View Full Version : Ground controled aircraft article in FT

Dutchie 2
18th Sep 2001, 17:27
Dear all,

Please find enclosed the text of an article that appeared in today's Financial Times.

Maybe this could be a solution and I would like to see a professional Pro's and Con's debate on the proposed operating aircraft from the ground in certain circumstances.

Please refrain from personal attacks on the writer of the article, if you have a problem with the guy start your own topic. :rolleyes:

Flying into adversity
Air travel faces difficult times. Robert Ayling has some suggestions for governments and the industry
Published: September 17 2001 20:11 | Last Updated: September 17 2001 20:16

The magic of flight last week became the nightmare of mass murder. Air travel, the safest means of transport, the indispensable conveyance of people for work or pleasure, the physical expression of our freedom to move and to trade, realised its potential for harm of an order which theorists of risk may have considered rationally but which most of us who fly have kept deep in our consciousness.

Airline managers and frontline employees, aircraft manufacturers, insurers and governments have considered and planned for the single aircraft accident, including possible deaths and damage to property on the ground. They have considered the risk of multiple collisions in busy flight paths and developed systems for their avoidance. They have faced up to previous experiences of terrorism and hijacking and installed screening systems which may have deterred and prevented bombs being taken aboard aircraft. They have faced the consequences of privatisation, deregulation, huge increases in competitive capacity and upheavals from events such as the Gulf war, Chernobyl and the Libyan raids (when North Atlantic leisure traffic dried up). Now they may be facing their greatest challenge.

The job of governments is to represent our interests as citizens. As citizens we want security and freedom. But absolute security is impossible. So we must accept less than complete security as the price of freedom. No doubt more physical security checks, the banning of everyday objects which could be weapons (though I suspect that the terrorist is always more likely to be ahead in this area) and less easy access to the flight deck, will all be on the agenda.

There is a danger here. Governments will want to be seen to be doing something. They will do things which have no real benefit but which show action. As a citizen and air traveller, I hope this does not happen or at least not more than is unavoidable.

But there are two areas where government action to reduce the threat of terrorism and to improve the effectiveness of response would be useful. Airlines have unique access to intelligence about people's movements. They may not know the significance of a person travelling from one country to another but they know it is happening. Better use of this knowledge and liaison with the security specialists within airline companies must have real value in the improvement in the human intelligence which we read is now necessary. There can be little sensible objection to this erosion in liberty.

Second, though I am not a technologist, it must be possible, as we see cruise missiles flown remotely into the windows of buildings, for civil aircraft to be flown from the ground. Would it not be possible on a given signal from an aircraft or an unauthorised deviation from a flight-path for ground pilots to take control? While the passengers of the aircraft may not be wholly out of danger, the risk of using the aircraft as a missile against a ground target may be avoided. The extraordinarily impressive development of the TCAS system, now mandatory, shows what technology can do: aircraft, fitted with transponders, are automatically diverted away from mid-air collisions. A fast, government-sponsored transfer of technology in guidance systems from the military sector could bring huge benefits in helping aircraft in trouble.

The economic challenge for airline managers and investors is accentuated by the fact that the industry is highly geared on both the capital and the operating accounts. Every fall in passenger numbers reduces revenue but has almost no effect on costs. At the time of Chernobyl, imaginative ways of reducing costs quickly were put in place with the agreement of airline employees - for example, long-term unpaid leave or absence on reduced pay but with a promise of return when demand was restored.

But the traditional methods of cutting costs quickly by cancelling all capital expenditure, returning aircraft on short-term operating leases and looking at all discretionary expenditure, however apparently sacrosanct, will this week be on the screen of every airline chief executive. Any aspiration to pay incremental dividends in an industry so volatile will also be on this list. Perhaps it should now be replaced by special dividends in good times only.

Even so, some airlines may not survive. The insolvency of Ansett, the Australian carrier, shows the risks even in normal times. An indefinite downturn in demand will push some well-known names to the brink. There will be an expectation of government support and we may well see attempts at recapitalisation by government-owned companies. But privately owned companies should not expect or, in my opinion, be given state grants. The solution here is to face the fact that there have been too many airlines - particularly in Europe - for too long and to consolidate or liquidate. And if there is to be state help, it should be in making this possible.

The employees of airline companies are particularly exposed. We speak of them as frontline employees, and this is literally true. The pilots and cabin attendants of American Airlines and United Airlines lost their lives last Tuesday doing their job. Airline employees trust their managers every day to have taken all reasonable steps to ensure their safety. The bonds within an airline are especially human and need even more careful nurturing by good management when absolute assurances for the future are so difficult to give and yet when the feelings of the frontline are on such public view. I was particularly struck and, if I may say so, proud of the friendly professionalism of the British Airways crew who brought my family and many American families to London at the weekend after delays in Europe caused by enhanced security checks and lost slots. The same will be true throughout the industry.

So finally there is us, the passengers. We will face and must accept some inconvenience. We will face and we should expect higher fares. We will want but cannot have absolute security. We can only do what should always be done in the face of illegitimate force: carry on with our lives as normally as possible and carry on flying.

The writer is a former chief executive of British Airways