AINsight: Achieving Extreme Professionalism In Aviation

New Delhi, May 27, 2018: Professionalism in aviation is tough to define. In a traditional sense, a professional is a skilled, well-trained individual who follows a profession for personal gain. Using this logic, if you collect a paycheck you must be a professional, right?

If this is the case, then why do professional pilots, according to NTSB reports, crash airplanes as a result of “unprofessional behavior” or “unprofessional acts?” Blowing off an SOP, intentionally skipping a preflight procedure, or continuing an unstable approach to a landing are all clearly unprofessional acts. So, if being a professional is tied to a paycheck, did these pilots momentarily “clock out” to harm themselves or others? In hindsight, it’s often easier to identify a lack of professionalism than to clearly define it.

The first step—and probably not a very popular one—in better defining the term “professional” in aviation is to forget the notion that receiving a paycheck matters. Aviators can act professionally regardless of being paid or, conversely, can get paid and not act like a professional. As an example, there are a number of owner-pilots who are every bit as professional or serious about flying as the “pro.”

Professionalism involves more of a mindset than skillset. For the sake of argument, let’s say to become a successful professional pilot it takes 90 percent attitude, 10 percent aptitude, and zero percent cash. Focusing on attitude and aptitude might help simplify our definition of professionalism. For the career pilot, maintaining this attitude and avoiding the inevitable “drift” over the span of 30 to 40 years is a challenge.

Professionalism, according to the NBAA Safety Committee, has been identified as “the cornerstone focus area of any safety management system in which professional behaviors rule and safe actions become a byproduct.” NBAA’s Professionalism in Aviation webpage is a great resource and focuses on both organizational and individual professionalism. According to NBAA, “Professionalism in aviation is the pursuit of excellence through discipline, ethical behavior, and continuous improvement according to ainonline.com.”

NBAA draws from Dr. Tony Kern’s book Going Pro: the Deliberate Practice of Professionalism to further identify three different levels of professionalism by using the Integrated Model of Professionalism.

According to Kern’s model, “Level I Professionals are little more than members of a profession. They are competent enough to earn a paycheck, but not necessarily compliant with all policies, procedures, and regulatory guidance.” Level II Pros, according to Kern, are “stagnant professionals,” they are competent, ethically sound, and compliant; however, they might never reach their potential because there is no improvement process.

Level III Professionals—the extreme professionals—“embrace and improve across all six domains”: vocational excellence (“doing the right things right”); professional ethics (“doing the right thing”); continuous improvement (“getting better at doing the right thing”); professional engagement (“sharing and learning from others”); professional image (looking and acting the part); and selflessness—the desire to mentor and give back (helping others do the right thing).

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are a professional—not in the sense that you receive a paycheck for flying, but in that you are engaged, have a strong desire to learn and continuously improve your skills. If this is the case, you’re well on your way to becoming an extreme professional.

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