Air travel has plummeted drastically in China since the Cononavirus outbreak. Domestic seats dropped close to 60% year on year in February 2020 and international seats plunged almost 80%. The airline industry has halted nearly 70% of its operation. On Feb. 2 alone, the country canceled as many as 11, 632 flights.
At the time when this article was written in early March, the Coronavirus syndrome for the airline industry had spilled over from Asia Pacific to the rest of the world. People began to feel weary about flying. Many canceled scheduled trips. Airlines also slashed and suspended flights. Karen Walker from Aviation Week wrote “It was that uncertainty and different responses by various governments that fueled the global public panic. People … did not want to fly … because of the perceived greater risk of catching the virus while trapped in a tube for several hours in close proximity to strangers.” The reason has merits. Flying sounds dreadful currently. Any passenger can be a risk factor – a potential virus spreader. Yet despite its validity, flying on a jetliner remains the safest way of travel even during an epidemic. The advantages of traveling by air far surpass any other mode of public transportation.
Facts and data have shown no cases of contagion from an airplane to date. All passengers including flight crews, China and International alike, are healthy and sound. This is contrary to the risks exposed on a cruise ship where thousands of travelers share space between a few decks, socializing, eating and entertaining collectively for days. Andrew Herdman, Director General at the Association of Asia Pacific states “Air travel does not cause more virus cases, but rather disperse the cases further.” So even though you are confined in a tube-like cabin, such confinement of a few hours is still much shorter than a ground journey. The possibility of catching an infection in such a timeframe by any person is low. In addition, keep in mind that air travel is highly regulated by each country’s aviation authority. Health and safety measures are comprehensive and need to be strictly followed by each operational flight. Many efforts and procedures add layers of protection to ensure cabin cleanliness and safety. All planes in service have been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. in China, the aviation authority also mandates no cabin movement within 20 minutes after take-off and 30-minutes before landing. Many passengers complained about this rule as it impacts mobility as well as reduces cabin service. But in time of combating the Conoravirus, reducing cabin movement of passengers is the right thing to do.
Another factor which contributes to a plane’s health safety is the air quality. Despite an enclosed tube, the air flowing in a plane is high-quality fresh air. It is cleaned with high-efficiency filters and the circulation system constantly brings in fresh air. In some aspects, the air in the cabin is cleaner than the air in an office building. Breathing in such an environment, it is unlikely to catch a respiratory infection. In fact there have been very few reports of infectious diseases being transmitted on planes in aviation history. Such research findings were announced recently by Emory University who conducted a series of studies on flights and disease transmission with scientists at Boeing.
Putting technicalities aside, we understand the biggest uncertainty comes from the human side. People don’t feel safe because of the big unknowns about other passengers – who they are, where they have been, whether they have already contracted etc. In China as there is a temperature check at every airport, the chance for a COVID-19 suspect boarding a flight is almost zero. If your city and your country don’t do temperature checks, or psychologically you are just weary about other passengers, the best course of action on a plane is to sit away from others. Purchase a Business or Premium Economy class ticket if possible. Minimize your movement and activities during the flight. There have been advice about choosing a window seat, not touching the IFE screen and turning on the air knob etc. Here are some of my answers relative to these tips.
1, Does a window seat help?
Technically speaking there is not much difference between a window vs. aisle or middle seat, especially when the flight exceeds 70% capacity. Except providing you a feeling of being cornered and isolated, a window seat offers few additional advantages, as you are still surrounded by other passengers. It only helps if your window seat keeps you away from people. However, other seats may offer similar distance as well, maybe even more.
2, How about not touching the IFE screen?
If you want to watch in-flight entertainment (IFE) programs, I would say just do it. Not to touch things or touching as little as possible reduces the possibility of picking up a germ or virus but does not eliminate it. It is almost impossible for a regular traveler not to touch things during a flight. But always remember to wash your hands, frequently and thoroughly. If you have portable sanitizers with you, wipe the IFE screen before touching it.
3, Shall I turn on the air knob or switch it off?
