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The management of tragedy October 2001 Download PDF

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Tragedy is never far from airline management. In the UK some airline staff will still have potent memories of Zulu Echo in flames at Heathrow, of Papa India plunging into the ground near Staines, of colleagues lost in the Turkish Airlines DC–10 returning from Paris, or of Whisky Tango being lost in mid–air over Yugoslavia. A previous generation will never forget the dreadful sequence of Comet crashes. Newer colleagues will be haunted by pictures of Swissair flotsam in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia, the smoking hole that was Lockerbie, and of a French Concorde trying to fly while in flames.

Adding further depth to such tragedies are the messages left by passengers on the Japanese 747 as it circled helplessly in cloudy skies, or on a smaller scale of the frosted windows of Payne Stewart’s private jet flying eerily within sight but beyond help.

New York and Washington have produced images that quite over–shadow these. The sight of passenger aircraft deliberately flying into buildings packed with other innocent people challenges most people’s sense of reality, and is now producing pictures more resonant of Hiroshima or Dresden than of any previous aircraft accident.

Beyond the mourning for those lost and injured in these terrible events, and beyond the pursuit and exacting of retribution on the perpetrators, a series of challenges are emerging for airline managers. It is already clear that civil aviation will never be the same again.

Those who remember Dawson’s field will also remember that the main loss that day was of three fine aircraft, not of thousands of lives. Nonetheless the aftermath of that terrorist action was the imposition of security measures regarding passenger searches and security guards at airports. Airlines then struggled with the implementation of these in airport buildings ill–designed for such purposes.

The tragedy at Frankfurt airport ten years later and the loss of the Pan American and TWA Boeing 747s to bombs whilst in the air led to further more rigorous protective procedures. The screening of all baggage, the reconciliation of all baggage to passengers, and the adoption of still further measures on known high–risk routes, produced further burdens on airlines. All willingly accepted as staff in even the most commercial airline will not knowingly jeopardise safety.

Facing the threat of martyrdom

Now, however, the threat has increased manifold. Terrorists are now willing to embrace martyrdom, indeed they actively seek it. They are now willing not just to seize publicity by violence, but seek to use extreme violence to inflict real damage on nations and the lives of their citizens. They do not regard civilian aircraft as targets, they regard them as potential weapons of mass destruction.

Facing such evil forces airline managers now face a long and hard struggle to maintain part of the essential infrastructure of a democratic world both technically and economically. They also carry the burden of needing to show that terrorism does not win, whilst knowing that aviation — like most forms of travel — has never ever been absolutely safe.

There will be immediate new security procedures such as the abolition of flights to some destinations, increased passenger checks, and perhaps some form of flying security guards, but what is likely beyond these?

Six Items to rethink

We would suggest that this initial list of six factors posits not just a rethink on security, but also a rethink of some of the basic values and purposes of airlines, their alliances, their relationships with airports, and their relationships with their staff. The factors we have selected are:

  • Recognition that even the smallest domestic sector is as vulnerable as an international flight and that any flight may now be a target as opposed to merely potentially feeding a terrorist onto an international flight. This may lead to a reappraisal of the rigour of security measures at quite small airports, and decisions not to depend upon local or franchise ground service providers.
  • Recognition that no airframe may be made secure against a determined assailant already on board. Civilian pilots may now have to face the real possibility that they should allow cabin crew or passengers to be killed behind them, to deliberately crash their aircraft to save further loss of life, or to accept that they may be shot down by defence forces. This extends the ethical counselling of pilots beyond the traditional understanding that when all else fails attempts are made to minimise damage on the ground. This has wide implications on pilot selection, training and management.
  • Reappraisal of the continued marketing and growth in transfer passengers, especially through hub–airports, amid the need to more directly control and monitor individuals throughout their journeys. This may lead to procedures that reduce the maximum flight banks in a day, or a decision to restrict transfer capacity for security and process control rather than commercial reasons. This in turn may then lead to a fundamental review of network management strategies, and therefore fleet mix.
  • Reappraisal of the design of airports where current thinking is for ease of movement of connecting passengers and ability to shop, meet and mingle. New thinking might suggest the segmentation of routes or groups of routes, or a requirement that arriving passengers either pass through additional security procedures, or have to make the additional transition from airside to landside to airside. This may then lead to voluntary or forced separation of som city–pairs to perhaps purpose built neighbouring airports.
  • Re–education of passengers that after a decade in which ever reduced check–in and transit procedures were the goal, now airports are likely to demand lengthy reporting times irrespective of frequent flyer status. Thus for larger aircraft the time required for increased security checks, and for smaller aircraft a reduced availability of gates — since each will be occupied longer — may increase passenger time required at an airport, and reduce the number of flights available. In such a context airlines may reappraise the nature of their premium flights and reschedule large sections of their services.
  • Re–education of passengers that after a decade in which lower fares became generally available the price of a safer airline environment is increased fares and reduced capacity. Reduced capacity will result from more congested airports as additional security measures are introduced and from airlines having to lengthen ramp transit times — especially for smaller aircraft.

Increased fares will result from the need to cover all the increased costs implicit in the above, the need to spread these across a reduced capacity, and in a short–term context of probably a reduced propensity by the public to fly. This may result in the low cost carriers making further market gains, but even they may raise fares, albeit to lower levels than the flag carriers.

Safety is sacrosanct

It is difficult to see the benefits for civil aviation from this American tragedy, and would indeed be disrespectful to those who died to propose that any might result. The changes envisaged above are proposed from quite a different perspective. Namely that civil aviation has long depended upon a core value in all employees that safety is sacrosanct.

The tragic scenes in the US in September will remind everyone of this inalienable belief, and almost certainly prompt a reaction that might discomfort the travelling public for a time, but will nonetheless be fuelled by a determination that a safe civil air service infrastructure will be maintained.

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