Posted by : Des Ross Monday, 5 October 2015

It is 17th July, 2015, the first anniversary of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines MH17 in Ukrainian airspace.  It is generally accepted that the aircraft was shot down by a missile fired from the ground by one of the combatants, although Russia claims that it was a Ukrainian fighter aircraft with an air to air missile.  Whatever is finally proven, it is a criminal act which must be properly investigated and the perpetrators condemned.
But who is responsible in the end?  The man who fired the missile, the politicians who are prolonging the war on the ground, the Ukrainian government for failing to close their block of airspace to civil airlines, the airline itself and the Captain of the aircraft for having decided to fly through that airspace in the full knowledge that there was a war in progress??   Who should be held responsible?
Perhaps it is a flawed system of aviation safety being challenged at every turn by commercial considerations and immense financial pressures.
What has this issue of air safety versus commercial pressures got to do with MH17 you may ask?   Well, actually quite a lot! 
Malaysian Airlines, like many others, would have been aiming to fly the shortest route between Amsterdan and Kuala Lumpur on that fateful night.  In the highly competitive world of airline operations, it aimed to reduce operating costs by minimising the amoung of fuel burned during the flight.  So it planned a direct flight which took it over the Ukarainian territory.  They had been told it was safe to fly above 32,000 feet (considered to be above the height that any weapons known to be in use in the conflict, could reach).  Other airlines also followed the same route before and after the shoot down occurred.  However, several airlines chose to avoid the airspace altogether and flew around Ukrainian airspace, so adding some time to their flight plan and burning more fuel which would add to the cost of their flights.
There have been cases of pilots being rewarded with cash bonuses by their airlines if they saved fuel.  This is an incentive to make decisions based on economic return rather than the best safety case.  It is an abhorrent concept and totally contrary to a proper safety culture.
It is well known in the airline industry that profit margins are slim.  The liberalisation of airspace over the last couple of decades and the relaxation of restrictions on the number of airlines allowed to operate has generated an intensely competitive market for the airline companies.  Witness the massive discounts offered by the airlines to attract your business.  It is now possible to fly between two destinations for significantly less than it would cost to drive your car over the same distance.
Some major national carriers have gone through very difficult economic times and you can see that almost all of the major airlines in USA have been through, or are currently operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Many airlines have been forced to take decisions and form alliances which would have been unthinkable in past years, because of competitie pressures and the removal of national government protection which they previously enjoyed.
Many new passengers, who have never flown before, have been attracted to the skies by lower cost travel and businesses are reducing their travel budgets by paying for the lowest available fares.
But the big question now is, should you feel safe when flying on a very low cost ticket or even a free one?   Do the same rules not apply to air travel as to other commodities?   Isn’t it true that you get what you pay for?
Airlines generally are categorised as “Legacy Carriers” being the old established and well known airlines of many nations which are usually the national flag carriers, and which provide a full in flight service with well experienced crews.  This experience and service usually comes at a higher price to the passenger.
And then we have the relatively new “LOW COST carriers” or LCCs or Budget Airlines.  Think about the names, “LOW COST” and “BUDGET”.  Doesn’t that tell you something about their culture?   Of course there is not a single low cost carrier in the entire World which would agree that it operates at anything less than the same full and professional safety standard required by international and national regulations and by the insurance companies.   But it worries me when an airline considers charging for a visit to the toilet during a flight, or when I have to pay a flight attendant for a blanket when the cabin temperature is set too low.
Pilots salaries are lower now than they were before the advent of LCCs and there are some airlines where the pilots pay for the opportunity to gain flight experience on their services[1].  How many passengers would know that, sometimes, their pilot is also paying for his flight?
But we have national aviation regulators, or civil aviation authorities to ensure that all the rules and regulations are followed and to protect the innocent passenger who does not know anything about the technicalities and actual dangers of flight.  Or do we?
It is an unfortunate fact that many of the Worlds’ national aviation regulators are lagging behind the industry and are not sufficiently resourced by their governments.  They are often short staffed, e.g. not enough air safety inspectors or air traffic management specialists and frequently the regulators technology is not up to pace with the industry, yet they are required to approve and certify air operations, pilots, engineeers, and many other critical operational matters which, in some cases, they are not properly qualified to do.
Some countries are hiring in, on a part-time basis, inspectors who are actually pilots with the airlines they are required to regulate.   Is it possible that there is a conflict of interest here?
Now turn back to MH17, QZ8501 and other similar incidents.
Are the pilots under pressure from the management of the company to save money “at all costs”?   Do they have to undergo an inquisition if they should divert or turn back from their assigned route for “safety reason”?  
The safety culture of any organisation, particularly an air operator, starts with the senior management and directors of the company.  The CEO and the Chairman are responsible for ensuring that a good safety culture should permeate the entire organisation.  But, in the reality of the commercial World we live in, is this entirely possible?    Often the directors and senor management of airline businesses may not be aware of the costs of having an accident.
It soon becomes apparent, if they have an accident that it is much more expensive and disastrous than the costs of enuring that safety is the first priority.
If the bottom line is the most important issue for the management, it is likely to be communicated to the operations staff and pilots of the airline and they will feel pressured to make decisions based on financial considerations rather than pure safety considerations.  Some airlines even try to take the safety decision from the pilots and require them to radio their operations staff for approval to divert or turn back.
Should MH17 have diverted and flown an extra hour to ensure it was clear of the war zone?   Should the pilots of Air Asia QZ8501 have turned back to Surabaya when they saw the massive storm system on their path and so avoided placing the aircraft in a dangerous situation? 
In either of these cases would the pilots have still had their jobs the following day or would they have been penalised for adding to the costs of their flights?

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