How the Aviation Industry Inspires Meaningful Accountability

Recently, an article entitled “Why You’ve Never Been in a Plane Crash” (by Kyra Dempsey) grabbed my attention in my daily inbox scan.

While I was first drawn in by my own personal curiosity (“and I never will be in a plane crash, right???”), I devoured the entire article because of how the article connected to the tension between personal vs systemic accountability.  At the heart of the matter in the aviation industry is how both an individual and an organization can respond to error and missteps.  Or as Ms. Dempsey’s byline explains– why you’ve never been in a plane crash is because of the way the airline industry “assigns blame when accidents do happen.”

Allow me to set the stage just a bit.

On February 1, 1991, Air Controller Robin Lee Washer was responsible for an error (explained further in the article) which caused a runway crash at LAX.

The article proceeds as follows:

The fact that Wascher made a mistake was self-evident, as was the fact that that mistake led, more or less directly, to the deaths of 35 people. The media and the public began to question the fate of Ms. Wascher. Should she be punished? Should she lose her job? Did she commit an offense? 

What we observe in our justice work, and what anyone is society knows well, is that looking for someone to blame and assigning prescribed punishments is more-or-less the only known approach to accountability.  We hear politicians, the public and most anyone who has been wronged ask for “accountability” and so these wheels of blame and punishment start churning, attempting to answer that call and right the wrong…right?

Dempsey goes on to say:

In the aftermath of a disaster, our immediate reaction is often to search for some person to blame. Authorities frequently vow to “find those responsible” and “hold them to account …But when that happens, what is actually accomplished? Has anything been made better? Or have we simply kicked the can down the road? 

There is no question that it is important to explore and understand individual responsibility in any case where harm has occurred—whether intentional or not.  However, the “track down and punish” approach, which allows systems to clap their hands together and check the box that says “we did something” is often very limiting.  It points a finger solely on an individual and allows systems to maintain their image of being blameless, because a “bad apple” has been identified and punished (which is too often substituted for being held meaningfully accountable).  There is a place for individual responsibility/accountability, however if it is the entirety of the response, we miss big opportunities.  This approach completely allows the system to go on as it was, creating environments and cultures where bad apple after bad apple falls from the tree, without so much as a thought that the trunk itself is rotting.  Never mind those who are being hit by the so-called bad apples—their voice is usually last to be heard or considered.  It is assumed that punishing a wrong-doer satisfies every justice need.

In Dempsey’s account, the central premise offered by the Aviation Industry is incredibly simple: because of the huge cost of human life, it does not benefit the airlines or their consumers to punish and dismiss those who make (inevitable) human mistakes that may cause crashes.  Instead, it becomes critical to understand what went wrong, to appropriately support the person who caused the error to name what went wrong (and implement sanctions only where and if appropriate) and then to learn from and prevent any further error through procedural/systemic change.

Dempsey states:

If 35 people can die because a single controller made a single mistake, that’s not a system in which we can place our trust. Humans are fallible creatures who make poor decisions… who made a mistake is far less important than why it was made. 

What we can’t forget amidst the imperative to “learn from mistakes”, however, are those who are harmed by those making those poor decisions.  As Dempsey mentions above—35 dead because of a single person’s error is incredibly tragic, and it will happen again unless we learn and change.  But even when the stakes are perhaps less severe (by numbers), and one person is killed, traumatized or harmed, the call for accountability and change still rings true.  Those harmed, or loved ones of those harmed, often want answers, repair, and assurance that no one else will suffer what they suffered.  When they are certain none of those things are available to them (as they so often aren’t), punishment becomes the only option to gain a sense of meaning that their suffering meant anything. But this route is often unfulfilling and usually causes further suffering.  I believe we as a society can learn a lot from the Aviation Industry about accountability and repairing harm. Because here’s the stats on their approach:

The United States has achieved the safest airline industry in the world through rigorous root cause analysis made possible only by a commitment to transparency, justice, and truth. While nothing humanity builds is invincible, the safeguards that we have erected against human error are so formidable that in the 33 years since the crash at LAX, there hasn’t been another fatal runway collision at any U.S. airport with a control tower… In 1972, by most measurements the nadir of global aviation safety, approximately one in 200,000 airline passengers worldwide did not reach their destination alive. Half a century later in 2022, this number was one in 17 million.

This begs the question(s): what can society learn from the Aviation Industry about individual and systemic accountability?   What would it mean if the health care system, schools, and yes – even our criminal legal system – began to adopt similar approaches?  Within Just Outcomes, we are deeply familiar with applying these lenses in community and organizational contexts. What I didn’t realize is that we were so aligned with those responsible for keeping airlines safe!  I am hopeful that if the Aviation Industry can find a way to center learning, dignity and interconnection in the aftermath of error and wrongdoing, then so too can we all.

If you’re curious to learn more about how to apply a restorative and accountable approach in your context, consider attending our upcoming Restorative Leadership training!

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