Learning to fly

Young pilots get a pretty harsh deal nowadays. Instead of generous airlines paying to train them, they have to fund their own studies at pilot-schools that work jointly with airlines, who then recruit them on low salaries to fly with passengers whilst still undergoing some training. Some older pilots complain the new, more computer-based, training courses are not as effective as the old ways of learning by flying small aircraft, and they disapprove of a system that lets airlines get young pilots on the cheap. 

The system can lead to abuse and it is hard not to disapprove of some airlines that charge young pilots a fee for “employing” them to fly for their first thousand hours of commercial flying. Not all airlines are so bad though. It is worth having a look at www.theaviatorblog.com/blog – it’s written by James May, a new easyJet pilot. The blog has followed James through his student days and has now ended with his first posting to the easyJet base in Berlin. Unlike many such blogs, it is actually well-written and gives a very good view of the training given. Those First Officers might look worryingly fresh-faced but they do know what they are doing.

Why saying sorry is so difficult

Thomas Cook have found themselves in a furore over the death of two children at a hotel in Corfu. Their real sin – in the eyes of the parents and the tabloid press – seems to have been that they did not express much contrition at the time and have steadfastly refused to apologise since then. The fact that they received a substantial pay-out from the hotel to cover damage to their reputation and PR expenses has, quite understandably, just added to fuel to the fire.

At the time of the incident in Corfu, Thomas Cook was in the hands of an arrogant and incompetent management who were running the company into near bankruptcy and awarding themselves ever-increasing salaries and bonuses. Their poor behaviour in this case was simply part of an overall malaise in the company. These people departed a long time ago and the person brought in to bring the group back into shape has also left which, if judged by the stockmarket’s reaction, was a very positive move. The company is now, finally, in more sensible hands but the new management will really have their work cut out to rescue this particular situation.

The standard PR advice when a company is involved in an event where people are killed or injured is that the CEO should make a full and frank statement of contrition. CEO’s are human too; they have wives and children and have not set out to hurt their customers. In many cases, they will be genuinely shocked and upset at what has happened.

However, despite the PR advice, they will be firmly told by their company lawyers that they must not say anything that could be seen as accepting even a tiny bit of liability. The company’s insurers will probably back this up with a threat to suspend cover if the CEO says anything remotely prejudicial to a possible legal case.

In many instances, a CEO is tied. He knows what he should say – and probably want to say – but cannot.

I was actually rather shocked at the reaction of the CEO of Lufthansa to the Germanwings crash. Within days of the accident, and well before even a preliminary report had been prepared by official investigators, he appeared to be accepting some of the blame. In one way, his reaction was spot-on – it was quite clearly honest and heart-felt. He was as shocked and upset as anyone. The company’s sensitive behaviour was almost a text book example of how to behave in such an event. But had he cleared his comments with his insurers or did he just feel it was worth the risk?

Thomas Cook will have to pay for the sins of their previous management but properly-managed, honest companies have a huge problem balancing the opposing demands of their PR advisers and their insurers.

Turkish Airlines reveals too much

Airlines can try to reverse a  poor reputation by spending a fortune on new liveries, glossy advertising and new aircraft and then, rather too quickly, a chance remark reminds the world that not so much has changed.

Turkish Airlines had a shocking reputation for safety and service and, to its credit, it has improved though not as much as it needs to. They are definitely not an airline that should be handing out advice to Lufthansa on how to train pilots. 

The CEO of the airline, Temel Kotil, apparently has the Germanwings crash all sorted out. “The crash happened after the pilot broke up with his girlfriend” he said in an interview with a Turkish magazine, which is why Turkish Airlines “encourages” its pilots to marry. He also said that his airline was anxious to recruit more female pilots for the same reason.

He is clearly a man of many talents. Not only the CEO of an airline but a world-class psychiatrist as well. Those who have studied the issue of depression will no doubt be fascinated to hear Mr Kotil’s thesis that depression affects single men so much more more than married men or women.

Suggesting that pilots should be “encouraged” to marry has a slightly ominous tinge to it in the context of a country that is veering towards a form of Islamic dictatorship.

There has long been an understanding that airlines never comment publicly on the accidents of other companies. The CEO of Turkish Airlines needs to be forcibly reminded of this.

Meanwhile, these silly remarks are unlikely to make passengers travelling with Turkish Airlines feel any safer.


Korean Air shows its flaws

It made a nice little newspaper story. The daughter of an airline’s owner is given a senior job in the airline and has to resign when she forces an aircraft back to its stand to de-plane a steward in a row about how nuts should be served.

Any embarrassment the airline suffered overseas was nothing compared to the vitriol at home. Too many of Korea’s largest companies are in family hands and there was universal condemnation of yet another example of nepotism gone wrong. Korea is going through some serious growing pains and the behaviour of the oligarchs and their families is a major issue.

But the matter goes rather further than this. It shows rather too clearly why some people prefer not to fly with Korean Air.

