Monday, 25 April 2011

Australian authorities tread on Tiger's tail

Don Richards reports from Australia that the civil aviation authorities have given the Australian subsidiary of Singapore's Tiger Airways a show cause notice as to why their operating licence should not be withdrawn. They have 28 days to demonstrate that issues of concern are being actively corrected. Pilot training, safety and maintenance seem to be among the primary concerns.

The fact that Tiger has been given 28 days to respond indicates that there are no immediate safety issues on any of these counts and its proceedures and processes that are the most likely target. Otherwise they would have been grounded immediately by one of the world's most detailed and least forgiving regulatory regimes.

Tiger Australia do reportedly have a non safety-related less than outstanding reputation for delays and cancellations .This looks to be primarily due to the airline not yet having reached the necessary critical mass for a high utilisation based low cost operation up against much larger competitors with stronger brand images. The airline has only 11 aircraft with which to battle for market share against the might of Qantas mainline domestic, Virgin Blue with 75 aircraft and Jetstar with 50+. Any carrier in such a position is likely to be hard pressed to mount competitive frequencies and cover any hiccups in the day's flying programme .That in turn is likely to push them towards lower yields to attract the business= lower profitability = fewer funds for expansion.It's a vicious circle and a difficult one. Low cost airlines are though very aware of their vulnerability to finger pointing should they have an accident or major incident and it is unlikely that any actual corner cutting on safety lies beneath the order.

Heathrow planned southern rail link to Waterloo and Reading abandoned

Just before UK Plc headed off for its 2-3 week series of Easter and Royal Wedding Bank Holidays the long mooted short rail link from Heathrow to the main line rail southern system back to Waterloo and onwards to Reading ,the most prolific western hub of the UK rail network, was quietly dropped. The scheme, for which a pair of through platforms had been built at Terminal 5 when it was opened had reached the Works Approval stage . This would have been the last hurdle before building began. What we are seeing therefore is a last minute slamming on of the brakes.

This screech and smell of burning rubber will be a major disappointment across a large swathe of population centres to the south of the airport which will have for years relied on much slower and more congested road links. The very long standing Rail-Air coach link between Heathrow and Reading will have to continue and for the sake of a relatively easily constructed few miles the huge imbalance of Heathrow's only rail connections being to and from the east will continue. It seems to have all become too difficult largely due to the extra burden it would have put on level crossing blighted roads ,notably one on the major A3 at Sunningdale in the heart of Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond's constituency.

One possible silver lining, which could materialise if only to cover the embarassment of the unused through platforms, is the alternative use for them as providing the the way to connect back to the Great Western main line heading westwards to Slough, Maidenhead and Reading. This could provide the high quality connections to the west,midlands,and even Scotland that the airport has always lacked. The link should have been built years ago but was always obstructed by the lines west from Paddington being dieselised rather than electrified in the 1960s. Only relatively recently has electrification been carried out as far as the airport for Heathrow Express and later Heathrow Connect. Now that it is to be extended as far as Reading and Didcot the overhead wires will be in place by 2016. The opportunity is obvious ,potentially relatively simple and inexpensive and should be seized without having to go through years of Department for Transport head scratching studies, reviews and consultancy reports. It's the sort of decision which could be made around the Department's water coolers at fraction of all those costs and years of delay. Supporting business cases, environmental studies and the rest could be done in a fun day or two with the aid of Google maps rather than over several years of countless meetings and tooth sucking. Somebody please say: "Just do it".

Over to the MP for Runnymede and Weybridge (and Sunningdale level crossing).

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Africa- AFRAA doesn't get it. Nor does Nigeria.

Two depressing pieces of news have come out of Africa in the last week or so.

The first was that AFRAA has urged governments to "support national carriers in the face of foreign competition" and the second that there had been calls in Nigeria for the formation of a new national,-and presumably nationalised,- carrier, along with shrill calls from unions ever on the lookout for new members for the need for one to evacuate Nigerians stranded in Libya.If ever there were a reason for investing millions in a new airline of any sort this is not it.

