Always the Last to Know

In spite of reports to the contrary, Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airlines deny emergencies that occurred during Sunday’s power outage at the Lagos airport. The rest of the world knew about the power outage even before power was restored. Apparently however, no one told Qatar Airways or Ethiopian Airlines.

Even the brand-spanking new radar system installed at Murtala Mohammed International Airport will not function without power. And neither can communications.

Of course, how do you communicate while in denial?

Pilots coped by flying in a holding pattern or rerouting to other airports when they stopped receiving input from ATC during the power outage.

Officials of Ethiopian Airlines and Qatar Airways can play all the semantic games of denial that they want. The game is up. Everyone knows. Newspapers got wind of the power outage forcing up to a dozen planes into holding patterns, some of them until they experienced a fuel crisis and had to land without official clearance. There’s nothing like a little journalism to clear the air.

With enforcement bodies like IATA and EASA empowering the airline passenger and providing oversight, and the aviation industry taking advantage of the (practically) instantaneous communication the world enjoys, legitimate airlines have made it universal policy to be as “transparent” and honest as possible regarding the unavoidable multitude of mini-disasters that constantly creep up in the course of making the world safe for aviation. It is that kind of wide-awake, constant open trouble-shooting and problem-solving which makes flying as safe as it is. No one wants to be “caught with their pants down”– but when it happens, you can be sure most airlines do their best to be wearing shiny clean underwear when it happens.

Except in countries where denial reigns over truth. Countries that have certain airlines on a banned list.

Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airlines say “none of their pilots complained about an enforced landing prompted by depleted fuel.” Maybe their pilots are scared to open their mouths, especially if they’re familiar with that policy of denial.

One wonders if their pilots–or air traffic control, for that matter–had cell phones. Surely SOMEone in ATC called the main office and said, “Excuse me boss, but we have 12 planes circling, and no electricity. What do we do? What is the policy on that?” Surely SOME pilot used a cell phone, and told somebody somewhere, “Dude, we gotta land, we’re running out of fuel.”

What did they say at headquarters? Pretend it’s not happening?

To the folks in charge at Qatar and Ethiopian: Listen, nobody’s perfect. These things happen. Don’t deny it. Take responsibility. You examine what went wrong. You fix it so it doesn’t happen again.

You don’t pretend it didn’t happen. You’re not a seven year old who broke Mama’s favorite cup or tracked mud on the carpet.

You don’t fire the poor shmuck who happened to be on the duty that day.

You admit the problem, own it, examine it in detail, and fix the mechanism, and make helpful policies for what to do if it happens again. And to go the distance, you award that poor shmuck on duty, because while you were sitting there with your head in the sand, denying any problem existed, somebody somewhere on the front lines—pilots and/or ATC—made some right decisions that kept people alive.

Originally Posted by George Hatcher Thursday, December 17, 2009