Once an aircraft has left the gate, it is under the sole command of the Captain who delegates control of the cabin to the crew. If a similar incident had occurred on an American aircraft, the plane might well have returned to the stand but it would have been the lady executive who was thrown off and probably arrested. The idea that the owner’s daughter can instruct an airline captain to turn round because of some violation of a service standard is not just bizarre but it goes against every rule on safety. 

The ferry tragedy and a number of other serious accidents during 2014 have also focused Koreans on the country’s seemingly lax attitude to safety. “Peanutgate” managed to combine all the concerns in one silly incident. The spoilt daughter of a man who yields too much influence in the country over-riding the commander of an aircraft. Money, power, corruption and a lack of concern about safety.

Korean Air used to have a shocking safety record. That has improved in recent years and the airline has invested heavily in training and employing some foreign pilots. However, some of those foreign pilots continue to complain about the “bad old ways” that exist in the cockpit, particularly when senior Korean pilots are flying and the junior pilots dare not question them.

Korea has achieved wonders in the last forty years but the political system, the way its companies are run and its safety culture have not moved with the times. The three issues are all linked and Koreans are demanding a more modern approach. Peanutgate has done its bit in moving Korea forward.

Meanwhile, though I believe that – peanuts not withstanding – the service on Korean Air is excellent, I will chose to fly with other airlines.

One record Etihad should not boast about

The Gulf states love records. The newest, biggest, fastest, most expensive – they want it all. Almost every day there is some new press release from a company boasting about a new world-beating achievement. Yesterday’s big news was fairly typical – “World’s largest roller-coaster restaurant opens in Abu Dhabi”. Mostly these are attention-seeking bits of nonsense but perfectly harmless. A recent press release from Etihad was rather more serious though.

“Etihad Airways sets new world record for the replacement of GE90 aircraft engine” is in rather a different league to records about the world’s largest roller-coaster restaurant. On the one hand, it is impressive that Etihad engineers, working in co-operation with GE, were able to replace the world’s largest jet engine in less than seven hours whereas it normally takes 20-25 hours. More efficient working techniques should always be encouraged and can help everyone but this does lead to a slightly uneasy feeling. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the new techniques used were anything less than 100% safe but boasting about speed where safety is concerned gives the wrong impression. All that passengers want to know is that replacement engines are fitted correctly – world records are irrelevant.

Patients might be pleased to learn that surgeons have developed a new technique for a form of brain surgery but they probably do not want to know that the new process is faster or a world record. All they want to know is that it is safe and efficient.

And on the question of efficiency, Etihad has a few points to answer. Quite simply, the airline’s punctuality record is not what it should be and for the last few months it seems to have been languishing in the bottom half of the league table alongside airlines like Air India and El Al. Just as we are sceptical about silly world records, we do not completely trust these league tables. Some airlines can have extenuating circumstances such as a run of bad weather at their hub airport. Also, many airlines cheat by simply cancelling flights they think might get delayed and that causes far greater disruption to passengers. The real test is how many passengers get to their destinations within a reasonable time. Nonetheless, it does look as if Etihad has some work to do with its punctuality. Improving reliability is mostly a question of getting the little things right and meticulous planning. 

Time-keeping has nothing to do with establishing world records for fast engine-changes. Etihad would be better leaving the record-breaking attempts to roller-coaster restaurants.

Singapore Airlines’ disingenuous apology

When MH17 was shot down, most other airlines made public displays of condolence to the airline and its passengers. Not Singapore Airlines – their first media comment was a tweet and a Facebook entry to say that “Singapore Airlines are not using Ukraine airspace”.

The comments were roundly criticised as offensive. Singapore Airlines quickly apologised for their insensitivity. The media duly reported the tweet and the apology – but that should not be the end of the story.

Almost every week one large company has to apologise for the unfortunate attempt at humour made by a junior staff member in a social media department. That is not the case here because quite clearly such a tweet could not have been made without checking with senior management about the airline’s flight policy. It must have been officially approved at quite a high level.

The apology is all very well but it completely misses the point. On the day MH17 was shot down, a Singapore Airlines aircraft was just 25 miles away. Singapore Airlines was using the same route across Eastern Ukraine as Malaysia Airlines and many other airlines (but not British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Aeroflot and a few more).

The original tweet was insensitive but it was also a deliberate attempt to mislead. The subtle inference was that Singapore Airlines is a superior airline to Malaysia Airlines and would not make such an error.

Throwing mud at a competitor at a time such as that, even if it is only done by inference, is very low indeed and shows Singapore Airlines in its true colours.


After the crash, back to normal

It is a rather depressing fact that, whilst serious disasters normally bring out the best in people, it does not take long for the other side of human nature to resurface.

The crash of the Asiana 777 at San Francisco was marked by some very professional and almost heroic work by the cabin crew. The cabin crew have received universal praise for their actions in ensuring a safe evacuation of nearly all the passengers.

