Spot the Difference

by Michael Grey-Lloyds List- Monday 28 January 2008

THE great Heathrow air crash (or hard landing, if I might use the technical term) invited some interesting comparisons between ships and aircraft.

Undoubtedly, the pilots of the Boeing 777 did everything they ought, as their two engines refused to provide them with the required power in their final descent.

Forced to keep the nose down to maintain flight speed, the pilot managed to ‘glide’ the aircraft over houses and over a busy road with feet to spare, just getting the nose up at the last second to prevent the Boeing burying itself in the runway approach.

Fortunately there was no double deck bus on the road, because the chances are the top deck passengers wouldn’t have made it.

The miracle was that there was no fire on impact and that with a few relatively minor injuries, the crew clearly had effected a textbook evacuation.

The following day the airline was confident enough to parade their heroic flight crew and purser before the waiting press, subsequently collecting column feet of admiring reportage.

Throughout the coverage it was fascinating to see the negative fact of a catastrophe just averted by the skin of one’s teeth, transformed into a positive outcome for British Airways, airmanship, and heroic behaviour. Even the passengers seemed to go along with the mood of the moment; those interviewed being remarkably stoical and matter of fact about the event, which had clearly happened rather too fast for terror to have become established.

There was no whingeing about panic, or mutterings about class action to gain compensation for the serious psychological damage done by the near-death experience. Nobody even complaining about having to wait for their luggage. Not on camera, anyway.

It was a happy outcome, not the usual frightfulness of an air crash, but even so I could not help comparing the events with what tends to go on in the aftermath of a marine casualty.

We didn’t hear about the first action of the authorities being to breathalyse the capt and first officer. We were not made aware that the first people aboard the wrecked aircraft were heavily-built chaps from the local constabulary, with their pencils and notebooks, anxious to take statements from the witnesses, deny them legal representation and arrest the senior officers, lest they flee the country.

The first officer, I noted, was resident in France, but did not appear to be detained under UK jurisdiction.

The casualty investigators, rather than subjecting the crew to umpteen hours of non-stop questioning, we were told by one newspaper, had interviewed them, and then taken them for a curry, which would have settled the nerves, if not the stomach.

Within 24 hours of this horrific ‘near miss’, the Air Accident Investigation Branch was issuing a preliminary statement about the sequence of events that appeared to have caused the hard landing. It did not appear that lawyers representing the engine or aircraft manufacturer, or whoever had repaired or maintained the 777 over the last few weeks, were making strenuous attempts to prevent such a statement being made public. It all seemed, by comparison with the maritime world that I inhabit, astonishingly civilised and sensible. ‘Professional’ is a word that comes to mind.

Moreover, as one expects in the world of aviation, everyone was stepping up rapidly to the plate, not seeking to lie low or avoid their responsibilities.

A team from Boeing was quickly on the scene, with the engine manufacturers rushing their experts into Heathrow. Doubtless, those whose components had been installed, if they were even remotely relevant to the inquiry, would be present and correct.

“We just cannot not know what caused an air accident”, I recall the then president of the Royal Aeronautical Society telling me severely, when I was sitting next to him at a dinner some years ago. It is no more than we should expect.

But it was the complete absence of people burbling on about fault or blame which seemed to me to be so significant in the aftermath of this near disaster. There was no lobby group whimpering about the fact that they had warned the authorities about the likelihood of such an accident for years.

There were no muscular statements from safety authorities pledging “full and searching enquiries” and that the guilty persons will be ‘held to account’. It was like the shipping industry before the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

If these things are a matter of perception, the public perception is that the aviation industry does things right, and enjoys a generally positive image.

There is just no need for the nonsense on stilts and general hysterics that tend to follow a maritime accident, and in particular one that involves oil pollution.

