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Monday, April 22, 2013

Airlines, Airliners and Pilots in the Digital Age

In 1978 when I entered the airline industry, the preflight routine of a B727 crew was to turn on the window heat, “No Smoking” and “Fasten Seatbelt” signs and set the parking brake.  Now the first and most important step in a lengthy preflight routine is to establish a data link connection between the aircraft and all the digital networks that the aircraft and crew must communicate with.

The airplanes are now “fly by wire”.  There is no longer a mechanical link between pilot and airliner.  Digital signals are sent from the pilot to the airplane via computer-generated commands to the flight controls.
In 1934 Elrey Jeppesen started publishing his aeronautical charts.  These charts are carried from plane to plane in a large heavy case. That system was essentially unchanged until the recent introduction of the “electronic” flight bag, made possible by digitizing the charts and storing them in an onboard computer database.

Denver International Airport, one of the most modern airports in the USA, finally opened in 1995.  It was delayed for most of a year and was the epitome of construction debacles when the automated baggage system that United Airlines had specified could not be debugged.  The system was eventually abandoned in favor of the traditional “tug and cart” method of getting baggage to and from the airplanes. 

Bar code readers now keep track of luggage and link each bag to the customer, their location and all their personal and travel info.  This information is instantly available throughout the airline including the dispatchers who are responsible for loading the aircraft.

Inflight entertainment has certainly benefited from the digital revolution.  When airlines first introduced the amenity, it was essentially home movie technology.  A single movie was shown on a film projector and a screen with audio heard through plastic tubes stuck in your ear.   Now virtually hundreds of video and audio selections are available and noise-canceling headphones allow passengers to actually hear what they are listening to.

In addition to all the operational improvements that digital technology has made possible, there are many benefits to flight safety.  Possibly the greatest of these is the collection, examination and distribution of data that helps operators and pilots improve human performance.  Data obtained from digital recorders on board modern airliners as well as observed data help pilots fly safer.  Pilots can look at their own experiences and as well as the experiences of others and use that information to avoid threats and errors more effectively.  The ability to collect, store and widely distribute (after de-identification) this information has dramatically improved flight safety.  This would have been totally impractical before the advent of digital information management.

Despite all of the improvements in the airline industry that have been made by digital information there is one unintended threat.  As a result of the merger of United and Continental Airlines there is currently an arbitration to resolve the outstanding issues involving the seniority integration of the pilots of these two airlines.  The arbitration hearings are legal proceedings and therefore are conducted with and by legal counsel.  Evidence is presented and the three-member panel will render its decision.  Like any other proceeding of this type it is open to the public and the testimony is recorded in a written transcript. 

Airline pilots’ seniority controls everything about his or her career from pay to vacation to scheduling.  The result of the seniority arbitration will control the rest of their career.  The result of this arbitration, by rule and agreement of the parties, will be final, binding and cannot be challenged.  There is a lot riding on the outcome of the panels ruling.  Each side, individually and collectively, is VERY emotionally invested in the outcome.  It can be summed up by this quip.  The difference between a 3 year old throwing a tantrum over candy at the grocery store and a pilot who is unhappy with their outcome in a seniority arbitration is that the 3 year old actually has a slight chance of getting what he wants.

 Each side of the arbitration, consisting of the pilots of their former company and their attorneys will present evidence supporting why their version of the order of the pilots in the combined list should be adopted.  Each side will present witnesses and evidence to defend their position.  As a result, some of the testimony will contain potentially inflammatory rhetoric.

Much like a couple that is dissolving their marriage, the two pilots groups are in court because they could not come to an agreement on their own.  Also, not unlike a couple going through a divorce, the attorneys will try to represent their respective clients as vigorously as possible.   In both proceedings, divorce and seniority arbitration, the parties must listen to the attorneys point out an unflattering and negative description of the other party’s case.  This can be extremely uncomfortable to listen to and almost impossible to view objectively.  The profound difference with the seniority list arbitration in contrast to the divorce is, when it’s all over, after everything has been said, when the decision is handed down, the parties have to move in together and try to make their relationship work.  This will be a huge challenge.

This is where the digital transmission of large amounts of printed data has impacted the seniority integration process.  Unlike years ago when attendance was required to hear the case in real time, now the entire transcript, the good, the bad and the ugly, is available in almost real time to the pilots.  It’s not necessary to attend the hearings to know everything that is said.  The classic sausage metaphor is applicable here, “something that is better not watched while it is being made.”  Also, “after it’s cooked, having watched the sausage being made, or reading the list of ingredients, will not improve the taste.”  However, to ask pilots not to read the transcript is like asking people not to look at photos of a gruesome accident.  It might be prudent, but most humans are not that disciplined.

What would be some strategies to prepare for this threat?  How can the threat of an emotional reaction be managed?  What could be the consequences of this threat is not effectively managed?

The SLI (seniority list integration) distraction is a threat that must first be identified and then managed by both the airline and the pilots.  There must be strategy to prepare for the angst that will develop from this emotional process.   Just as effective pilots do when they are faced with an operational threat, the airline and the pilots must identify and prepare for this emotional threat.  Every pilot from both sides must use all the resources available to them to avoid the possible errors that might result from this distraction.  The primary and most effective resource any crew has is their professionalism and commitment to a safe operation.  Additionally, the airline cannot rely solely on their crews to manage the threat.  They must actively provide resources and support.  Success will not be easy, but the benefits will be worth the effort. 

I would suggest the example of NFL players.  When the game is over, it’s over.  The trash talking, the hard hits, the penalties, the missed opportunities are left on the field. After the game, these professionals meet on the field and acknowledge the effort each team showed.  The game is over.  It’s time to move on.  Even when there’s a lot riding on the outcome. Even when it’s a playoff game, it’s the same.  The fans, the teams, the players, either elated or disappointed, usually find a way to accept the outcome. Events are just events. The response to an event is a personal decision and a demonstration of character. It’s always a tragedy when individuals use events as justification for inappropriate or destructive behavior.

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