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Why COVID-19 was a Warning Call for Aviation Safety

The COVID-19 pandemic was a warning call to all airlines across the world: despite cost-cutting, safety must remain paramount.

Aviation safety expert and Avlaw Aviation Consulting Founding Director Ronald Bartsch AO (pictured) recently had his article, Culture, challenge and catastrophe, featured in CASA’s Flight Safety Magazine’s Spring 2022 edition.

The article discusses how the crisis created by COVID-19 presents a significant challenge to aviation safety that’s not going away any time soon.

However, history has shown us how good leadership within the industry can “turn adversity into improvement”.

Cost-cutting airlines must not sacrifice safety

The COVID-19 pandemic forced airlines across the world to cut costs wherever they possibly could.

Bartsch’s main concern expressed in his article was that, as this happens, safety will become the casualty.

“It concerns me greatly whether those airlines that survive the coronavirus pandemic will maintain the requisite levels of financing to ensure air travel remains safe.

“For this to happen, airline executives will need to support such expenditure and governments will need to remain vigilant to ensure that they do.”

As airlines scramble for viability in a time when aviation is facing their greatest challenge, safety culture must not only survive – it must become the driving force for all of their operations.

The avoidable tragedy of ValuJet

valujet airlines safety culture

ValuJet, which Bartsch called a “no-frills” airline, was an example of what happened when profitability took precedent over safety.

When the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in the late 1970s, ValuJet quickly became the fastest airline to profit – making US$21 million in its first year.

The true cost, however, was obvious. ValuJet were relying on a fleet that became the oldest in America – averaging around 26 years old at the time of the accident.

The airline developed a reputation for being cheap, resulting in a deadly accident on 11 May 1996.

The aircraft was carrying 144 oxygen generators past their expiry dates and weren’t properly stowed. They caught fire minutes after takeoff, and the plane crashed into the Everglades. All 110 people onboard died.

Afterwards, ValuJet’s CEO embarked on a massive cultural shift within the company – which evolved eventually into AirTran (a company well-known for its culture of safety).

A cultural shift is needed to protect aviation safety

Bartsch argues that COVID-19 was an aviation safety warning call, suggesting that airlines need to make a significant cultural shift to avoid what ValuJet experienced.ron bartsch

They’ll need to change their mindset towards the current economic circustances, focusing on maintaining a safety culture moreso than trying to cut costs.

He cites disasters since ValuJet, including TWA Flight 800 and the disappearance of MH370.  “All these accidents exemplify the adage, ‘If you think safety is expensive, try having an accident’.”

While cost-cutting may be unavoidable right now, airlines must not lose sight of the safety of their operations – and ensure that such safety remains an integral part of their culture.

A failure to do so, Bartsch warns, will lead to disaster.

You can download Ron’s article here: Culture, challenge and catastrophe

You can purchase a copy of CASA’s Spring 2022 edition of Flight Safety Magazine here.