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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Getting What You Want






With apologies to The Rolling Stones, you CAN get what you want.  We get what we want by actively creating a positive outcome or actively avoiding a negative one.  So I believe getting what you want is the true standard for the effectiveness of an organization.  And by that standard the air transportation industry is a model for effectiveness.  It gets what it (and the public) wants, safety.  Worldwide there were 425 fatalities in 2012 and 514 in 2011.  In the U. S. the 2012 numbers were 0 for airlines compared to 30 for rail and 54 for buses.

Again, the primary goal of the air transport industry is a safe operation.  A fundamental element of that industry is identifying and correcting problems before there is a catastrophic result.  I am, for the purposes of this discussion, quantifying a safe operation by the low numbers of injuries and fatalities experienced by the traveling public.  It is not the only measure, but a very objective one that I believe is appropriate here.  As long as there are still fatal accidents everyone associated with the air transportation industry has "an obsession with safety" so than not one fatality will have been in vain.   However, "blood response"  to an accident, as Staphan Barlay calls it is, is not what the air transportation industry wants.

I believe the events of the past couple weeks with Boeing's 787 Dreamliner are an excellent example of why the air transport industry is effective.  Unlike many other organizations today, air transportation system is willing to critically self evaluate.  This system includes operators, manufacturers, regulators, educators, engineers, pilot associations, investigators as well as independent safety experts is a system that is very introspective.  Also, the traveling public constantly holds this system's proverbial feet to the fire and the industry wouldn't have it any other way.  If there is a concern, from fatigue of a mechanical part to fatigue of a pilot, it gets attention.  The cost of inattention is too grave.

The 787 Dreamliner is a tremendous advancement in efficiency.  20% more economical for an already very efficient machine is huge.  An achievement that big requires all the systems and subsystems to be very high performance.  There is always a greater potential for problems when operating at high levels of performance.  Even with the most sophisticated design and testing protocols sometimes post production problems show up.  The 787 is most advanced airliner ever built, but certainly not the first with post production issues.  One of the most infamous examples was the design of the cargo door on one of the first wide body airliners.

From the very preliminary data, there appears to be a problem with the 787 batteries or their charging and distribution system.  This problem has manifest itself through the catastrophic overheating of the batteries on the Dreamliner.  There are two lithium batteries on the Dreamliner, one as a backup source for the ship's computers.  The other is for starting and control of the auxiliary power unit, a small turbine engine in the tail that provides electrical power when the aircraft engines are not running.

The FAA demonstrated some welcomed leadership with the 787 problems last week by issuing an emergency Airworthiness Directive grounding all 787 operations until the problem in the battery system is resolved.  Now the discussion of whether or not the airplane is safe to fly in its current configuration becomes academic and the industry can focus its attention on a solution.

I have no doubt that Boeing, the 787 operators and the NTSB, along with the three primary suppliers, Japan's GS Yuasa Corp, Securaplane Technologies Inc, a unit of Britain's Meggitt Plc, and France's Thales,  who make the batteries, charger and control systems respectfully, are all working round the clock to tackle this problem.  As this story plays out I am confident that we will learn of an incredibly sophisticated and collaborative process that will remedy the acute problems and result in an overall more reliable airplane.

Technology is not the only reason air transportation is so effective meeting its primary goal.  This industry was the first to courageously accept the inevitability of human error.  That is not a mindset easily embraced.  Air crews around the globe are now learning skills to identify and repair their own mistakes before they lead to a negative consequence.  Previously crews ignored or covered up their mistakes to avoid embarrassment or retribution.  Many disciplines have now followed aviation's lead in threat and error management, but others still cling to the old paradigm of, "good _______ (fill in the blank) don't make mistakes."  All humans make errors, the effective ones catch them before they cause a negative result..

Airlines get some pretty harsh criticism for their customer service, and at times well deserved.  The one thing that can't be argued however, is air transportation's record of safe travel. Air transportation is not perfect, but it is better than anything else out there.  Hats off to everyone who helps make it safe, one flight at a time.


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