries. The Investigation found that the actions of the flight crew had caused the accident but noted that insufficiently robust ATC procedures had been contributory and the effects of an ongoing runway extension project had been relevant.