The Erika judgement, if you like, was a case in point. More than eight years after this elderly tanker had been lost with serious pollution and we have a trial of some (not all) of the parties involved. Worth recalling that the master of the Erika, Capt Mathur, who had managed to get his crew safely off the ship in notably hostile weather, was immediately hustled into a French prison, denied legal representation and treated like a major criminal and enemy of the state.

It took the urgent representations of the Mission to Seafarers chaplain in Dunkirk to spring this poor survivor from the Bastille in which he was held.

Poor Captain Mangouras of the Prestige, a man who was no youngster, and who was attempting to perform miracles to save his wounded ship, fared, as we know, no better at the hands of the Spanish authorities, which are arguably culpable for their refusal of a place of refuge and ridiculous orders to the ship as the emergency developed.

Both accidents set new standards in largely pointless litigation and blaming; standards which were already at Olympic levels after the Exxon Valdez fiasco.

There is also a level of transparency within the aviation industry that is just not the case in shipping. How often, scanning the casualty columns in this newspaper do I enunciate the words to the effect that I would pay money to discover what caused some particular choice maritime conundrum. “How on earth did they manage to do that with that ship?”

It is not just my macabre sense of curiosity — public interest demands that these matters are made public, so we can learn from the casualty and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But with a small list of notable exceptions, led by the UK’s excellent Marine Accident Investigation Branch, the Australians, New Zealanders, Danes, Bahamians, the US Transportation Safety Bureau and a few others, the majority of flag states do not make these matters generally public.

There is a convention requirement to ensure that accident investigations are published and lodged with the International Maritime Organization, but a large number of administrations, bless ‘em, don’t bother to do this, or indeed have any adequate investigation mechanism available. It might get better as a result of casualty investigation capability being linked with flag state auditing. It badly needs to.

And yet the lessons from casualties require such to be published promptly. Less than a day after the Heathrow crash and authoritative statements are being made.

Perhaps the urgency involved in an aviation casualty is scarcely comparable with the more ponderous world of shipping. One can imagine the operators of some 900 Boeing 777s undertaking many hours of creative overtime to check over their auto-throttles, practically before the dust had settled.

You can argue that aviation and shipping are very different modes of transport, ships naturally floating and aircraft unnaturally suspended in the air and moving at speeds which are positively frightening. But you cannot get away from the basic difference that following an accident, aviation focusses on cause, while shipping drills down on blame and liability. And all of this spills over into a public perception about flying, despite its apparent danger, which is just so much more positive than that of shipping.

Perhaps the shipping industry, with its convoluted management structures involving the use of third parties is its own worst enemy. I don’t recall many post casualty disputes about complex “chains of responsibility” in the world of aviation, despite its dependence on leasing and sub-contracted maintenance. I guess there is no doubt about whose responsibility it was to do whatever needed to be done.

You certainly don’t get the sort of fiascos you have in the shipping industry, where the manager blames the terminal meanness of the owner, who blames the occasional scrutiny of the classification society, the cargo owner and charterer blame everyone else, while the flag state and the polluted coastal state rage at each other. And the lawyers settle down to litigation that will last for the entire careers of young practitioners. And the new enthusiasm for criminalisation brings an exciting new dimension to the whole process as regional regulators seize the opportunity to flex their muscles and invoke their punitive sanctions on all involved, chiefly the master, who is being conveniently held in some dungeon, ready for the tumbrils to roll.

One gets the impression that the world of aviation is one which is practical, pragmatic and utterly focused on accident prevention. By contrast, the shipping world retains the worst of its medieval past and has embraced little of the 21st century.

It is hoist by environmental activism, which has captivated the politicians and hamstrung the regulators. And in this melange of political correctness and simple inefficiency, shipping sails on, an industry where innocent people are persecuted and prosecuted because they are unfortunate enough to be in command of a ship. They are not trotted out as heroes, when they have done something heroic, but instead will be detained in darkened cellars being questioned for hours by interrogators, so blame can be apportioned.

Best to go down with the ship, and leave heroics to the world of aviation, where they appreciate heroism. 

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