What aviation safety can teach the wine and spirit industry

The human capacity for problem-solving resides in how networks of people communicate

More people are getting on airplanes now than at any time in the last fourteen months. From a safety perspective, this is a good thing. You’re more likely to get in an accident on the highway to the airport than you are to encounter any kind of mishap in the air.1 No U.S. commercial airline has had a fatal crash since 2009.

Andy Pasztor writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Over the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have accomplished an astonishing feat: carrying more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash. Such numbers were once unimaginable, even among the most optimistic safety experts. But now, pilots for domestic carriers can expect to go through an entire career without experiencing a single engine malfunction or failure. Official statistics show that in recent years, the riskiest part of any airline trip in the U.S. is when aircraft wheels are on the ground, on runways or taxiways.

While it is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the sheer audacity of such a feat, it’s the story of the concerted effort to improve safety that offers up important lessons for the wine and spirit industry.

First, some background: The 1990s and early 2000s found the U.S. airline industry saddled with multiple high-profile accidents and tragedies. Pasztor quotes Randy Babbitt, former president of the Air Line Pilots Association:

We were seeing the same mistakes made over and over, but nobody talked about them.

The wholesale change was predicated, not just by advances in aviation technology or pilot training, but rather by a tectonic shift in thinking about how pilots, airlines, and the government communicated with one another.2 As Babbitt suggests, the fact that nobody talked about the repeated mistakes prevented the industry from recognizing the patterns of errors that plagued airlines. The seeming intractability of safety issues was overcome by adapting communication that free-flowing, non-punitive, and data-centric.


Here how suppliers, importers, and distributors can apply this simple idea to improve their businesses:

  • Information wants to be free. Don’t let it get stuck, lost, or forgotten.

    Before the revolution in improved airline safety, part of the airline industry’s issue was cloistered information. A lack of trust among stakeholders as well as concern for self-preservation resulted in a failure to share critical information that would’ve yielded insights into improving processes.  

    How often does information “get stuck” in a particular department? How transparent are executives with managers? Does the company encourage the hoarding of information by rewarding those in the know? Or does the company celebrate sharing?

  • Use procedures to improve processes rather than punish offenders.

    Pasztor notes that a major breakthrough in aviation safety was the implementation of self-reporting amongst multiple stakeholders from air traffic controllers to mechanics. Ray Valeika, former head of engineering and maintenance at Delta, stated “we actually patted people on the back” for divulging mistakes.

    All too often, procedures are put in place to sort good from bad outcomes—to celebrate success and penalize failure. This gets things all wrong. It is the inability to comfortably report failures that prevents processes from being improved.

    When a mistake is made, how often is it blamed on the salesperson, manager, or administrator rather than the process itself? This question is not meant to absolve people of the responsibilities inherent in their roles, but rather to point out that the same mistake, when repeated by different individuals, reveals a problem with the system, not the individual.

  • Every point of communication is an opportunity to gather data.

    Pasztor points out that stakeholders “got better at meeting the challenges of handling an avalanche of data.” Much of the wine and spirit industry has yet to get to this point because almost all the data gathered and analyzed is related to sales—how much of a product, brand, or category is moving, to which accounts, and when. This obfuscates the realities and complexities of the business.

    The aviation industry monitors more than just the weather; it tracks human error, mechanical failure, and multiple other points of data. Wine and spirit companies need to think beyond the limiting scope of sales data.

    For instance, is your company successfully tracking sales that are lost because of outages? Your sales reps and order board should have a place to report this information. Is your company tracking breakages in a way that can be communicated to suppliers so adjustments can be made to packaging? The information is likely gathered since inventory has to be reconciled, but are your portfolio or brand managers and purchasing department made aware of recurring issues.

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Fatal or injurious mishap, that is. Long check-in lines, overcrowded terminals, stultifying customer service, and lost luggage are all still part of the American flying experience. Joking aside, there’s no getting around the fact that “over the last 10 years, passenger vehicle death rate per 100,000,000 passenger miles was 1,606 times higher than for scheduled airlines.”


In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration increased the requirements for commercial pilots and first officers from 250 hours to 1,500 hours of flying experience before getting a commercial license. Imagine if wine and spirit salespeople even got eight hours of actual sales training instead of product training. There is a pervasive and problematic line of reasoning that concludes that if a salesperson knows about a product, they will know how to sell it. Product knowledge is not the same thing as sales knowledge.