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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes

Well it's over. Europe can rejoin the world. The displaced can be returned although if they had to rely on the UK Government's response they'd die of frustration.

And now the questioning begins. How is it that one of the World's most densely  packed air space was locked down for 5 days? According to our Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis - no love lost there then - it  worked like this:

  • The airframe and jet engine manufacturers' specifications state that any level of volcanic ash is dangerous:
  • It was internationally agreed by the various national aviation authorities that if volcanic ash was in an air space then that air space would be closed:
  • The decision to close an air space would be taken by the appropriate controlling authority, in the UK that's the Civil Aviation Authority(CAA) and at operational level the National Air Traffic Service (NATs):
  • That decision would be based on geological evidence (nature, density and height of the volcanic ash) and meteorological evidence (wind direction, height and speed of air streams etc): 
  • Ministers had no responsibility.
So who's responsible for the lock down of the skies over the UK?

Let me make it abundantly clear from the start it's not Lord Adonis. Nothing to do with him.

As he explained on "News Night" last night he knows nothing about volcanoes so it can't be his fault.

The CAA and NATs? Well, no. Their hands are tied by the international agreements - if there's  ash - shut down.They rely on the information about the ash and winds from the experts. 

The scientists and meteorologist? No, all they do is measure the stuff and provide the data (with an interpretation), to the appropriate bodies.

The airlines? Don't think so. They could ignore the authorities and fly: but at what cost should one plane crash?  

The jet engine manufacturers then? I suppose in a sense they are to blame because it was they who said  any level of ash presented an unacceptable risk.

Notice, we have the whole industry of experts, regulators, international coordinating bodies and Ministers, yet for 5 days no one was responsible for the lock down.

Did no one, at any time during the discussions and negotiations on the response to volcanic ash, consider what might happen if a large amount of ash contaminated the UK and Europe's air space, given the zero tolerance approach to ash in jet engines. Did no Minister or his advisers, or the experts or the airline executives or the air manufacturers stop and think through the effect of this zero tolerance approach.

If you work in any  large  organisation at any moderately senior level your life is plagued by risk registers and risk analysis. Yet where was the effective risk analysis here. A single event, no not even that, a single assumption or assertion by the jet engine manufacturers has had a devastating social ,financial and political impact because of the interconnectivity of our society and businesses.

We often hear about the "silo mentality", in business and government. You simply focus on what you do and your area of risk and responsibility and ignore any re-percussive effect of your decision or actions. For years, Governments have been banging on about horizon scanning - looking out for those left of the field events that could knock your plans sideways. From where I'm sitting this farrago is a perfect example of two great failures.

The inappropriateness of risk analysis in many instances; and the "silo mentality".

As an air-plane/jet engine manufacturer you are going to be risk adverse. If there's something that risks shutting down your engine/ downing your plane you'll want to avoid it. It's therefore not surprising that they should recommend a no fly policy in the presence of ash if there's the slightest risk of a catastrophic engine failure.

But neither  they nor anyone else apparently analysed the implications of that. A (limited) risk analysis was carried on impact on the engines, but there was no analysis of the associated risks to air travel etc if that policy was implemented. No one looked out of their particular silo.

So what are all these coordinating, international bodies there for if not to take an overview, see the bigger picture, scan the horizons, synthesis all the relevant data and opinion? God knows - to supply job opportunities for graduates?

You'll recall Dobbie the pitiful, if somewhat repulsive, character in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Lord Adonis is his father.

How can  Dobbie Senior claim that this shut down is not his responsibility? International agreements, concordats etc are made on behalf of national governments. Officials act only on the authority of Ministers. The relevant minister in this case is Lord Dobbie - this mess is because the authorities fell down on their job and if there's one thing Ministers can do it is to ensure that doesn't happen.

He should be dressed in sack clothes and ashes from now on!

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