The air knob on top of your seat is part of the plane’s Environmental Control System (ECS). It helps to get cooler and circulated air. Air coming out of this outlet does not necessarily kill or suck in germs or virus but works with the entire ECS of the aircraft which produces high-quality clean air. So the simple answer is yes, to help air circulation and keep the cabin feel fresh, turn on the air knob.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in late January, I have traveled a couple of times within China. I have been to airports and train stations. I have flown commercial flights as well as riding a bullet train. My flight from Chengdu to Beijing was almost full. I managed to sit in a seat in the front-row of the main cabin. There were passengers sitting nearby but not close. In China almost all major airlines don’t open the first row for online seat reservations – a practice that bothers me deeply. But on this flight, it worked to my benefit. I switched to a front-row seat immediately after I noticed a passenger sitting next to my reserved seat. I hoped this instinctive reaction of mine was justified as the government educated people to keep distance from each other.
The man most likely felt relieved that I chose not to sit next to him. He was wearing a mask, quiet and still. For the entire flight, I did not put my mask on whereas the flight crew and many passengers wore masks. I felt safe. I always feel safe on an airplane. I believe in air travel. In addition to its utility, I believe in the notion that flying represents dreams. Dreams of freedom. Dreams of reaching new highs.
Last night I received a promotion message from China Southern Airlines, one of my favorite carriers in China, telling me a RMB200 free coupon had been deposited into my account. Browsing Ctrip.com this morning I found that RMB200 yuan can take me to a trip from Shanghai to Chengdu, or Shanghai to Xi’an etc. In other words, these routes are being offered for free. I did not rejoice when I saw it, instead I felt saddened. The giant Chinese airline industry takes decades of indigenous and painstaking work to build but collapsed only in a matter of days. While we all trust there will be a recovery, we also know the process can take months, if not years. In China, people begin to feel the worse is behind us. Airlines are looking forward to gradually resuming fights. The sooner people come out to fly, the quicker the recovery. Please allow me to end this article by saying: Come out to fly. Let’s keep flying. Let’s keep our dreams alive. It is safe to fly. Now. And in the future.
Have you looked into how long your organization has not updated the training materials?
Given Project Management as an example, its content, techniques and managing approaches are evolving especially with the emergence and prevalence of Agile. If your existing content was developed 3 or even 5 years ago and has not been updated, it sets an alarm that certain part of the material has been out-of-date. The result can be that your customers, the trainees may not feel the training content closely relevant to their work and their satisfaction to the training trends down.
I have one particular customer in Project Management who I have suggested and even urged to update the training material for almost two years. They are a global organization whose projects come from Marketing, Supply Chain and Web Portal development etc. For many of the web and software development projects, Agile techniques and approaches are applicable and should be introduced. Unfortunately the knowledge is not included in the training content. Employees can get confused in the classroom to apply the traditional approach to their web portal development projects in real life.
One size does not fit all. Choosing the right project management techniques, and train people to learn and apply the new techniques are critically important for saving organizational resources and helping people gain competencies. I have conducted multiple workshops. The most successful ones are those that the trainer delivers exactly what the trainees expect to learn. In short, the customer gets exactly what they needed.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) will modify its exam content for the PMP designation at the end of 2019. The new content will integrate more Agile related best practices. This manifests that Agile has been gaining recognition in project management. While it does not say that traditional project management is out-of-fashion, it does say that your organization has to constantly innovate to keep pace with the new knowledge, new techniques and new demand.
For leadership training, project and program management best practices and techniques in Asia Pacific, contact Sky Vision.
Writing and commentating on Aviation is a solitary affair. The community is small and the circle is self-enclosing. In China, there is also a lack of expertise. Most articles you read are translation from Western media which, many times serve an agenda rather than being objective, not to mention in-depth. In the West freedom of press has its own twists. Many times information is fed but authenticity is not guaranteed. Whatever articles you read, keep discretion as your best friend.
Since last time I wrote about the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crash, much has unveiled. The initial investigation report was released in early April. Quote the words of an American pilot Juan Browne who has a 40-year career flying commercial jets: “it is sad as they almost made it”.
Then what caused the plane not making it? (Here I am providing a simplified version for general public.)
