Airlines' lessons in safety for oil industry

Oil companies turn to the airline industry for safety advice as the industry faces biggest crisis to their reputation after a disastrous year.

The global oil industry is this year facing its biggest reputational crisis yet, following BP's catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a result, international oil companies have been turning to the aviation industry for advice.

Last week, when oil industry safety officers from around the world descended on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island to attend the inaugural international safety and competence conference of the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation (OPITO), the keynote speaker addressing the packed conference room was not one of their own.

It was Capt Chris Knowles, a consultant to the aviation industry throughout the Middle East.

The aviation industry in the region is the most tightly regulated in the world, said Capt Knowles, not least because of the public perception that air travel is dangerous.

A single high-profile incident that precipitates a loss of confidence in safety or security standards can bankrupt an air carrier, as happened to Pan Am after the infamous bombing of one of its passenger jets in 1988 by a Libyan terrorist group over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

This year, some analysts predicted the Macondo oil spill would put BP out of business. That now seems unlikely, but the company will lose its status as the second-biggest international oil producer after it finishes selling US$30 billion (Dh110.19bn) of assets to help pay for costs related to the spill.

The message for both industries, said Capt Knowles, is to avoid complacency: "The assumption that safety is 'good enough' can only lead to disaster."

Global statistics on passenger mortality show why public confidence in airline safety is a constant issue.

Although airline public relations campaigns often state that air travel is statistically the safest mode of transport, that is only true relative to distances travelled. In terms of numbers of passenger journeys, only bicycles and motorcycles are more dangerous than aircraft. Worldwide, a passenger is nearly three times as likely to die on any given journey by air as on a car trip.

The airline industry and its regulators have been engaged in safety research for decades, aiming for improvements in training programmes and safety standards. By comparison, the international oil industry is at an early stage.

"This industry is reactive," said Gordon Ballard, the chairman of OPITO and the UK chairman of Schlumberger, the world's biggest oil services company. "Improvements have only arisen as a result of major accidents."

Many oil industry managers agree. So does Barack Obama, the US president, who in June described the Macondo disaster as "emblematic of a failed philosophy that regards all regulation with hostility".

One senior oil industry manager, interviewed anonymously by researchers from the Aberdeen Business School of Scotland's Robert Gordon University for an independent study commissioned by OPITO, described the problem thus: "The biggest difficulty you face in this industry is that while nothing is going wrong everybody is happy … and it is only after a major incident that suddenly things start to come out."

Said another respondent: "Unfortunately a lot of training has been developed because people have been killed."

The study also revealed a lack of internal consistency in safety standards within large international oil firms, as well as a lack of co-operation between companies.

"They don't speak to each other. They don't share standards with each other," said an interviewee. "This is how ridiculous it is. Basically in the oil and gas companies, each individual operating unit seems to stand and fall on its own. There is very little sharing of information."

The aviation industry has done better on this score, and its research has recently yielded some interesting results on the causes of aircraft accidents. It transpires that lack of sleep among air crews is a bigger factor than previously suspected. Fatigue is implicated in 30 per cent of in-flight incidents resulting in injury or death.

Because of this, some pilots are now being asked to spend nights before their flights wired up to sleep-monitoring equipment, so that researchers can investigate their sleep patterns.

"We understand diet and exercise, but not really sleep yet," said Capt Knowles. Nevertheless, most long-haul air carriers already use double crews, and cockpits have been redesigned to include bunks. Airlines also strive to bring their back-up crews aboard tired, so their initial flight duty is to sleep.

Judging from the lively discussion that followed the presentation, the oil industry audience was fascinated.

"Sleep is measured by duration, quantity and quality. In the oil and gas industry, with our 12 hours on, 12 hours off, shift pattern, we miss all three," said one delegate. "Now we know what the problem is and we need to tackle it."