Bobbi Wells

A Chat With FedEx’s VP Safety

Bobbi Wells, vice president of safety and airworthiness at FedEx’s Air Operations, talked with Lee Ann Shay about managing regulatory and safety activities

Printed headline: FedEx Express

 

Bobbi Wells, vice president of safety and airworthiness at FedEx’s Air Operations, talked with Lee Ann Shay about managing regulatory and safety activities around the globe, as well as her thoughts on how to
improve human factors.  

FedEx Express operates about 670 aircraft and ordered 20 new freighters in June. What will the fleet’s composition be at the end of the year?

Our fleet is growing, as you described, and we are on track to get close to 700 aircraft by the end of the year. 

How is the fleet modernization effort affecting your organization?

Fleet modernization has a tremendous impact for the airline comprehensively and for my organization in a couple of ways. While I have responsibility for safety and airworthiness, I also have responsibility for our fuel-efficiency program and for the engineering programs that help our effectiveness. The way I look at it, it’s basically a three-legged stool composition, with the three legs being efficiency, effectiveness and safety, which are all magnectically connected. So if you take a shortcut with one, you naturally draw away from the safety and effectiveness of your operation, and that’s how accidents and mishaps can occur. The point is that efficiency, effectiveness and safety are not in opposition—they don’t compete. They actually exist on the same playing field, and that’s what makes us particularly good at what we do and how we impact the large environment in which we exist.

You and your team ensure the safety, airworthiness and regulatory compliance of the FedEx Express fleet and air operations worldwide—in 220 countries and territories. How do you keep up with all of the different civil aviation authorities and changing requirements? 

We have a dedicated group of people who are aligned with those regulatory authorities, such as the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). We are also very closely aligned with governing agencies such as the International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organizaiton (ICAO). We have representation with those bodies. As part of the ICAO registry, we have regular audits with ICAO. Our involvement in those initiatives are twofold: We have to meet the regulations and expectation of those agencies and, more important, we work in collaborative partnerships with those agencies to elevate the conversation. 

In aviation, safety isn’t a competitive arena. We exist in that arena together, regardless of what color your airplane is or what your logo looks like. We share resources in that space, so it’s really important not to just meet the regulations but to work with those agencies to innovate. We have an active and ongoing program with the FAA to work to identify and help shippers identify hazardous cargo and understand the hazards. The shipper and recipient most of the time know what is in a package, but the organization that carries that package might not know exactly what’s inside. We rely on shippers to package and label things appropriately. We’ve been working with the FAA, UPS and Amazon to work to ensure that shippers are well informed and clear on their obligations and responsibilities

What are the most challenging things about managing such a geographically dispersed cargo operation?

We heavily rely on those front-line team members and managers to effectively execute to meet the regulations, react appropriately to changes associated with the environment in a country or to react with security measures that need to be put in place. That collaboration and ability to share on a wider platform is in good measure how well we are able to execute our mission. It helps us to be nimble; it allows us to take in a tremendous amount of information that would not be accessible without having those dispersed employees around the world.

So we work with local agencies and with the heads of agencies such as the FAA and EASA to ensure that we are aware of changes before they get implemented, and we engage in discussions about potential changes to the regulations. We also work very hard to be effective to ensure that the local folks who are running the operation have an understanding of what they need to do to ensure we are in compliance and that we execute effectively.

What safety management processes and safety analytics do you use?

My team has responsibility to ensure we follow our safety management system (SMS). The FAA accepted it about this time last year, so we introduced our SMS several months in advance of the deadline, which was in the spring of 2018. That means we have process around communicating expectations about safety, measuring our systems associated with safety and good change management processes. The analytics associated with doing this safety work are self-reported from pilots, dispatchers and aircraft mechanics—telling us exceptions or errors in the system, whether it’s something they created by accident or something they might discover, such as an unusual amount of birds in the vicinity of an airport. We take that information into a program, and we read every report submitted and couple it with Flight Operations and Quality Assurance (FOQA) data that comes off aircraft. 

