When a big jet airplane crashes, it almost always makes headlines around the world, and for good reason: Fatal passenger accidents are extremely rare. Right now, though, the eyes of the world are on the Ever Given, the massive container ship still stubbornly lodged between the banks of the Suez Canal.
The Ever Given’s predicament is both highly unusual and typical: Seldom does a ship get stuck in the Suez (though it does happen every few years), and seldom does a maritime disaster attract such attention. But even though the world is incredibly dependent on ships like Ever Given—a reality that pandemic-related disruptions have suddenly made visible—major maritime incidents are surprisingly common. According to the insurer Allianz, 41 large ships were lost in 2019, and 46 in 2018. Over the past decade, about 100 big vessels have been lost annually.
Why does this keep happening? Every maritime accident, like every plane crash, has its own unique failures. But one key to the improvement in aviation safety was the advent of a radical new approach to safety and training, known as cockpit resource management or crew resource management. Airplane failures still occur, but they rarely become fatal catastrophes. The shipping industry has tried to learn from aviation’s success, dubbing its equivalent “bridge resource management,” but the implementation and modernization of the approach have largely failed.
The result is ships destroyed, vital goods delayed, and mariners’ lives lost. We still don’t have enough information to understand what happened on the Ever Given, with possible causes including a loss of power and high winds. But when I asked Captain John Konrad, a merchant mariner who runs the maritime-news site gCaptain, how many major ship incidents were a result of bad bridge resource management, he answered, “Every one. They are all BRM problems.”
When aviation took off, it borrowed its titles, uniforms, and practices from seafaring. The man (in that era) in charge of the plane was a captain, and he wore naval-style insignia. His second in command was the first officer or chief mate; the person in charge of the cabin, as on a ship, was the purser. At Pan Am, lead pilots were known as “clipper skippers,” taking the name from the airline’s famous flying boats.
A sea captain historically held nearly absolute authority aboard his ship. His power was unquestioned and unquestionable; in the British Navy, mutiny was a capital offense. Around the world, many captains retain the power to conduct weddings. They are traditionally also expected to be the last off a sinking ship, or to go down with it. When the captain of the Costa Concordia fled his sinking cruise ship in 2012, he was upbraided by Coast Guard officers and then the press. He was ultimately sentenced to 16 years in prison, including one year for abandoning passengers.
This power bred an imperiousness among captains, and it translated to aviation. The journalist William Langewiesche recounts a first officer’s quip that he was the captain’s sexual adviser, “because whenever I speak up, he says, ‘If I want your fucking advice, I’ll ask for it.’” But beginning in the 1970s, aviation experts realized that this approach was often to blame for crashes that might have been prevented if pilots had heeded advice from their co-pilots, flight engineers, or flight attendants.
In one famous CRM triumph, three pilots were able to save 184 of the 296 people aboard a 1989 United flight following a catastrophic engine failure. The captain, Alfred Haynes, later remembered, “Up until 1980, we kind of worked on the concept that the captain was the authority on the aircraft. What he said, goes. And we lost a few airplanes because of that. Sometimes the captain isn’t as smart as we thought he was ... If I hadn’t used [CRM], if we had not let everybody put their input in, it’s a cinch we wouldn’t have made it.”
Some aviation failures are still associated with bad cockpit culture. Six months later, an Avianca flight landing at JFK crashed, killing most on board, after it ran out of fuel—a problem that the National Transportation Safety Board attributed to poor communication both among the crew and with air-traffic control. Still, the gains have been impressive, especially in the United States: From 2009 to 2018, no U.S. airline had a single fatality.
But these advances in aviation haven’t made it aboard ships. “The maritime industry in the ’90s took CRM, the basics, and they created BRM,” Konrad said. “They kind of dumbed it down a little bit. They have not updated it since the ’90s.”
In 2015, the cargo ship El Faro sank in the Atlantic Ocean after sailing into Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 people aboard. A voice recorder on the bridge, later recovered, captured members of the crew questioning the captain’s decisions and his cavalier attitude toward the storm.
“Think he’s just trying to play it down, because he realizes we shouldn’t have come this way,” the second mate said. “Nobody in their right mind would be driving into it,” a sailor told her later. “We are,” she replied “Yaaay!” The captain, meanwhile, complained about having his own authority crimped by micromanagement on shore.
The NTSB’s report on El Faro blamed the captain’s decision to sail into the storm for the sinking, but added, “Contributing to the sinking was ineffective bridge resource management on board El Faro, which included the captain’s failure to adequately consider officers’ suggestions.” The board faulted junior officers for not speaking up, while acknowledging, “In the marine industry, the gap between the captain and his less-powerful subordinates, known as the power distance, can make it difficult for junior officers to challenge a captain.” The report noted that the captain had not completed training in BRM and that the Coast Guard doesn’t require BRM refreshers.
There are other BRM challenges beyond outdated hierarchies. While aviation uses English as a lingua franca, sailors come from around the world and don’t always speak the same, or even a common, language. Many ships are also old and aren’t fitted with the most recent technology, adding friction points that matter in a delicate situation like that in the Suez. If an airplane has a mechanical problem, the pilot will receive an immediate notification. But a captain may have to call the engine room from the bridge to figure out what is happening.
Konrad has worked on developing more up-to-date and rigorous BRM guidelines, but he told me that he’s struggled to get any traction.
“For good reasons, the maritime industry is resistant to change,” he said. “When things change too quickly, people die.” But caution can shade into sclerosis, preventing needed updates. Shipping companies are also unwilling to make major investments if their competitors aren’t, for fear of losing margins in a competitive market.
Konrad said the responsibility for pushing better standards must fall on the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, and the U.S. government. But the U.S. Maritime Administration gets little attention. American mariners bridled at what they saw as indifference by the Obama administration and its slowness to fill the role of maritime administrator—the agency has often gone without an appointed head for long stretches, a level of neglect seldom accorded the Federal Aviation Administration.
The success of the aviation industry in improving standards and reducing accidents suggests it would be straightforward (if not easy) and valuable to do the same in shipping. “We know how to do this,” Konrad said. But without improved bridge resource management, the maritime industry will remain just as stuck as the Ever Given—and probably for much longer.