Let's start by looking at the AFRAA exhortation. The development of air travel, tourism and strong business centres in Africa has for ever been blighted by attempts to protect often small and struggling national airlines who have provided a handful of jobs at enormous costs with money diverted from much more necessary infrastructure and social projects. Starting in colonial times, frequencies have been held down, transit services blinded (ie not been allowed to carry passengers on local sectors) and huge amounts of additional money spent on flying the flag on long haul routes for supposed prestige purposes. In reality having the flag seen at distant airports by a handful of aircraft spotters and passing passengers has zero effect on how a nation is perceived overseas.To spend millions of dollars on this passtime has been a complete waste of time and money. Some nations, notably Uganda and Zambia ,have taken the wise step of abandoning these follies and letting market forces take over. Both have more air services to more places than they would have had if they were protecting a national carrier. Malawi and Tanzania meanwhile have taken the other tack at huge cost and seem inclined to continue doing so. Africa needs fewer and bigger airlines with more resources and strong regional hubs. As we have described before, the western side of the continent amazingly has none of significance while the eastern has Cairo, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Johannesburg. The best advice to most other countries would be to buy shares in Kenya Airways, encourage it to grow in and through their capital cities, and let unprofitable national carriers go to the wall other than paying them to operate any socially essential domestic services and welcome all comers, local and foreign, with complete open skies. Africa needs a few strong airlines with the strength to thrive and grow in a very competitive business, not a host of economy sapping, ever struggling small nationalised ones. The private sector will step in to provide domestic and regional services once they have a level playing field to do so. Everyone, AFRAA included , would then see a transformation. Again tourism and other businesses and the employment they generate would gain massively and out of all proportion to any local airline jobs lost.

AFRAA needs to be facing its governments and airlines up to the 21st century realities rather than urging them to hang on to an untenable and counter productive past.It needs to start again with a completely new, energetic, inspiring vision and break away from the deadening effects of past nationalistic and protectionist ones.Money saved on giving artifical respiration to unprofitable airlines would, for a start, be much better spent on radically improving and modernising Africa's airports and aviation infrastructure and give the countries concerned a much better return on their expenditure.

Moving on to Nigeria, any revived national carrier is likely to harm the growth of the private ones such as Arik and is unlikely to be successful. There is a real risk that people involved with previous nationaised failures would see themselves as having prior rights to the leading roles and that to keep everyone reasonably happy there would be unsustainable overmanning from the start. The revenue diverted from the thrusting independents would make life very difficult for them to thrive or even survive. As for rescuing stranded Nigerians, that's fine but the government can simply charter in the capacity from wherever it chooses at short notice and at a fraction of the cost and with no ongoing liability. Rescue missions are not the basis for starting an airline.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

IAG's BA- Cabin Crew "Peace in our time". Is the airline about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

Last Thursday promised to be a turning point in the BA brand's 18 month old wrangle with its 1950s style cabin crew union, BASSA, now a part of Unite which had until then to call a strike or see its current mandate for one expire. BA held pretty well all the cards as it could have operated all of its long haul flights and much of the shorthaul programme with volunteers, newly recruited and trained staff and those union members who courageously crossed the picket lines. Beckoning was a new future for its industrial relations in which the company regained control of its communications with staff, the operation especially in times of disruption, its on board product and a host of other things vital for its managment to be able to manage.In short they would be able to operate as a modern company with a "just do it" culture to ensure the best for its customers.

Instead the company agreed to the industrial action mandate's validity being extended for 28 days to allow further discussions to take place. The union is thereby off the "put up (and lose) or shutup " hook and already some of its harder line members are portraying this as the company backing down and therefore a victory for themselves. In the wake of this would come all kinds of unpleasantness for those crews who did not strike, the "New Fleet" crew, the staff from other departments who voluntered to act as cabin crew, the pilots and any others who kept the show on the road during the periods of "action". All these would never forgive the company, if having put their necks on the line by very publicly backing BA they were hung out to dry simply to close down the dispute and allow the new CEO, Keith Williams to bask in the illusion that all would be sweetness and light from here on. Williams is by reputation a very likeable person who has a positive vision of a new era of less confrontational relations. Being new to the role it is likely that he, like any new CEO, wants to make his mark and differentiate himself from his predecessor with some quick changes in style and of course some early wins. That's entirely understandable and natural. Like most of his top team though he has no experience of the coal face, life in the front line of customer service or of unions and their behaviours. He has few, if any, personal links down through the organisation to tell him what is really going on, what life is like and what people are thinking way down through the various tentacles of the very large and diverse organisation and what the subterranean dynamics are. He is therefore at a very dangerous point in his early days in the hot seat.