We’re in a unique position—we’re in the safest transport industry in the world, but it’s easy to develop hubris and believe we’re so good at what we do. The reason that we’re good is because we can’t afford to wait until a major problem develops. We work in an environment that is low-frequency, high-consequence when it comes to mishaps. Nobody has tolerance for putting people in harm’s way due to not taking care of our equipment. As a result, we have to be more forward-looking and proactive.  

What safety and airworthiness issues are on the top of your list to improve?

We are focused on two things. First, being more predictive and using sensors in systems to give us notice so we can take action when errors begin to accumulate or when risk is escalating. Humans have a natural tendency to shift our risk view—meaning we migrate to a state of higher risk. It’s the reason we drive fast cars and why people are willing to be test pilots, for instance. Because of that, we need to know where the boundaries are and when those boundaries are exceeded. Second, we’ve done incredible amounts of work on understanding our systems—whether it’s the aircraft or the engine or the air traffic control system even. We’ve done an excellent job in aviation with automation that allows us to be more powerful as people.

But I don’t think we’ve done enough on the human being side. No matter what happens with aviation, we are not going to engineer human beings out of aviation. However, we don’t know a lot about how humans react in various scenarios. We launched a study at FedEx with our pilots earlier this year focused on better understanding what happens to a crew member on the flight deck when they are startled or surprised. That is going to be incredibly helpful knowledge because once we understand what physiologically takes place, we can teach our pilots tools they can deploy in those scenarios when they’re scared or their process is disrupted, so they can be more effective and take advantage of all of their mental acuity and execute the next steps in decision-making to safely put the aircraft on the ground. Those kinds of advancements will change the nature of our industry. c

With a big, mixed fleet of turboprops and jets of various ages, how many of your manuals and records are digital versus paper? Are you moving toward a more digital system?

We’re very excited about this because we’ve been headed toward the paperless cockpit for a number of years. Four or five years ago, we took all of the paper for the pilots off the airplane, which amounted to 32 tons of paper and resulted in significant fuel savings. It also reduced the burden on the pilots to carry around their flightbags full of manuals and updates. It’s all delivered via iPad now. It allows us to give them the latest version and consistently allows us to do the change management around revisions. It also allows us to communicate and connect with our pilots better and provides them access to the things they need in one spot. We’ve also established a process by which we link all our manuals that are all online, so they get updated much more seamlessly. People who have to use manuals understand that when the structure is consistent and predictable, they will be more effective as a  reference.

We put iPads in the hands of our aircraft technicians, as well. That means when they are at the airplane, they are able to look up information, which gives them better information faster; it also means it’s more efficient. As a result, their job satisfaction improved as well.

When did technicians get the iPads?

 Technicians are on their second round of iPads. They’ve had them for about three years—and they’re used worldwide.

Are there new technologies that you’re considering?

My team is heavily involved in a number of technologies that we consider safety technologies—from straightforward things such as automated external defibrillators on all of our aircraft to the more complex equipment such as our safety assured vision enhancement device (SAVED). What that does is take the head-up display (HUD) in the cockpit in most of our aircraft. Our HUD also has an infrared enhanced vision system that has been incorporated. The FAA calls this an enhanced flight vision system. That technology with the SAVED device will be deployed within our oxygen mask system. We believe this SAVED device will be critical for aviation in the future because it not only will allow pilots to effectively see the runway and land the aircraft, but it will also allow them to do it in a smoke-filled cockpit. We believe this will be a game changer for pilots. We also have something we consider critical, given the cargo we carry: the fire suppression system. It’s deployed on all of our long-haul, widebody aircraft. It deploys fire-depressant foam to fill our containers, eliminating the oxygen to contain a potential fire. These were developed internally. 

Where is FedEx in the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) “Out” compliance target of 2020?

We’re on target to meet the deadline, but we’re approaching it a bit differently. Rather than upgrading our navigation computers, our aircraft engineering organization developed a wide-area augmentation solution. We’re proud of the patents we’ve received for various innovations that we’ve developed and deployed.

 

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