Should we still fly?

How do I know I am safe?


Last night, when I mentioned I worked for Boeing, someone said “they have a scandal now. The crashes are so scary.” 

When it comes to flying, almost all crashes are fatal and tragic. I pray for the 346 souls lost in Lion Air 610 and Ethiopia Airlines flight 302 as well as extend my great sympathy for their families and loved ones. 

There is no scandal for Boeing rather the tarnish to its reputation and the reduced public confidence in its products. Needless to say catastrophes like these make you question about aviation safety. Should we still fly? Should we still fly Boeing? What does it mean to you and me as an ordinary passenger? 

Let me explain in the simplest layman’s term in what could have happened. Bear in mind that no final conclusion have drawn about the causes of the crashes at this moment. 

The 737 MAX 8 is an upgrade version of 737-800 which is the best seller among all 737NGs (new generation). As it has a larger engine than the 737-800, Boeing installed a software acronymed as MCAS. It brings down the nose of the airplane when it hits a stall during a lift. In the Lion Air flight, MCAS sent false data to put the plane in a nose-down mode. The cockpit struggled to lift the plane. After a few failed attempts by both the captain and the first officer, MCAS set the plane at a maximum nose-down effect. The captain tried to pull back from full force but it was too late to reverse the dive.

There is one important philosophy of Boeing’s airplane design which we’d like to call “aviator in charge”. What it means is that when the buttons and machines in the cockpit fail to function, pilots can pull the gears and switches manually to take full control of the aircraft. Visualize the traditional image of a pilot in your head. That person would be strong, tall and fit. Physical requirements have been very important for a pilot. He has to be well fit to be able to pull the heavy gears of an aircraft in time of emergency. Unfortunately this feature has been disappearing due to the advancement of technology. Just like any modern machine. Automation is in charge. Imagine that you rely on an iphone or Huawei to shoot pictures instead of using a Nikon or Canon. Even if you use a camera, how many times do you set on P (programmed) as opposed to M (manual)? In short, our human beings are more reliant on computer programming and software to do work for us. For airplane design, it is more or less the same. The philosophy of automation is to reduce human errors and make flying easier. However if some of the programs go wrong, humans cannot do much about it. Just like your laptop suddenly got stuck while you are using it, you have to shut it down and restart. When it comes to airplanes, there is no such a chance for a comeback.  

After the Ethiopian crash, especially in the US, pilots have been advocating to Boeing to make design changes to put back more “aviator in charge” features. Experienced pilots such as Captain Sullenberger are concerned that “the announced proposed fixes do not go far enough”.  My opinion is that as far as planes are more controlled by computers and the human intervention is limited in overriding machine decisions, there will be risks of malfunctioning somewhere and sometime in the world.  

That said, if you ever look at a satellite flight chart at any given time of the day before the crashes, especially the Ethiopian one, you would find there were a lot more 737 MAX 8 flying in the US, Europe and even in China. US airlines especially Southwest voluntarily endorsed the aircraft. One cannot help but wonder that why there was no such malfunction ever happened in the US? Are the US pilots better equipped with knowledge, skills and techniques to fly given its long aviation history? Some have raised the point that the two crashes both happened in the developing world. Statement like this is politically incorrect to say at least. However if you look into it, for the Ethiopian flight, the first officer had only 200 hours flight record, “a small fraction of the minimum in the US”. The captain and the first offer were 29 and 25 in age respectively. Lion Air is also a relatively new airline in Indonesia. I know I am pointing to something sensitive and very debatable. Design deficiencies are certainly there for Boeing and they underestimated the amount of training that is required for a regular pilot to master a new system. This is a great lesson learned for Boeing. On the other hand, I also had a clearer picture of what could happen with an airline cockpit and I would definitely go with airlines whose captains are masters of aircraft. Whether all this sounds reasonable to you or not, I definitely have no slightest wish that there will be future data verifying the point, right or wrong. 

 * Captain "Sully" (Sullenberger) is a renowned retired US pilot who landed his US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009 after two engines failed after a bird strike. All 155 passengers were survived. A movie of him named "Sully" depicted by Tom Hanks was released in 2016.  


No Chinese in C-Suite?

What It Takes to Lead Globally

In China we often encounter people to ask: why are there so few Chinese in global leadership positions? Especially in the Fortune 500 companies? Sometimes, people would even take one step further to ask: why are there more Indians making to the C-suite than Chinese? 

We have observed many HR consultants or retired senior leaders giving the answer in an opaque manner. Many times we hear it is about communication skills. While it is partially true it is also the most convenient answer one can give. A few times I noticed the speaker rumbling on stage struggling to frame a direct answer. While in other occasions the consultant appears to be very careful and hoping to come across polite and politically correct. 

