A Regrettable Declaration

Nothing can be more dangerously arrogant than an airline publicly declaring a fatal accident involving one of its planes is inconceivable. Yet an article in an AirAsia in-flight magazine that went to press before the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 in March 2014 boasted that AirAsia pilots would never lose an airplane because of their “continuous and very thorough” training”.

“Rest assured that your captain is well prepared to ensure your plane will never get lost,” the article declared.

Now AirAsia Flight QZ8501 is missing, presumed at the bottom of the Java Sea. Ground radar contact was lost with the Airbus A320 with 162 aboard early on the morning of December 28. The airplane was about a third along its flight from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. The airplane was lost right at a line of severe thunderstorms. The cockpit crew apparently did not have time to radio a distress call; whatever happened, it was quick. Three days later, Indonesian rescuers were pulling bodies and wreckage from the sea.

The lost airplane

The lost airplane

The in-flight magazine was pulled in April 2014 — a month after the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines B777 — as a result of criticism in social media, with profuse apologies from management and the airline’s CEO, Tony Fernandes.

It is one thing to generally declare a commitment to safety, but quite another to assert that a crash is never going to happen. At worst, this sort of hyperbole can breed an attitude of complacency, which can take various forms:

• Highly scripted simulator training sessions that are predictable and/or not reflective of real-world emergencies.

• Pro-forma cockpit checks of pilots by management pilots.

• An increase in deferred maintenance.

• A shortage or even absence of contingency funds to address a loss, specifically:

– Money to support passengers next of kin, to include necessary transportation, lodging, meals and incidental expenses.

– Funds to support the inevitably costly investigation

– Monies to support safety adjustments deemed necessary even before the investigation is completed.

• A paucity of training, if any, for airline employees who are appointed to deal with the passengers next of kin, and for airline officials tasked with representing the carrier in various public forums.

• A deterioration in a “just culture”, where employees are encouraged to speak out — and are rewarded — for calling management’s attention to safety deficiencies.

• A ho-hum attitude regarding Safety Management Systems, which can be useful for teasing out latent hazards and correcting them.

In airline operations, complacency may be a huge threat to air safety. The abortive in-flight magazine article would have been far better focusing on pilots’ prudence, as in: if there’s any doubt, don’t. Proven, standardized procedures will reign. Good cockpit discipline and focus will be established for every flight. Sound airmanship and effective crew resource management will be practiced continually.

These sorts of assurances, if backed up with effective programs to ensure that they are practiced, are appropriate.

Indeed, the pilots of Flight QZ8501 may have reflected the natural caution of pilots facing severe convective weather. Shortly before the airplane disappeared, they requested to ground controllers that their assigned altitude of 32,000 feet be changed to 38,000 feet. They may have seen a safe opening in thunderstorms raging to 50,000 feet. Because of other “traffic” in the area, controllers denied their request.

One wonders about how much “traffic” potentially conflicted with the AirAsia pilots’ request. There were reportedly seven other aircraft on that route, which is hundreds of miles long. No doubt, “conflicting traffic” will be a subject of the inevitable investigative inquiry.

In the meantime, the AirAsia magazine article serves as an object lesson: an attitude of “it can’t happen to us” is bound to breed complacency and cruel events may undercut passengers’ confidence in safety.

With a fatal crash on his hands, Tony Fernandes is now using appropriate words. “My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ8501,” he wrote in a Twitter message after the wreckage was found. “On behalf of AirAsia, my condolences to all.”

Words may not suffice. The issues presented above — regarding a “just culture”, realistic pilot training, maintenance that is up to snuff, etc. — bear thorough audit and corrective action. They apply not just to AirAsia, but any airline bent on avoiding condolences.