Michael Grüninger fell in love with aviation as a boy in Switzerland, but it was a chance encouter with a Cessna Cardinal in Cairo that propelled the founder of safety consultancy Great Circle Services to a career in flight.
How did you get into aviation?
As a boy and teenager I lived in a house overlooking St Gallen Altenrhein airport. I saw airplanes taking-off, overflying and landing all the time. I was fascinated. My uncle was a pilot, and although we only went flying together once, I still remember the ride.
My professional path, though, did not lead me directly to my teenage love. I studied philosophy and theology, then worked as a teacher. During that time I became a sailplane pilot. I went to Cairo, Egypt, worked as a radio journalist and flew motor gliders. One day, an N-registered Cessna 177B landed there and, through a series of events, I ended up buying the Cardinal even though I didn’t hold the appropriate licence! However, I completed my US private pilot’s license instrument rating in Sacramento, so in Egypt I was able to fly around the pyramids and across the Nile. I kept this aircraft even when I was back in Switzerland.
Slowly I progressed to the commercial pilot’s licence and, in 1998, I went to night school to do my air transport pilot’s licence theory. Farnair in Switzerland hired me as a co-pilot, dispatcher and station manager in Sarajevo, and not long after I became a flight inspector for Switzerland’s national aviation authority.
What attracted you about the safety and regulatory side?
The history of ideas and the practice of good judgment had always caught my attention – applying well-developed mental models to aviation was a natural move. Safety thus became a concept around which I felt attracted to work.
“In 2005, I promoted the concept of safety culture. Now this has been widely received in the industry”
Having served as a professional pilot, the next step was to join an aviation authority. I have gained valuable experience from working on both sides of the industry. I understand the logic of the operator and the logic of the regulator. Once, during a SAFA [safety assessment of foreign aircraft] inspection in Geneva, the airline representative, facing a technical problem causing a major delay, said: “We need a lawyer.” I answered: “You don’t need a lawyer, you need a mechanic.” The practical side is equally important, and that is what attracts me. I set up Great Circle Services in 2005 to focus on this aspect.
What does your average working week look like?
I work for very different organisations – one day I’m teaching, the next writing manuals, the next offering consultancy to a client. What I like most is supporting a client in setting up an efficient organisation within the constraints of safety objectives and regulatory compliance. Travelling makes up a big portion of my week. My customer base is worldwide.
What are your biggest challenges?
The way organisations change and how they are perceived. In 2005, I promoted the concept of safety culture. Now this has been widely received in the industry. I focus more on the practicalities of realistic, fact-based decision-making in airlines and maintenance, repair and overhaul companies. Then there’s staying on top of regulations, development of management systems and staying competitive in the commercial field of aviation-safety consulting.
How do you see regulations changing in the future?
More regulators are moving to performance-based rulemaking. It is now imperative to address cultural and human factors too. Learning from psychology, anthropology and sociology can be used to determine how an organisation and individuals behave under certain conditions. Safety is a matter of technical and operational excellence, but increasingly a matter of organisational and individual development. If this observation is correct, it might be more challenging for regulators and operators to find global “common sense”.