Hopefully the concern is misplaced and the 28 day extension will be used simply to give Unite time to face its BASSA members up to the realities of the future and the company will simply sit tight and refuse to move on demands to revert to the bad old days. True, this could end up with a strike but its effect would almost certainly be minimal and all parties could then move on to a new and genuinely much happier new era. Ayling was promised this when he backed off a confrontation with cabin crew in 1997 but it was not delivered and life continued as unsatisfactorily as ever. Sometimes High Noon does arrive. When it does, a quick shootout is infinitely preferable to years of ongoing conflict. Remember Neville Chaberlain, Mr Williams and redouble your resolve.The fact is that most of BA's employees, including many union members, want this unnecessary dispute over and done with so that they can get on with their lives,- and even be allowed to enjoy their jobs.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Liability for natural disasters-EU acts but in a very European way.

Aviation Industry News reveals that the European Commission is to rewrite the rules about liability for airspace and airport closures under "extraordinary circumstances". They must have read AirnThere on 31st March.

However, having started with a good idea, they haven't quite grasped the real rationale for a change in the Eurolegislation. As they see it, the need is to redistribute the perceived liability to passengers in the event of disruption. This is based on the assumption that whatever happens to anyone there must be someone or some organisation at fault and to blame and that person or entity should pay. The purchaser thereby escapes any personal loss or even contribution.

The fact the EU refuses to accept is that in some situations nobody is to blame and the failure of things to go to plan is just life's tough luck. This refusal also suits the lawyers very nicely thankyou. To a reasonable person the reality is that rather than having to cough up around £3.5 billion for last year's governmentally created volcanic ash fiasco, the airlines' liability should have been nil other than the extension or refund of the tickets involved. The same applies in any extreme natural conditions be they snow at airports, high winds in highlands and islands, volcanos or tsunamis. It is not reasonable or fair to expect airport or airline operators to overinvest in seldom used people and equipment and it is unsafe to pressurise crews to fly conditions they see as potentially dangerous.

Rather therefore than seek to redistribute the misconceived liability and damages arising from it, the Commission and all governments should leave the subject well alone except in situations where negligence or deliberate under resourcing for normal operations is involved. Backside covering and wrong decision-making by government agencies should also be an exception and generate liability. In all other cases "user pays" should be the guiding principle. Airline passengers should simply obliged to take out their insurance against being stranded by acts of God, governments or nobody in particular. The Commission need look no further, spend no money on consultations or get further involved. They should just make it clear that insurance is a personal responsibility and costs arising from disruptions to (air)travel should normally be bore by the purchaser. The EU needs to get away from its cradle to pot mentality, take a sniff of fresh air, and and let the industry function on a simple rational basis.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Air Safety- A need for more widely ranging crash investigations.

Following the publication of the Lebanese investigators' preliminary report Flight International leads this week with an editorial on some similarities between the Ethiopian Beirut and Kenya Airways Douala 737 crashes. At the same time the discovery of more wreckage from the Air France A330 crash gives hope that the flight recorders may be found and more clues emerge about the cause. Airbus will be particularly keen to identify and factors which could affect the future safety of its other aircraft ranging from the 318 to the 380.We may also get some information as to why the Air France crew decided to continue on a path which looked as if it took them into a storm when others were navigating around the worst of it.

Investigations of accidents and incidents great and small are always valuable and contribute to the experience bank of all concerned ,thereby helping to avoid repetition or enabling any repeat of the circumstances to be better dealt with. Operational, technical and crew issues are usually well covered and aim to track the causative factors back to source. Eventually one or two people or groups are left holding the baby, one all too frequently being the operating crew who just happen to be flying on the day and in the pressures of the moment don't handle things as well as subsequent simulations show they could have or that either individually or that as a team they were just a disaster waiting to happen anyway.

One factor though is usually missing.The corporate culture, behaviours and real attitude to safety in the Head Offices. The searchlight seldom focuses on what happens in the CEO's office, around the Board and executive management tables and within the departments concerned. We see little about the morale and motivation of the company,the managment style and all the things which feed through to how the crews feel they are expected or have to function on the day. How is selection and promotion done and on what criteria? How transparent is it? How are poor performers managed? How do the unions behave? Is safety their top priority or do other factors take precedence or cast doubt on the ethic? Are staff at all levels and in all functions aware that safety comes first and even if it is said to do they believe it? Does actual management behaviour support a safety first culture and those who make even uncomfortable decisions to guarantee it on the day. Do politics and politicians internal or external have an effect? A total audit of all these questions should be attached to every major accident report and indeed be kept current by an independent, insightful and courageously forthright specialist assessor at least annually.

An accident or incident is usually manufactured well before and far from the day and scene of the event. If a crew were less than a match for the situation ,who was responsible for the processes by which they came to be sitting in the seats they were and what criteria had they used to allow that to happen? A bigger and more penetrating searchlight on this is needed,- and all over the world.