A seasoned consultant is the one who is able to shed real insights and provide value-added advisory. At Sky Vision we maintain the highest professional standards with utmost respect for every individual and ethnic group. We take pride in our mastery of English and Chinese languages. Having spent a significant amount of time living and working across continents enables us to grasp the essence of issues and share thoughtful perspectives. For a question like this, the answer lies in several components which has to encompass social, historical and cultural contexts.

If you count both the East India Company and the British Raj’s rule in India, the British occupied India for almost 200 years. Integration of the Indian society into the West happened much earlier than a few Chinese elites flirting with the Western ideas in the late Qing Dynasty. English became one of India's official languages and for people with higher education. By and large, an average Indian is more vocal and communicative than her Chinese counterpart. Due to the shared language and its related culture and value, Western people and Indians would often find more in common. Indian people working in corporations would naturally enjoy an advantage in communication and people skills. When it comes to career advancement and promotion, Indians would then have a better “shot” than other Asian nationalities. So it might be true that you would see more Indian-faces in corporate leadership than the Chinese. However the world is changing.    

Providing an answer to this sensitive question is part one, but not the end game. Whatever the reason might be, it is only providing explanation to the status quo. What the speaker should do, as a senior leader or a people strategy consultant is to inspire people and guide people to envision a progressive future. In short the speaker must provide hope and act as a change agent herself. 

To be continued.


Fly This Chinese Airline


If you live in China or travel to China often, perhaps you have flown a few Chinese airlines. How do you choose airlines in China? I was once active with Star Alliance and I tended to go with Air China. Once I relocated to Shanghai I began to fly China Eastern. After almost 10 years loyal with Chinese Eastern, most recently I made a switch. Now the lesser-known China Southern Airlines becomes my main carrier in China. 

Despite its less-talked-about status, China Southern has emerged to be the biggest airline in China and the 4th largest in the world. Currently it operates a modern fleet consisting of 770 aircraft. What I like the most is that they use the newest twin-aisle aircraft on their key domestic routes. I like China Southern’s paring strategy, which also manifests they compete aggressively and they want to keep an edge on the product/journey they are offering. On my frequent travel in between Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing I fly 787 and 777-300ER often. I would definitely go for a 777-300ER if I come across one. Most airlines operate this aircraft for international flights. You barely find it on a domestic route. The cabin feels very bright and Spacious. Air is fresh. Seats are much more comfortable than those designed for domestic-only flights. China Southern has a three-class seating on their 777-300ER. On domestic routes, you can even get a free upgrade to the Premium Economy if you paid a full-fare or a member of their Sky Pearl Club. I have flown this aircraft often in between Shanghai and Guangzhou. Each time I enjoyed very much. 

New and large aircraft often means better in-flight entertainment programs. In among the Chinese airlines, China Southern provides the most interesting and diverse selections. On my most recent flights, I watched a French movie La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) which I loved dearly. I also watched a Russian film Viking and two German comedies. All these movies came out in 2017. I feel I was able to catch up with the world cinema by flying China Southern.  In addition to these international movies, it has a large selection of Hollywood recent releases, classics, Asian and Chinese movies. I can’t list them all. I can only say I was impressed and entertained. 

One thing you might easily overlook but it is important to know is that you will always get a bridge to board your airplane if you fly China Southern. What it means is that you don’t have to walk a long distance to get to a basement-like area of the airport to hop on a shuttle bus in order to board your airplane. The shuttle bus is a pain at the Chinese airports. It can be very crowded and sometimes travels a long way. China Eastern is notorious for the shuttle bus ride. If you fly out of Hongqiao with China Eastern, 9 out 10 you will find yourself to be on a shuttle bus. In China airlines have to pay an extra fee to park at a gate with a bridge. Obviously China Southern is paying a higher price for its parking lots than its competitors. The extra they paid affords passengers with more convenience and comfort. This cannot be overlooked.   

China Southern is based in Guangzhou. This is one of the reasons for many people living up-north are less familiar with the airline. In May 2018 Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport opened its 2nd Terminal which was dedicated to China Southern. This is the first time in China that a terminal is occupied by only one carrier. Not only is China Southern competing aggressively in the major cities, it also enjoys a niche in China’s wild west and runs flights in remote touristy regions. For instance, if you fly from Wulumuqi to Kashgar, most likely your flight is a Chinese Southern. Last year when my friend and I were traveling to Kanas Lake, an area bordering Russia and Mongolia, we decided to take a 50-munite flight from Wulumuqi rather than drive. Serendipitously we boarded a China Southern airplane.