Then a San Francisco television station decided it would be amusing to run a spoof news item about the crash using racially-offensive made-up names for the pilots. Neither funny nor nice.

Yesterday, two baggage-handlers for United Airlines (the handling company for Asiana in San Francisco) were arrested as they were about to leave for a holiday in Hawaii over reported thefts from the baggage in the aircraft wreckage.

Now some of the survivors of the crash are complaining about “aggressive snooping” by private detectives working on behalf of the aircraft’s insurers.

None of this is particularly surprising but it is still rather sad.

Asiana in a better light

When an aircraft crashes, people want immediate explanations. The press and on-line chatrooms come up with their instant conclusion about the cause and, whether that is eventually shown to be right or not, it could well be this is what sticks in the public’s mind.

The CEO of Asiana did not help his airline by making a statement just hours after the crash to say that the aircraft was in perfect mechanical order. This was silly – he had absolutely no way of knowing.

Then the story came out that the aircraft was being flown by a junior pilot being trained. The aircraft appears to have been flying too slowly and too low so the case is immediately proven – pilot error.

Except this is not quite the case. The pilot flying the aircraft was actually highly experienced. It was simply his first time landing a 777 at San Francisco and, as is common industry practice, he was being supervised by a Captain with more experience on the aircraft. There was absolutely no shortage of pilot knowledge on the flight-deck – in fact with the relief pilots included, there was, if anything, rather too much gold braid.

Maybe the final accident report will show that pilot error was the cause but it is far too early to jump to conclusions.

Korean Airlines used to be one of the world’s least safe airlines and had a shocking reputation. This has improved somewhat in recent years. Asiana, had a much better safety record and has generally been regarded as a well-run airline.

One fact that might bear this out is the behaviour of the cabin crew who are now receiving widespread praise for their heroics in rescuing passengers and ensuring a rapid evacuation. The image of a nine-stone stewardess giving a piggyback to an elderly woman is hard to forget. In my view, an airline with cabin staff that ignore their safety duties is a sign of an airline that might well have other safety problems. If employees behave with scant regard for safety standards on one side of the cockpit door, it is quite likely that the same poor attitude applies on the other. 

Contrast the behaviour of the Asiana cabin crew with the Singapore Airlines cabin crew who were said to have run away ahead of passengers when a 747 crashed in Taipei.

Whatever the eventual conclusions of the accident report, I do not think all is lost for Asiana. At least they can be proud of their cabin crew and that suggests the airline’s management and training must be fairly good.


Asiana San Francisco and some numbers

On Saturday, two people were killed and many more injured, some severely, in the crash-landing of an Asiana Boeing 777. The event received blanket-coverage across news channels in the US and much of the rest of the world.

Each day in the US, an average of 85 people die in road accidents and – more shockingly – 89 are killed in shootings.

Those deaths receive virtually no publicity.

And on the same weekend as the San Francisco accident, a commuter aircraft crashed in Alaska killing ten people.

The rather unpleasant conclusion is that some deaths make better television than others.

French Air Traffic Controllers and UKIP

French air traffic controllers are so fond of strikes that it is easy to lose track of what they might be striking about on any particular occasion. However, the reason for the strike over the last two days deserves some attention because it is actually a huge political question – and not an easy one for anyone to answer.

The strike was over the possible implementation by the EU of the Single European Sky project. At the moment, each country has its own air traffic system and aircraft crossing Europe get handed from country to country as they fly over – sometimes for only a few minutes. This causes a huge amount of extra work and possible delay as all the national systems have to be coordinated. The plan was for the existing network to be scrapped and a far smaller number of regional centres  set up. This would be much more efficient and save airlines, and their passengers time and money.

The French were protesting about the possible loss of jobs in France but the smaller countries would be hit much harder since some would lose all their air traffic control capabilities entirely.

From an efficiency point of view, the case for the Single European Sky is un-opposable but  many governments have been luke-warm (at best) about the plan because they would effectively lose their borders completely. What would happen if they decided to withdraw from the EU at some time? What about their military operations? And, what about the substantial revenues they get from charging for air traffic control?

The issue has been festering in Brussels for some years now because it is such a political hot potato. The airlines and IATA have been strident in their criticism of Brussels for dragging their feet but there has been very little public debate on the subject.

It had become increasingly likely that the project would be put on indefinite hold simply because the EU has bigger issues to resolve and even the larger countries, who have the least to lose in such a shake-up, can see the obvious pitfalls in such a plan. The strike by the French was probably unnecessary but it did provoke Brussels into producing an announcement that the issue would now be referred back for consultation (meaning a long period will elapse before even a draft plan is produced).

So, for the moment, it looks as if the Single European Sky project is a dead duck.

I doubt that UKIP have a view on the Single European Sky but this is one example of European integration that even the most anti-European politician could support since it is so obviously better than the current system. Ironically, it happens to be some of the most pro-European politicians who are reluctant to push it through to fruition.