Dodging a bullet in the skies

Credit: Bloomberg

by : Derwin Pereira

If there is one piece of good news in the horrible episode of Singapore Airlines (SIA) Flight SQ321, which encountered sudden and extreme turbulence over the Irrawaddy Delta region in Myanmar on May 21, it is that SIA dodged a bullet in the skies.

That bullet took the probable form of clear-air turbulence (CAT), an extremely violent phenomenon that occurs at high altitudes, normally between 23,000 and 39,000 ft (about 7,000m and 11,900m) up in the air, and which is particularly dangerous because it cannot be seen in advance, unlike weather-caused turbulence, called convective turbulence. CAT poses a particular challenge to the navigational skills of pilots, who cannot fall back on protocols such as diverting the flight or entering a holding pattern. How can you avoid what you cannot see coming your way? Those manning the cockpit of SQ321 deserve to be commended for having steered the aircraft to safety.

Exactly what happened remains open to investigation, but what has come to the fore is the professionalism of the cabin crew during the incident. Reports speak of crew members who were themselves hurt but were tending to passengers, unaffected by the severe turbulence that had disrupted what had been till then an uneventful flight.

British national Josh Silverstone, a passenger on the flight, said in an interview with British news outlet Sky News: “I remember waking up on the floor and just listening to people crying, looking around and seeing blood; seeing the ceiling falling through and things like that. It was pretty alarming. There was a lady in front of me, kind of elderly; she couldn’t move. She didn’t remember her name. She didn’t know why she was on the flight.” He added that he had seen a member of the cabin crew who had been scalded by hot water (since breakfast was being served at the time). “There were many other crew members who were bleeding as well, walking around checking that everyone’s okay.”

That takes some doing, but SIA prides itself on its professionalism, including the quality of its service. Early into its operations, which began in 1972, it adopted service as the core strategy that would come to differentiate it from other airlines, a strategy inscribed in the tagline, “Service even other airlines talk about”. It did not imagine then that its claim would be tested, not only by the impatience and occasional impertinence of imperious passengers, but by natural forces. Yet, even when those forces struck, the cabin crew responded with an instinctive reflex inherited from rigorous training.

SIA’s success in training its own staff in safety and service — human resource development in two critical areas for any airline — has led to the establishment of the Singapore Airlines Academy. It seeks to empower businesses and organisations with complementary needs but from different sectors: from logistics, hospitality, retail, food and beverage and healthcare, to banking and finance, education and more. Clients are promised that they will be taken through systems and processes to elevate service standards, ranging from adopting a service philosophy and improving the customer experience journey, to handling challenging situations and more.

There is a happy irony in the story of the academy. SIA was born and took to the skies on the strength of newly-independent Singapore’s determination to have a world-class airline that would soar far above the geographical range of a tiny island city-state. Now, the SIA success story is so entrenched in corporate minds that its academy can seek to impart the lessons of success to other organisations, lessons that are embodied in very high standards of safety and service.

Those standards are taken for granted in good times. It is bad times that stretch and test standards to the limits. The cabin crew on board SQ321 proved that they have the mettle to deal with an exigency through the capacity for care and calm that they imbibed from their training.

The emergency in this case evoked in staff a responsiveness that should enhance SIA’s reputation, no matter what legal action the airline might or might not face because of the single death and the multiple injuries, some serious, that occurred during this unfortunate incident. No one can and should be immune to the sufferings of the passengers affected, but the fortitude of the cabin crew deserves to be remembered. Without it, the suffering would have been more intensive till the plane landed at Bangkok and rescue teams took over.

I should not be too effusive. My own experience of flying SIA is mixed. At its best, the service is exemplary. It is world-class at 37,000 ft. At its worst at ground level, it leaves much to be desired. It is not a good idea, for example, to treat passengers with disdain. The ground staff are not always up to par.

No matter how good an airline’s service in the skies might be, it will fail to have a lasting impact if there is a disconnect with the service provided by the ground staff. Organisational anomalies need to be corrected, and uneven communication needs to be ironed out. It is a test for an organisation to be functioning smoothly even in an emergency. It takes very little to function normally in normal times.

Other threats to aviation

Speaking of abnormal times, there are many kinds of bullets to be dodged in the skies. SIA and other airlines face an array of threats to aviation ranging from terrorism to climate change.

Terrorism is a potent threat. However, what ameliorates it (from airlines’ point of view) is that it is meant to be handled through a whole-of-government approach on the ground. Security at airports depends on the vigilance of the screening authorities, which are tasked with ensuring that people with the means to bring down a flight do not enter the aircraft in the first place.

In fact, the degree to which terrorists are deterred from even trying to infiltrate airports depends on the ability of governments to fight them outside those airports. That fight is both political and military.

Politically, the root causes of terror — poverty, injustice and twisted religious indoctrination — require the constant attention of governments. Militarily, force must prevail when persuasion fails. This does not mean that the threat or use of force will succeed all the time.

After all, the vigorous American response to the Sept 11, 2001 attack — a response that included the full-fledged invasion of Afghanistan — failed to prevent the 2002 Bali bombings from occurring. However, the preponderant use of force must succeed convincingly at critical times for new norms to be created. The defeat of Isis in 2019 created a semblance of peace in the heart of the Middle East that bene- fits airlines that operate to and from the region.

However, terrorism is amoebic. It seems to disappear from one terrain only to appear in another. Airlines need to be a part of the collective vigilance of the state, market and civil society to preserve aviation security. Every airline needs to follow interna- tional security protocols rigorously so that it does not provide loopholes for a terrorist invasion.

Climate change is an existential blight. A comprehensive report produced by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao) notes that rising sea levels could make it necessary to reinforce or even relocate airport infrastructure. The increased intensity of storms potentially affects jet engine performance and maintenance requirements. Rising temperatures may necessitate a reduction in passenger or cargo payload which could have an economic cost. Changes in wind speed and direction could increase CAT, “leading to increased injuries to passengers and crew and damage to aircraft” — words that need no explanation after what happened to SQ321. All in all, according to the Icao report, the effects of climate change on aviation business and economics “include both physical risks such as flight delays or airport closures and related costs, and contractual, regulatory or legal compliance risks”.

As airlines such as SIA face up to such challenges, what will help them is a continuing, coherent approach to issues of economic and reputational survival.

There will always be bullets in the skies. The point is to know how to dodge them.

The writer is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award- winning journalist and graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views.