The Crosscheck: Hurry-Up Culture

It was my first live flight in the Falcon 20 at my new company. We had just boarded the company’s CEO and two other top officers. I got up from the right seat to go close the cabin door, and by the time I got back, the chief pilot had an engine started, brakes released and was calling for taxi.

I realized then that all those new guy briefings and nice operations manuals were just window dressing. This was the way things were done. It was a hurry-up culture.

Hurrying is an innate hazard of professional flying. We’ve all been guilty of it at some point.  Not hurrying is learned behavior, and it has to be reinforced by your company and your peers.

I thought about this because the NTSB just released the final report on the runway overrun incident at Bob Hope Burbank Airport (BUR) by Southwest Airlines 278 in 2018. The 737-700 landed fast and long on a wet runway and wound up in the engineered materials arrestor system at the end of runway 8. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and damage to the airplane was minor.

The NTSB concluded the incident was caused by the crew’s plan continuation bias, their misperception of the touchdown point and the company’s lack of guidance. While the conclusions were supported in tremendous detail, I find it hard to believe that two extremely experienced and competent pilots did not know they were exceeding any reasonable measure of risk of an excursion.

These two pilots had logged more than 26,000 total hours between them--16,000 hours plus on the Boeing 737, and each had between 80 and 100 landings at BUR.

The runway was short—5,802 ft.--and the tailwind was excessive--11 kt. There was a rainstorm in progress, another airplane had just gone around and they had received a windshear warning from ATC. Their performance computer showed that if all assumptions were correct, they only had a 245 ft. margin of error to get stopped. All assumptions were not correct, and they knew it.

Plan continuation bias is supposed to be unconscious, but the facts show the pilots’ decisions were deliberate. Why did they make the risky choice? Sometimes in hurry-up cultures pilots avoid go-arounds because they cut into turn-around time and delay the next departure.

The NTSB didn’t delve into culture in this investigation, but I think it’s an important subject to consider when pilots don’t go around.

This was not the first time a Southwest jet has gone off the end or had a hard landing when a go-around was appropriate. There was the hard landing at LGA in 2013, runway excursions at MDW in 2005 and 2011, and the well-known trip through the fence and into the gas station at BUR in 2000 before the EMAS was installed.

There are many definitions of culture, but I like this one: the sum total of the learned behaviors of a group of people that are transmitted from generation to generation. Culture abides and exists alongside rules, laws and written procedures. Culture is what is really done in a group or organization, not what is stated or affirmed.

Do the pilots at your company routinely fly at or near VMO/MMO? Do they taxi in excess of 30 kts? Do they press too hard to continue a bad approach? Do they tend to avoid go-arounds? Does your chief pilot look the other way when hurry-up incidents are reported? Is the flight operations manual just a “guideline” when it comes to not hurrying?”

If so, I suggest you be on the lookout for hurry-up culture, and be ready to deal with it.

Roger Cox

A former military, corporate and airline pilot, Roger Cox was also a senior investigator at the NTSB. He writes about aviation safety issues.


1 Comment
“Be ready to deal with it” usually involves looking for another job, because changes in culture are rare unless inspired by tombstones. There’s a saying out here in Hawaii that works on a personal level:
“Be quick but no hurry.”