Definition of Professionalism Not Coming Anytime Soon

Greater “professionalism” is badly needed in the airline industry, but no one person or organization seems to have defined it succinctly yet broadly to capture the qualities needed. That much is evident from a 2½ day forum on the subject of pilot and air traffic controller professionalism held 18-20 May by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). It may be quite feasible to define the term, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not likely to embrace it in regulations, as such action would put the FAA’s own culture and practices on the spot.

The NTSB held the forum because of findings over the past few years of lapses in both pilots and controllers of standards one could expect of professed professionals. Pilots have been found violating the sterile cockpit rule with excessive and distracting chit-chat, in some cases contributing to fatal accidents. Controllers have been found talking on the telephone about personal business while disaster unfolded on their radar screens. Air traffic control is often about timely intervention –which necessitates are solid awareness not based on assumptions. If a pilot is told to do something, the healthy controller attitude is first to assume that he might not, perhaps because the pilot has misunderstood or is pressured, fatigued or distracted. Reliably detecting airborne errors is the signature theme of a professional controller. It demonstrates a level of maturity that comes with experience, and it’s an ingrained attitude that is a good example for junior controllers. After all, effective on-the-job training of junior controller is fundamentally reliant upon establishing norms and teaching precedents.


At the forum, about 40 different presenters offered about as many different perspectives on the term “professional.” Here is a representative smattering:

“Professionalism means recognizing the public trust and SOP [standard operating procedures] adherence.”

“Professionalism is a series of traits that focus on outcomes and are consistent with the values of the organization.”

“Professionalism is how you do the work, whether you’re following SOPs all the time.”

“Professionalism is an outgrowth of commitment, knowledge, discipline, passion and judgment.”

“An aviation professional consistently exceeds minimum standards, continuously improves, and helps others to do so.”

“A professional pilot possesses the physical, mental and emotional attributes to do the right thing – because it is the right thing to do.”


Discourse along these lines clearly frustrated the NTSB. Member Robert Sumwalt expressed his reaction thusly: “Right now, professionalism is this glob that we can’t put our hands around.”

Chairman Deborah Hersman put the matter more diplomatically, but pointedly:

“One thing that strikes me is that defining professionalism is somewhat elusive. We heard a number of panel members say that they can see it in actions; the difficult part that remains is defining professionalism and creating a culture of professionalism at all levels.”

It is possible to come up with a definition that is broad yet specific, and that captures both the detailed job performance and the general standards expected of employees. Herewith, a working definition:

“A professional individual is technically competent, an ethical exemplar, with presence of mind and strength of character in difficult circumstances, working within a structured top-down culture where safe operations and mutual trust are paramount, whom we would want all others to emulate.”

This definition covers a lot more than just activities in the cockpit or airport tower and associated air traffic control facilities (e.g., en route control centers). This definition covers the flight line, the corporate offices, and the individual’s personality and personal appearance. Why appearance? Because appearance not only influences third party perceptions – the travelling public – it adds to the aura of command and solicits respect. There is a reason for the pilot’s uniform being modeled after that of a naval officer.

“Technically competent” means more than just adherence to SOPs in the cockpit or control center. It means not only knowledge of them and adherence to them, but the degree to which these SOPs are executed. Are the radio readbacks prompt, clear and precise, for example.

“Presence of mind” is a term used to convey the ability to focus and keep a cool head in extreme circumstances. For instance, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, the two pilots who successfully ditched their US Airways A320 in the Hudson River, had presence of mind; both were outwardly cool, focusing on options and procedures and keeping their emotions in check. They had “presence of mind.” Then there’s Captain Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw, who allowed their Colgan Air Dash 8-Q400 twin-turboprop to stall on approach, and then applied grossly incorrect procedures after being panicked by the sudden departure from controlled flight. They didn’t have “presence of mind” and unfortunately let the stun-power of surprise kill themselves and 47 others aboard.

“Strength of character” refers to the ability to maintain one’s position in the face of contrary pressures. For example, insisting on the highest standards of safety in the face of corporate pressure to fly with only minimal safety margins.

“Mutual trust” means more than just a junior/senior relationship in the airline or in the air traffic organization. It means management has the self confidence to listen to an employee, and the employee feels free to state his position without fear of retribution.

“We want all others to emulate” covers the employees communication skills, pleasant personality, personal appearance and other aspects of performance that are worthy of copying. For instance, casual swearing or comments loaded with sexual innuendo are immature and destructive of morale. A pilot with bad breath or a fat, sloppy personal appearance is not the image one wants to project to the public. It isn’t necessary to be a rail-thin moralist, but the airline has a right to expect and enforce an image of pride and competence. Beyond image, there are the unseen background factors in which professionalism is rooted: a code of conduct, integrity, and high ethics.

The hard part is getting the FAA to give this suggested definition, or any other, the force of regulation. That would require floating the proposal to industry as a proposed regulation. The airlines are likely to respond that the FAA should stick to matters of aviation, per its congressionally mandated charter. If there were to be any costs to the industry associated with this definition, expect strong airline resistance in these tough economic times.

But if this definition were propounded in a nonbinding advisory circular (AC), such objections could not hold sway. An advisory circular is a form of articulating optional “best practices” – albeit normally of a quite technical nature.

There are identifiable problems with the FAA publishing an AC: such a document might be perceived by the FAA rank and file as an abject exercise in hypocrisy. There is virtually nil protection against retribution for those in the FAA who speak out about shoddy practices in airline operations, about hastened and pressured efforts to certify new aircraft designs, about the FAA’s reluctance to engage air traffic controllers in assessing new equipment technologies, low morale at the agency, etc. The top-down fealty to safety in an atmosphere of mutual trust is lacking in the FAA. For the agency to propound such “professionalism” for all others while its own house is in unhappy disorder will be seen as an example of “do what I say, not what I do.”

There is also the conundrum of whether the AC could be utilized by employers – government or industry – as a basis for remediation or dismissal. Pervert the exalted intent of a helpful definition and it could become the basis of demonstrable abuse. Professionalism has leverage only so long as it’s not “in disrepute” as a flogging tool (As in “the floggings will continue until morale improves”). In some contexts, professionalism, as with virtue, has to remain the great unspoken.

The NTSB, though, has been evaluated by employees as one of the best places to work in government. Why, the NTSB scores so well this matter is covered on its website under the heading “The Best Place to Work in the Federal Government 2009.” There is not a comparable box on the FAA’s website, for an obvious reason – the FAA rates near the bottom in terms of employee satisfaction. The NTSB scores above 75 and is improving. The FAA scores a dismal 49 and is getting worse.

When the FAA rises in the eyes of its employees to a similar level as the NTSB, it may be time to publish an AC on professionalism. Or perhaps it could issue a coda. A coda is a theme or motif, often a summation of preceding dictums and/or an underlying sentiment. Professionalism may be best seen as a postscript that essentially states the overlaid (yet underlying) goal of achieving “the best that you can be.”

In whatever form, the aviation industry demonstrably needs some guidance on professionalism, but the FAA will first have to address and redress the cultural dysfunction in its own house. It may ultimately prove to be one vital area in which the NTSB can go beyond its limited charter and pleading recommendations – setting standards by the unsubtle reproof of sterling example.