A Kid in the Tower, A Pilot Without a License and Other Things

The unprecedented success of the air transport industry is due mainly to the spectacular improvements in safety booked overt the years. True, the convenience of being able to travel to the other end of Europe for a meeting and back the same day count for a lot, but without the safety factor, few passengers would accept the hassle of endless security queues and legroom appropriate for the shortest 10 % of the population only.

The exemplary safety record is the result of constant vigilance, safety management systems and the responsible attitudes of those working with or around aircraft.

Any disturbance that could negatively affect safety or even the perception of safety would be a disaster to the industry on a scale that would dwarf the effects of the recent financial meltdown in the world.

In a well running system complacency is one of the biggest dangers while it is also one of the most basic treats of the human character. Fighting complacency must be one of the most important items in any safety manager’s kit.

Recently however we seem to be seeing signs of a disturbing trend.

Look at this list:

• The FAA fines certain airlines for not carrying out mandated repairs
• A Delta 767 lands on a taxiway at their home base Atlanta
• A Northwest Airlines Airbus overshoots their destination by more than a hundred miles with the pilots never noticing
• A KLM 737 takes off from a taxiway at their home base in Amsterdam
• An Aeroflot Airbus does the same just a few days later in Oslo
• An air traffic controller is suspended by the FAA in New Your for bringing his kid to the tower and allowing the kid to actually talk to aircraft there
• A pilot is arrested by police in the cockpit of his aircraft in Amsterdam for having faked being a pilot for 13 years. He flew all this time without a license

If the above anomalies had been spread over several years, one might be tempted to shrug and say, well, bad but these are flukes… But they all happened within the last 6 months or so.

Irregularities are like icebergs. When they are discovered, very often investigators find that there were scores of other events that never made it into the news or even incident reports. One cannot but wonder what may be lurking under the surface in the iceberg the tip of which is represented by these seven incidents.

Is complacency catching up with us? Are safety regulators looking at the wrong things or not looking at all the things they should be looking at?

Of course it is easy to blame some faceless regulator or authority for failures in the system. At the end of the day it is the failure of the human in the system, a pilot, an air traffic controller or a technician that precipitates an incident.

But humans need help in operating the extremely complex air transport system and avoiding complacency must be part of that help on all levels. It is difficult to devise rules or technology that would prevent kids turning up in air traffic control towers but a healthy dose of common sense would probably work wonders. On the other hand, ground navigation errors can be prevented by modern technology if only more people could be convinced to spend money on such things. New business class seats and entertainment systems are of little use if the aircraft they are bolted to hits a car while accidentally taking off from a taxiway. But outdated airport surveillance technology with alarms sounding in the tower rather than the cockpit is of little help either.

Perhaps we should call ourselves lucky for having spotted this particular iceberg in time with no metal bent…yet.

Now if we could make sure that instead of just arranging the deck-chairs nicely, effective avoiding actions are initiated…