Monday, April 19, 2010

The View from 30,000 Feet

The last few days news has been dominated by the ongoing eruption of the volcano in Iceland and its impact on air travel across Europe.  The safety issue is the potential for the ash cloud, at around the 30,000 feet altitude, to seriously damage aircraft jet engines.  Thus the air safety regulators have closed the air space for the last 4 days, creating huge backlogs of passengers and costing airlines $200 million per day.  So we have a firsthand study in the situational dynamics of safety culture.

For the first several days there appeared to be general consensus between the airlines, the safety regulators and politicians that closing the airspace was necessary and prudent.  Sunday the airlines broke ranks and are openly lobbying for resumption of flights.  Several of the major airlines flew test flights to assess the performance of aircraft and now contend it is safe to fly. 

Regulators so far have insisted on keeping the airspace shut down with the earliest resumption possible by Monday evening. 

Are the airlines and the regulators simply reaching different conclusions based on the same information?  Or are airlines feeling the pressures of money and customers and the regulators are not?  Or are the regulators simply being more conservative?  Interestingly there does not appear to have been much overt political pressure to date.  Would you expect regulators to be more sensitive to this source of pressure?  Or immune from it?  How would you know?

I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do think it is unlikely that the situational parameters are not playing some role here.  In fact it seems hard to explain the different points of view without them.  But if it is true, does it necessarily mean that the airlines’ safety cultures are not robust - or is it also possible that the airlines have done exactly what safety culture demands - according safety its appropriate priority but still reaching a decision that flights can be resumed safely?  A robust safety culture does not demand insulation from situational factors, just that they not inappropriately skew the balancing of safety and other business needs.  How exactly one does that in a transparent manner is perhaps the most important indicator of safety culture.

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