I’d like to ask a fundamental question about aviation and the safety vs. profit continuum. Usually the question is posed: At what cost safety? But I’d rather ask: At what cost efficiency?
The GNAS is the General National Airspace System, the name for the entire infrastructure of aviation – the radars, the navigation aids, the scopes, the radios, the antennas, the approach lights, etc. The Air Traffic Control system operates within the GNAS, sort of like your browser operates within the Web. Right now the GNAS is a remarkably decentralized system – you could completely shut down a major facility and the rest of the country keeps operating. The GNAS is a lot like the Web in that regard. From a Homeland Security standpoint, a decentralized system is exactly what you’d want to have.
In the US we talk about “the ATC system“, but from a global perspective we should really be talking about ATSP, Air Traffic Service Providers. In the US, the government (DOT / FAA) is the primary ATSP, but there are other ATSPs also. In the last ten years, the non-government (that is, Corporate) ATSPs have been gaining market share.
Traditionally governments used to run ATC. Government run ATC is a curious creature, because it’s an operational organization that’s accountable to political leadership – but that schizophrenia has both baggage and benefits. Government oversight means the ATC system is accountable to the people, and government funding means that safety shouldn’t be compromised over profitability or dubious financial models.
Now Corporations are getting into the business – in fact, they’d like you to think it’s a business. It’s not a business, but the closer they can describe it to being a business, the easier they can move into it. Up north, NavCanada is a Corporate ATSP. Down Under, Australia uses Air Services Inc. In Europe there’s a bunch of commercial ATSPs. That’ll be another post.
Safe, Orderly, and Expeditious
Once the “don’t hit” mission is accomplished, the ATC system’s first priority is Safety. Let’s make sure the pilots have the right information, let’s make sure they get a warning if they’re about to descend into the trees, let’s ask them if they really intend to land on that icy runway when a better one is available.
Once the Safety mission is accomplished, the ATC system’s next priority is the Orderly flow of traffic. Airplanes with passengers on them should be treated in an orderly (rather than a slapdash) manner. There’s a lot of wisdom in prioritizing an orderly operation, rather than just throwing a bunch of airplanes into the mix and working it out at the last moment through heroic cleverness. Being orderly tends to mitigate the undesirable effects of human performance.
The final priority of the ATC system is Expeditious. After Safe and Orderly, the system strives to move everybody with minimal delay.
If the goal is “expeditious”, why are there delays? Because the ATC system has no authority over the airline schedules. The airlines overbook the airports and it falls on the ATC system – who didn’t create the mess – to deal with the congestion by delaying airplanes until they can fit into the Safe and Orderly mandates.
The mantra drilled into every budding young controller is: Safe, Orderly, and Expeditious, and in that order. You’ll notice that it doesn’t say: Reasonably Safe, Mostly Orderly, Usually Expeditious, and Somewhat Profitable.
Safety should be the first priority in the transport industry, but it’s not – if Corporations don’t make money they go out of business, so survival through profitability becomes their first priority. Profitability is everything in the aviation industry.
People may say, But what about a non-profit corporation? It doesn’t matter – because a non-profit’s primary goal is balancing revenue with costs. Look at most non-profits and they’re always pressed for money and cutting corners to keep the doors open.
There’s an inherent conflict between profitability and safety. Sometimes businesses have a rough year. Sometimes bonuses are tied to the schedule more than safety. Sometimes people in businesses make cost-based decisions rather than safety-based decisions, and while they’ll get away with a few of those cost-based decisions, eventually people will die. If it’s your Aunt Mary that dies, you’re going to care about it.
Nobody gets a gold-star for cost-effectiveness once Aunt Mary’s death is on the news. You probably love somebody that flies on airliners. We shouldn’t be playing profitability roulette. The generally accepted wisdom is that profitability should never take priority over safety, and yet that’s what corporations and businesses do by their very nature.
It would be convenient if an organization could have two “first priorities”, but it always come down to picking just one priority. The occasions where you have to choose from among a small group of priorities are few, but in a system with a half-million flights a day, even a 1% window of goal conflict means you’re talking about a lot of people’s Aunt Mary’s.
When you put a safety-first situation into Corporate hands you are designing, you’re even accepting, the inherent conflict between safety and profits. The businesses don’t use the word profit, they use soft phrases like cost-effective or value-driven, but it’s money they’re talking about.
Let me ask you a fundamental question:
Should the Air Traffic Service Provider’s priority be “safety first”, or should it be about cost-effective safety?
This is one of those Socratic questions meant to generate courteous, philosophical discussion in a spirit of good will. I’d encourage you to enter your comments in the space provided.