Q: A cloud of volcanic ash grounds European airlines and the chief executives of KLM and British Airways join their crews on test flights to show that it is safe to fly. What do these actions say about the importance of symbolic involvement by top leaders in responding to crises?
Unlike many of my colleagues here on the Washington Post leadership panel, I have to disagree with interpretations of the behavior of KLM and British Airways chief executives as positive role models and good leaders. The symbolism of airline CEO's proving it is 'safe to fly' by joining their crews aloft seems strangely reminiscent of President George W. Bush's carrier landing on board the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 to declare "mission accomplished" and an end to the Iraq War. As we know, Bush's declaration was not only years premature, but the theatrics distracted the public from what should have been genuine concern about the implications of the path we were collectively embarking upon. This week's CEO demonstration was similarly premature and dangerously distracting.
Although the eruptions from Iceland's volcano Eyjafjallajokull have weakened, it continues to spew ash well over 10,000 feet, presenting a severe and unresolved safety risk for aircraft and passengers that should not be taken lightly. Consider several aviation examples that have demonstrated the real dangers of operating commercial airlines in the presence of volcanic ash:
In 1982 a volcanic eruption caused a Singapore Airlines 747 to lose three of its four engines and a British Airways 747 to lose all four due to ash ingestion. And in 1989 a KLM 747 lost all four engines, descending to 12,000 feet before the crew could successfully restart.
Although EU flights are slowing resuming and 100 or even 1,000 flights might fly safely, Mother Nature and her unpredictable weather patterns could easily foul what was previously a safe route. And the associated engine loss and crash of just one 747-800 or A380 could mean over 500 fatalities. As an experienced airline pilot, I wouldn't want to be on this 'test flight' and you shouldn't either.
What seems to be driving decision making is a fixation on the amount of money airlines lose each day they do not fly, allowing finance to trump safety concerns. The leadership challenge for industry leaders today is to tolerate the current state of ambiguity, admitting it has been provided an opportunity to learn about flaws in the system and fix them for the future in a timely manner, without the theatrics or narrow-minded focus on financial concerns. Tolerating uncertainty will make time and space for a safer, as opposed to a cheaper, resolution to emerge.
Posted by: dive4pearls | April 21, 2010 4:02 PM
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