A crisis for aviation leadership

May 7, 2010

-Professor Amir  Sharif is professor of operations management and director of MBA programmes at Brunel Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.-

It will not have escaped anyone’s notice recently that volcanoes and aircraft do not mix. Six days of global flights being reduced by 30 percent of normal traffic volume amounted to a staggering $200 million per day loss (according to industry bodies such as IATA and the AEA).

The global aviation industry as well as international trade, countries and individuals were left stunned that there is something that can rival and push our competence and technical prowess into submission, and leave us, quite definitely and literally, stranded.

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption has taught us a few, but distinctly harsh, lessons about managing uncertainty in the face of everyday life, and I believe a different mode of thinking will be necessary in future, particularly among those in charge of the aviation world.

The everyday impact of the shutdown of European airspace has shown that humans are still poor at making sense of complex situations.

While safety in this situation is critical and regulators as well as airlines and governments must carefully balance this aspect with events as they unfold, life must go on.

The oft-repeated question about re-routing around ash clouds may be a straightforward and logical thing to do – but on already highly optimised and volumetrically loaded routes, the “fly round” or “go beneath” decision is simply not an option.

Flying lower means flying at a higher rate of fuel (and cash) consumption. This type of lethal mixture will ultimately run out faster than patience or tolerance for safety will.

Although it may be fundamentally sensible to ground all air traffic in light of such an occurrence, many in the aviation industry have publicly noted it was an over-reaction.

The IATA has been scathing about the time taken to do the relevant sense-making, analyse the situation through measurement and provide a sense of urgency and action to address the lockdown of European airspace.

The “embarrassment” that IATA’s Director General and CEO Giovanni Bisignani talked about three days into the Icelandic ash cloud was not only a deadpan and scarcastic swordpoint into the heart of national airspace regulators, but a real open question into asking why real data and common sense were not used earlier (and of course were initiated by airlines themselves and not the regulators).

Thus the whole incident shows a crisis in leadership of the aviation industry and an abdication of taking charge at the most crucial time.

There are clearly some very tough discussions taking place in aviation-based organisations right around the world as a result of this. Whether you are a global or regional airline, a distribution or cargo firm, a government, airport, regulator or even a farming collective who relies on international exports to sustain your business: all of you will be asking how long the access to airspace above and across borders will actually last.

However, these anxieties must not control or overcome us. There has to be some decisive and rational set of actions and leadership that should come out of the haze of our immediate medium-term future. Leadership which must be based upon core components of communication, decision-making and action.

A recent aviation industry forum facilitated and held at Brunel, well before these current troubles, highlighted the simple fact that this industry is still operating in a silo fashion.

Representatives from airlines, airports, suppliers and operators at that event, re-iterated their own concerns for cross-fertilisation of solutions, opportunities and a better way of working. Our recent and ongoing Icelandic travails merely underline that the aviation industry needs better communication, better appreciation of monitoring and control but also discussion and large doses of common sense to take place.

All aspects of aviation and indeed business and government, contain intelligent, rational and decisive leaders. But they need to come together and be available and speak with one voice and not separate modes of thought.

Collaboration and communication across all associated and affected stakeholders has been clearly lacking: national airspace bodies, trade organisations, airlines, supply chain partners, customers, governments, scientists, meteorologists, volcanologists – the list goes on.

As our research has and continues to show also, active and dynamic supply chain relationships and methods of including simple yet accessible models of risk and decision flow across organisations, lies at the heart of successful business leadership.

Just as rail and sea operators were rapid in their response to provide alternative routes and modes of transport to hundreds of thousands of individuals and families, aviation and those who regulate and govern it must now approach the future with a similar “multi-modal” way of thinking.

One thing that struck many people whilst stranded overseas was the vacuum of transport choices that were suggested by those commanding the situation.

For the large part, decisions on movement and travel were down to each country, each transport operator, each family, each individual. Only two airlines stood out as having some modicum of sense-making and practical decision leadership (although with some caveats of fighting a re-guard ongoing action of staff unrest): British Airways and Lufthansa. And then others followed suit.

Although the aviation industry is nothing if not resilient and innovative, given enough time and ingenuity airlines and even regulators will identify suitable standard operating procedures to deal with unpredictable and adverse conditions such as these. The challenge remains with how to deal with the intense demand for ever cheaper, faster and optimal air transport and the balance that must be made with air routes operating at or under capacity.

And for that, the industry itself needs nothing more than a brave, trustworthy and sensible pilot at the helm.

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