Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It's called the Nanny State for a reason

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (hereafter to be called E+15) and the subsequent six day closure of most European airspace brought a whole new level of meaning to "shlamozzle".

What should be -- actually, probably is -- infuriating to those stranded travelers in their thousands was that the reason for their torment was not E+15, but rather bureaucrats who apparently operate under the notion that zero tolerance is somehow an intelligent means of risk assessment:
When the news about the volcano broke, we [writes Dame Hutton, who is in charge of the CAA] at the Civil Aviation Authority were faced with a huge challenge. The unequivocal guidance from manufacturers – based on such events as the multiple engine failure that affected a British Airways flight in 1982 – is that aircraft encountering volcanic ash must "AVOID AVOID AVOID", and make sure there is absolutely no interaction between jet engines and ash.
This is utter tosh. It is certain that jet engines routinely ingest volcanic ash. After all, the stuff girdles the globe following a large eruption. Further, this amounts to an hysteric's counsel: the CAA reacted to the volcano with the same calm, cool, analytical approach one expects from a pre-teen girl confronted with a spider.

The air safety threats entailed by clouds of the stuff compared to dispersal sufficient to achieve invisibility are wildly different that orders of magnitude do not suffice: the former is a near certainty, the latter is zero.

Let me repeat: flying through volcanic ash clouds insufficiently dense to be visible to the human eye poses absolutely no threat to flight safety.

What gasts even the most unflappable flabber is this zero tolerance approach absolutely turns operational risk assessment on its head. Planes have crashed, and people killed, due to run ins with our avian friends. Are we to suspend all flying where birds roam? Thunderstorms have exacted an aviation body count far exceeding that of volcanoes, which is thus far hovering at zero, yet the forecast of convective activity does not lead to cots clogging concourses across an entire continent.

If rational people, rather than place holding quangocrats with approximately the same aviation background as my dog, had been making airspace decisions, they would have looked to history and noted the number of in flight emergencies due to volcanoes amounts to a whopping zero 600 miles from eruptions much larger than E+15. They would have further noted that distance gets one only as far as Glasgow.

Now, it is true that an aircraft has suffered damage from flying through an ash cloud 1000 miles away from a volcano. But there are two things worth noting. First, it was at night, and the ash would have been visible during the day. More importantly, though, is that the damage, while requiring premature removal of the engines, did not affect the safety of the flight.

Then, at least initially, they might have: imposed 600 nm exclusion zone and a day, visual meteorological conditions (cognescenti talk for clear air) requirement extending to 1000 nm to allow see-and-avoid; required sufficient fuel to reach an alternate 1500 nm from E+15. Then they would have added a post-flight inspection requirement to look for fan blade erosion.

Which, in the event, would have closed airspace in northern Scotland and the northernmost reaches of Ireland. It would have required re-routing, or canceling, flights between Europe and US destinations west of Detroit, since great circle routes between the two regions pass within 600 nm of Iceland. Pilot reports would have quickly shrunk the exclusion zone and eliminated the day/VMC restriction outside it.

Number of aircraft damaged or endangered? Zero. Ability to react to unforeseen changes? Same as all the other meteorological phenomena the air transportation system deals with daily.

Only the warders of the nanny state think life can be made risk free.


Blogger Mark Frank said...

It may well have been "absolute tosh" but the authorities wer responding to "unequivocal guidance from manufacturers". Why not blame the manufacturers?

April 29, 2010 1:32 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Super post Skipper. I've been waiting for sense to be made of the matter ... and this metaphor nicely sums up the reaction we have come to expect from experts: the CAA reacted to the volcano with the same calm, cool, analytical approach one expects from a pre-teen girl confronted with a spider.

April 29, 2010 5:42 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I had a discussion about this with my brother the catastrophe expert. He said something similar to Skipper's, but different.

On Power by the Hour (leased engines), why should the operators care? The engine owners pay for the rebuild.

On the other hand, the conversation originated in his tale of inspecting the fleet of Grumman Geese after one crashed in Miami Bay. His verdict: Nice skin, worst corrosion in an airplane he has ever seen.

I flew Delta Connection a few times this month. Are those dings cosmetic imperfections or the surface manifestations of bad stuff inside?

I would not automatically assume the operators have my best interests in mind.

April 29, 2010 10:26 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

Good post.

April 29, 2010 11:14 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...



Why not blame the manufacturers?

For two reasons, least important first. As a fully vested subsidiary, when it isn't the instigator, of the nanny state approach to risk management, the legal profession would make tortious hay out of advice other than that which insinuated complete avoidance.

More importantly, though, complete avoidance can't possibly be the goal. If an eruption is forceful enough to loft ash into the stratosphere, a lot of it isn't coming down any time soon, and in surprisingly short order the ash will envelope the globe, a la Mt. Pinatubo.

Cruise altitudes are often in the stratosphere, so after a large eruption anywhere in the world, airliners everywhere are ingesting volcanic ash, albeit in minute amounts.

So what "avoid" means is to completely avoid ash in visible concentrations. To assume otherwise, as the CAA did, is to ignore history and reality in pursuit of some absolute purity of risk avoidance, while happily tolerating every other manner of routine risk that far outweigh being the best part of 1000 miles from a middling volcano.

One manufacturer's guidance:

…Boeing has always advocated that flight crews avoid volcanic ash clouds or exit them immediately if an encounter occurs… (emphasis added)


... the reaction we have come to expect from experts:

Dame Hutton, a career quangocrat in charge of the CAA, had previously run the Food Standards Agency (another example of the nanny state run amok). Her explanation of the CAA's actions insults both the art of dissembling and the intelligence of drooling idiots.

She isn't an expert, and I'll bet relevant knowledge and background amongst the rest of the EU toadies, bag carriers and pusillanimous* blatherers was as thin as the layer of ash that fell throughout Europe.

* one word that says it all: timid, timorous, cowardly, fearful, faint-hearted, lily-livered, spineless, craven, shrinking, chicken, gutless, wimpy, wimpish, sissy, yellow, yellow-bellied.


I claim no knowledge of engine leasing agreements, but, in principle, I'll bet they are similar to that for cars.

If the operator takes the engine outside designated operating parameters -- as can happen in executing a windshear escape maneuver -- paying for the damage is on the operator.

So the airlines definitely have "skin" in the game. If they fly through a diffuse cloud, as did the NASA DC8 I linked to above, they are on the hook for about a million per engine.

I flew Delta Connection a few times this month. Are those dings cosmetic imperfections or the surface manifestations of bad stuff inside?

Cosmetic imperfections, typically from slight contact with ground equipment, or from fitting an aluminum skin to a non-rigid structure.

Cracks or widespread wrinkles are surface manifestations of bad stuff.

I would not automatically assume the operators have my best interests in mind.

Not a bad assumption.

However, the Captain has his best interests in mind.

Captains are as close to god as mortals are ever likely to get.

As long as his decisions do not violate the aviation regulations, he is unassailable.

You might remember the (not) Flying Imams of several years ago, who subsequently initiated, then abandoned a lawsuit against US Airways.

Their lawyer almost certainly told them that the airline was not party to the suit, because it had no standing in the Captain's decision to boot them off the airplane.

Nor did any other power on earth.

April 29, 2010 8:21 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...



April 29, 2010 10:51 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper for president! I wish.

April 30, 2010 5:38 AM  

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