Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.)
– From Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found There, by Lewis Carroll.

Earlier today I had a discussion with a journalist regarding a TV programme about decompression events in aircraft, for which he had done the research. This leads me to my blog’s musings for today: What influence does the crew have on passengers’ experience and their recollections after an incident? We’re not discussing serious accidents here, only the run-of-the-mill events such as go-arounds, diversions, technical problems and, yes – pressurisation problems.

“This is your captain speaking…”

You would hear these words on almost every commercial flight. It is probably the most quoted sentence when passengers discuss their experiences in the air. Yet very few people would be able to tell you what the captain, or the cabin crew for that matter, had actually said. Not always because the announcements sounded like some comedian’s rip off – simply because people do not pay attention.

I’ve discussed passengers’ behaviour during emergencies before (see my previous post Evacuate, Evacuate! Are you ready?) as well as the power of the media in Good News vs Bad News.

What concerns me here is the widely disparate perceptions passengers report after an incident. “Report” is the correct verb here – anyone with a cellphone becomes an instant reporter and social media allow immediate “reports” on events as they unfold.

Unfortunately, most passengers are not experts in matters aviation and, much like Alice we don’t want to confess that we simply have not the faintest idea of what is happening, has just happened or had happened. However, cellphones allow us to become instant and expert commentators.

Phrases such as “near death experience”, “hysterical cabin crew” or “terrified passengers” abound. Snippets of accurate, factual information are few and far between. “Facts” often prove to be completely wrong perceptions – in one recent event a passenger commented that “the person who tweeted this could not have been on the same aircraft!”.

The dangerous reality is that a perfectly safe airline can have its reputation in tatters and face bankruptcy as a result of 140 instant characters.

Most airlines, like most businesses have an online presence and a department dedicated to following social media. They hope to catch the complaints and negative comments, attempting to counter them – essentially damage control. Unfortunately modern humans have an incredibly short attention span and by the time your positive reply hits social media, we are already onto the next 140 characters of interest.

During the QF32 emergency social media declared that the A380 had crashed, even while Captain De Crespigny and his crew were working the problem and getting their passengers back safely. Fortunately the hysteria calmed down once the facts became clear.

Have a look at this YouTube Video clip from News24:

Despite the headline, I think the passengers do not look too concerned – very few are wearing their oxygen masks, most have the time and presence of mind to turn their cellphones on to film the goings-on.  (Just joking – they were on anyway…) There is the sound of a baby crying, understandable as infants cannot equalise quickly and their ears would hurt with any pressure differential.

So where did the reports of “terrified” passengers originate?

Other social media reports indicated trauma and high drama – clearly not everyone was as composed as the people visible in this clip. I saw reports of “oxygen not flowing” – probably from those who forgot the briefing to give a tug to start it flowing.

Which brings me to the role of the crew – all professionals, all trained to deal with these situations. However, although most airlines would provide standard announcements for various events – some pilots and cabin crew are simply better able to communicate and calm frayed nerves.

When United 232 lost all hydraulics and all controls when the no. 2 engine failed catastrophically over Iowa, passengers spoke afterwards about Captain Al Haynes being “firm, but soothing” while informing them via the PA system.

Similar complimentary comments were made about the way the crew of QF32 handled the PA announcements.

QF32 Fire engines

QF 32  (Pic:

As pilots we make decisions in difficult situations based on the old A-N-C acronym – Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Our primary task is to fly the aircraft, whatever the situation. Once the flight path is under control, we need to fly it somewhere – the navigate bit – whether it be to a diversion airfield or to a ditching. Then we tell people what we are doing – ATC, our crew, and when time allows, our passengers.

It would appear that we should improve that last little bit – keeping passengers informed and comforted could avoid most of the negative and destructive social media rants.

In fact, after Captain De Crespigny had debriefed the passengers of QF32, TV crews were eager to record the dramatic stories of survival which these passengers surely had to tell – to their dismay, most of the passengers had no complaints and only praise for the crew.

Pilots train exhaustively for any possible mishap. Dealing with incidents and problems is the easy part  – how you address the passengers when they feel like Alice is a major challenge. However, allowing them to make sense of our “inverted world”, reading in reverse in the mirror could allow them to slay their Jabberwocks and turn the negative experiences and comments into compliments.




2016 and the Future for Pilots

Elon Musk predicts that in a couple of years, we will only be driving cars for recreation – transport will be automated.

The RAeS (Royal Aeronautical Society) recently held an interesting debate in London about the future of pilots in aviation. I followed this with great interest and the proposal that we will have pilotless cockpits within forty years was carried with a large majority.

Read any commentary on the current state of commercial aviation, and while it is acknowledged that it is safer than ever before, the general consensus is that pilots have been lulled into complacency by automation and have lost their basic flying skills.

As we kick off 2016, there we have three propositions which, effectively, indicate that we – pilots – are an endangered species. Add to these the advent of drones, which, especially in the military environment can be controlled from thousands of miles away to devastating effect.

Commercial Aviation is safe. In fact, the recently published annual statistics by ASN (Aviation Safety Network) indicate that 2015 was the safest year ever for airliners.

A decade or so ago the major causal factor in commercial aviation accidents was CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain). Training and the advent of Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS) countered that trend. During the last decade the major causal factor in airline accidents has proved to be Loss of Control in Flight (LOCI), a fact which supports the contention that pilots are losing their stick and rudder skills.

And now we see a new, worrying trend emerging – the 2015 statistics show that most fatalities were a result of only two accidents. 150 people died in the Germanwings disaster on the 24th March 2015 and on the 31st October last year 224 people died when the Metrojet A320 was shot down over Egypt. Both caused by human depravity – not the usual “pilot error” or mechanical failure. The previous year’s Malaysian disasters fit this trend as well – the one shot down and the other still a mystery, but probably downed by dark intentions.

About the shooting down of civilian airliners not much can be said. It is terrorism and depravity of the worst kind. But what about the deliberate crashing of an airliner by the very people who should ensure its safety?

About LOCI we can do something. We can enhance high altitude handling training, we can up the required standards, we can add extra warning systems.

But what can we do about the insidious potential danger of a pilot “losing it” and endangering the aircraft, passengers and fellow crew members?

There lies the challenge for airline managers and their HR departments – the days are gone where pilots would come up through the ranks via the Air Force or contract or charter flying – this would act as a natural sifting process and only the dedicated and flying fit would make it through.

My concern is that modern aviation trends would tend to allow pilots who lack experience or the required resilience into cockpits – perhaps causing more trauma than we would like to imagine.

Unless we can solve this new-found dilemma, the RAeS debate’s outcome could become our future reality.

But would you like to be a passenger on a pilotless aircraft?

One has to question whether a computer would have made the decision to land in the Hudson river, saving all on board. In the case of QF32, where the pilots had to land their overweight and crippled A380 on too short a runway the computers were so confused that they were providing false information.

Despite the fact that Artificial Intelligence is being developed apace, my prediction for 2016 is that we will not see that pilotless flight this year – and frankly, I would hope not for many a year!