It could’ve been ashes to ashes, dust to dust
To fly, or not to fly, that is the question/Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of disgruntled travellers/Or to take flight against a sky of troubles/And by opposing, end them?
Like Hamlet, airlines face a lose-lose situation. Do they cancel flights at the expense of customer good will or risk planes falling out of the sky from catastrophic engine failure? Because, let’s be honest here, there are no good plane crashes.
In June 1982, Capt Eric Moody and his crew were flying from Kuala Lumpur to Perth when all four engines on their British Airways jumbo jet failed. Without knowing it, they’d flown into a volcanic ash cloud. For the next 13 minutes, the lives of the 248 passengers and 15 crew were in the balance. Without engines, they were ditching into the sea. That they restarted the engines and saved 268 lives is well known and dramatised on TV shows. But what if the outcome was different?
Last year, the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted and covered Europe with a massive dust cloud, throwing into disarray travel arrangements for tens of thousands. Airlines grounded planes and restricted flights in the affected regions. Significantly, no major aircraft incidents occurred. This led to questioning as to whether the no-fly policies were too conservative.
In Australia, we now face similar questions, particularly when one airline chooses to fly while others cancel their flights. Olivia Wirth, a Qantas representative, said their policy is, “...that if there is a plume over the flight paths, if there is a plume over the airports, we simply will not operate services.” It’s nice to think that this major company regards the safety of its crew and passengers as more important than its bottom line. Jetstar, being a Qantas subsidiary follows a similar line. Many Virgin flights flew where Qantas and Jetstar did not.
Perhaps there’s more to the Qantas decision than safety. In December 1989, KLM Flight 867 flew through a volcanic ash cloud on approach to Anchorage International Airport, Alaska. All four engines failed. Just like Capt Moody seven years before, the KLM crew required numerous attempts to restart the engines and landed the aircraft without injury to any of the 245 people onboard. The same could not be said for the aircraft engines, which required replacement. The reported cost of repairs exceeded $80 Million.
So, back to this week’s disgruntled travellers. They planned their travel – holidays, business, employment – and now they’re stuck. Emotional scenes of weary passengers stranded in airports are fodder for TV. Distraught parents with grizzling kids, small business owners who can’t open their shops, even football teams on the wrong side of the country, everyone is equal on a cancelled flight.
Some have travel insurance, some don’t. Some will lose income, some business opportunities and some the trip of a lifetime. Some are complaining that the airlines are at fault.
And some want compensation. To paraphrase Hamlet again, therein lies the rub. Should an airline pay compensation to passengers who are out of pocket, where flight cancellations occur for safety reasons? If so, should it extend beyond the value of the flight? Australian airlines are good at rescheduling passengers on cancelled or delayed flights, but is this enough? I’m afraid there are no simple answers.
The managers whose airlines flew will be lauded for their courageous decisions – everyone loves a hero. But have they just played a massive game of Russian roulette? If their aircraft come through unscathed, then hooray! If not…
Qantas can never know if its flight cancellations averted a disaster, nor can they avoid the slings and arrows of the affected. But its managers can sleep with clear consciences, knowing they didn’t risk the lives of their crew and passengers.
Whether they protected or jeopardised shareholders’ profits is irrelevant, as is the weight of this motivation on their decision-making. What matters is that when faced with a hazard of catastrophic potential, they acted conservatively. Travellers take note, your families should be grateful.
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