Friday, August 2, 2013

Safe, Until You Step Off the Plane

SUPER SHUTTLE has replied, read the update here.  

I'm no different from any other gal, on Friday I like to kick back and think about relaxing. As the weekend approaches, I try to blog about the fun stuff, aviation books, aviation music, aviation movies. Today, though, I'm ticked off so fasten your seat belts because the rant is about to begin.

In the newspaper world stories are measured in column inches. Well, column miles have been written about the crash landing of Asiana 214, a dramatic accident to be sure, but one in which a surprisingly large number of passengers survived in spite of the plane losing its tail and spinning up on one wing before screeching to a halt. Not long after that, Southwest 345 made its own spectacular nose first landing in New York. 

Southwest Flight 345 at LaGuardia Airport

Every emergency landing, every diversion is big news even though commercial air travel is as safe as it has ever been. Getting around on the ground, meantime couldn't be more dangerous. My totally unscientific hunch is that operator distraction is a huge part of the problem and is not being addressed.

In Spain, the driver of the train that derailed, then hit a wall and killed 79 passengers was on the phone to his dispatch office at the time.

Horrified Spaniards may be gathered around the television to get the latest update but what they are not doing is taking to the street to demand a ban on the use of digital devices by the operators of vehicles. And in the United States neither are we despite the fact that we have had our own deadly experience with this problem.

In June, I flew to Tampa on jetBlue, comforted by the fact that pilots, the plane and the air space system all comply with high safety standards that ensure safe transport. That all ended when I got on the ground.

As I buckled my seat belt on board the Tampa SuperShuttle I watched as the driver proceeded to answer an email on the tablet positioned to the right of the steering wheel. The van began to move but still he worked on the tablet. I asked him to either stop doing that or let me out and for the rest of the trip he did not attend to the device though we both could hear it chirping away as new messages arrived.
Tampa SuperShuttle, is this any way to drive? 

I don't know if this practice was just one driver's way of getting a competitive edge, but I suspect not. Two weeks later in Los Angeles, the driver of my van to Long Beach had a similar set up.

Not content to let this frightening practice go unremarked on, I sent several emails to the Super Shuttle main office, the Tampa Airport, Victor Crist from the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, and Valerie Michael, Director of Corporate Communications at Veolia Transportation Development the French company that owns SuperShuttle and operates bus and train systems in 27 countries around the world. Then I waited for one them, any one of them to acknowledge that this risky practice would be addressed. I'm still waiting.

Several years ago I wrote an article for American Express Executive Travel, a story explaining why aviation is so safe. I included a quote from an unidentified but brilliantly astute pilot who told his passengers as they got off the plane, "The safest part of your journey is now over."

Aviation regulators often take a hit for waiting until there is a crash before addressing known problems. But give credit where due, if the last few rocky months in air travel tell us anything, it is that the system is working pretty well. When you leave the airport, however, it's an entirely different story.

SUPER SHUTTLE has replied, read the update here.  


Anonymous said...

You are right on cousin! I have always felt that flying is a hell of a lot safer than driving....

Hector Negroni

Jim Blaszczak said...

Planes, trains and automobiles.

The “driver” of any of these vehicles has tremendous personal responsibility for the safe operation of it. Sure, the manufacturers, regulators and other elements of the “system” have their responsibility as well. Vehicle safety is partnership between the system and the operator and clearly the data says that the operator is the weakest partner of that relationship. Both elements are made up of humans, so what is the difference? Why is human failure more common with the operator?

I believe it is because operators, as a group, are less focused, engaged and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions. Manufacturers and regulators spend a lot of time considering; What could go wrong? What are the threats? Have we missed anything? Operators don’t spend near as much time pondering those questions, either before or while the vehicle is in motion.

Here’s one place where the system and the individual are of one mind when it comes to vehicle safety. Both rely for too heavily on the expectation that vehicle operators will comply with the rules and regulations. Human behavior in a dynamic environment is far too complex to manage with policy. The next significant improvement in vehicular safety stats will come from an individual commitment to a safe operation not from better built machines or more regulations.