Transas CEO: Shipping industry can learn from aviation

(CORK, Ireland) — Importing safety practices from aviation isn't a panacea for the shipping industry, but there are opportunities to learn, argues Transas CEO Frank Coles.

Civil aviation stirs mixed emotions among seagoing types. It is often held up as a shining beacon of what the shipping industry could achieve if only it saw — and followed — the light. Others argue that such comparisons are unfair, inappropriate or dismiss them as an overly simplistic parallel. The truth probably lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

For aircraft, the direction of travel has always been towards standardized equipment, streamlined administration and procedures, and centralized traffic control — tendencies that instil a culture of safety permeating every level of activity.  

The disappearance of flight MH370 reminds us that the aviation industry has shortcomings of its own, not least its flawed approach to asset tracking. In shipping, AIS has proved a workable, industry-wide answer.

Nonetheless, shipping is most harshly judged against aviation when the discussion turns to human error and officer training. As is commonly acknowledged, up to 80 percent of incidents and accidents in shipping are the result of either mistakes in performing a task, or by a failure to take action to avoid an incident escalating. Accident investigations often reveal that a chain of small decisions or unobserved incidents leads to a larger one.

In a study carried out by Berg (2013), maritime was found to be 25 times riskier than aviation, based on deaths per 100 kilometers traveled. The simple explanation is that airlines prioritize safety because their ‘cargo’ is predominantly human passengers. However, the crew operating cargo planes have to adhere to the same training regime as those carrying people.

“Pilots must undergo a rigorous assessment every six months,” noted Coles. “There is nothing close to this in maritime. I find that strange, given that a ship’s captain takes the ultimate responsibility for delivering the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the fuel we burn and everything else we take for granted. It’s almost as if the shipping industry lives in the shadows — behind a shield of invisibility.

“My worry is this ghostly existence affects how shipping companies go about their business, trickling down as a lowest common denominator mentality in terms of the crew hired, the training they receive, the salaries they are paid and the respect they are given.”

Coles believes there is a deep-rooted qualitative difference in the training philosophies pursued in the two sectors. “In shipping, under SOLAS and STCW, the objective is certification. Once certified, an officer or engineer can continue to work until revalidation is due five years later, which does not necessitate any refresher training. In aviation, the focus is on skills, competencies and continually honing their ability to react in emergency situations.”

Shipping companies are of course free to go beyond minimum requirements, but few see a compelling need to do so. “While some cruise and offshore operators understand the value of long-term investment in crew development, there are unscrupulous operators at the other end of the spectrum who choose to ignore suspect paperwork that was obtained on the streets of Manila or somewhere similar.”

One operator Coles cites as having successfully adapted lessons from aviation “to an extraordinary degree” has been Carnival. “Their training model is fascinating,” he said. “After the Costa Concordia, they spent a lot of time evaluating their bridge procedures. They went and studied the practices used at American Airlines. They took these home and absorbed key elements into their bridge management and training systems.”

Carnival changed the role of the ship’s captain, Coles said. Instead of leading from the front, he entrusts the control the ship to his officers. “This approach engenders trust in the team and gives the captain greatly enhanced situational awareness."

Counterintuitively, the more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution made by the operators, Coles observes. “Humans are less involved, but their involvement becomes more critical.” This is known as the paradox of automation, where an error in an automated system multiplies until either it is fixed or the system shuts down.

Transas is preparing for the challenges of this automatic future by positioning simulation training as one of the four legs of its Thesis concept. “Simulator training is going to grow in importance as more and more routine aspects of vessel operation are automated,” said Coles.

A significant problem within the maritime industry is the temptation to find "workarounds" to standard operating procedures. Crew develop these behavioral adaptations to cope with unrealistic or impractical operational demands and challenges. The most common workarounds relate to reporting paperwork, personal protective equipment, work-rest hours, and navigational rules.

Airlines are far less tolerant of deviations from accepted practice, and aberrations are more likely to be challenged or reported. However, it is also fair to point out that the aviation industry has targeted reducing administrative duties in the cockpit through automation, while no such claim can be made in shipping; in fact, the opposite trend prevails, with new regulation driving more paperwork required by the bridge.

Maritime needs to challenge itself to accept automated reporting and monitoring, Coles suggests. Reducing the administrative burden on crews would have a significant positive impact on the ability to perform better.

Standardization in the aviation sector has been massively encouraged by the fact that only two major suppliers build civil aircraft, while ships and ships’ equipment come in all shapes and sizes. The competence of a ship’s crew may sometimes depend on their exposure to a particular maker’s equipment.

Marine equipment could be further standardized, making user interfaces easier to understand and more consistent, Coles suggests. This would lessen the time spent by crew on familiarisation, make training more ‘portable’, and cut the risk of operator error. All this points to safer operation.

For Coles, however, the aviation sector’s coordinated approach to traffic control systems provide the most telling opportunity to enhance the entire maritime safety culture. Air traffic control, after all, is acknowledged as pivotal to the safety of the skies and to smooth take-offs and landings.

“ATC can see situations develop more quickly than an air pilot relying on visual sighting or his instrumentation,” said the Transas CEO. “While ships move at a more sedate speed, the fact remains that the majority of collisions and incidents happen in busy shipping lanes and ports relatively close to land, so increased maritime traffic control and management could have a significant impact on safety.”

Transas already installs vessel traffic monitoring infrastructure around the world, from simple radar apparatus to full coastline management solutions covering half a dozen ports. But Coles identifies other drivers that he believes are already nudging maritime towards a more coordinated vessel management future. With geopolitical concerns rising, coastal states are likely to take a keener interest in monitoring and managing the passage of all ships through their territorial waters, he suggests.

“Flag states will be apprehensive about increased traffic in unmanned and drone ships passing through their economic waters — whatever their size — without knowing where they’re from and what they might be carrying. It seems logical to me that a government wishing to protect its waters will make the jump from monitoring to a desire for control.”

By Professional Mariner Staff