Short after the Indonesian Lion Air crash, the American FAA issued an Emergency Airworthy Directive providing procedures on the Runaway Stabilizer Trim caused by the MCAS malfunction. You don’t have to memorize these terms just to understand it’s a procedure that tells pilots what to do when such an MCAS anomaly occurs. The Ethiopia crash has two primary reasons which the pilot did not do quite correctly according to the procedure.
First, the auto-throttle was not disengaged during the entire flight. This means the speed of the aircraft was pre-set and never reduced by the pilots even though the aircraft was experiencing uncommanded nose-downs. The plane, tragically was thrusting itself to the ground at 500 miles per hour.
Second is that the pilots changed the trim position from CUT OFF to ON at the end of flight. The FAA procedure stipulates that the trim remain “CUT OFF” in such an emergency. Because of the speed the jet was cruising, it was so difficult for the pilots to manually take over the aircraft when they switched ON the trim. Once they let go the little button on the trim yoke, MCAS reactivated and put the aircraft into a nose-dive position.
Reading the preliminary report and listening to pilots explaining and illustrating the situation is nerve-racking.
At this moment, you may say “okay, it is the pilot errors that caused the crash”. In fact, you cannot say that and you should not. It ought to go back to the manufacturer and tell them that it was your design that put the pilots in such a precarious situation in the first place. By saying it, the subject of MCAS has to be re-mentioned.
MCAS is there to prevent a stall. It is a back-up system supposed to work in the shadow. It must be there as the MAX has a bigger engine than the 737NG. What triggers MCAS to function is the AOA sensor located at the nose of the aircraft. In the Ethiopian case, it was preliminarily determined that the AOA sensor was damaged by an foreign object, most likely a bird. MCAS was activated due to the erroneous data AOA sensor sent. That is why Boeing defended itself and its CEO said “there was a chain of events that needs to be investigated”. Nevertheless he also reiterated: "We own it". Currently Boeing’s fixes are 1, put a redundancy system, a second AOA sensor at the aircraft. Only when data sent by the two AOA sensors simultaneously correspond and identical would MCAS be triggered; 2, MCAS would not be activated by data sent by one AOA sensor or the discrepancy between the two sensors is bigger than 5%. The link between MCAS and AOA sensor(s) would be cut off in such a case.
Technically and logically it works. Boeing has been touring worldwide providing updates about its software upgrades. Its sole aim and wish is to get MAX back to the sky as quickly as possible.
If things are this straightforward, you probably would not have heard all the bad news about Boeing nor the criminal investigations hanging at Department of Justice. There are many questions raised, starting from ... did Boeing know that MCAS was unsafe but put onto the aircraft nonetheless? How come they did not mention it in the flight manual and enforce training? How on earth was the flawed MCAS design certified by FAA?! To the questions such as how do they do business? What’s wrong with this company? Should its CEO resign?
Since the two accidents, I have talked with a few pilots as well as reading and analyzing comments posted on the industry forums. Many people are experienced engineers and pilots. Very often discussions turned into heated debates. I asked one US pilot last week: “why did some pilots say it is an easy procedure to fix whereas many say it is not?” His answer was: “Those who said it was easy normally have a big ego. They want to show how experienced they are. It is not that easy. Experience helps but no one can guarantee such an emergency be averted with such a flawed design embedded in the cockpit.”
What would be the solution? Is MCAS really needed? Can Boeing get rid of the MCAS?
MCAS is needed for the current 737 MAX. If Boeing wants to get rid of the MCAS, they have to go back to the drawing board and start a whole new design. It takes time. It costs billions. And don’t forget MAX has already 5,000 orders. Why do they want to do it? Can they afford doing it? At the moment, Boeing is not slightly contemplating doing it.
This is where the situation stands today. Manufacturer wants to fix the software and pushes for ungrounding. Pilots and their unions are expressing concerns and acting cautiously. FAA is treading carefully. There is no time table for the 737 MAX back in the air.
Which brings enormous pressure to Boeing. Think about the situation where you have pocketed 5,000 orders. With no one taking delivery, no one flying, you still have to produce 42 such aircraft every month, pay your suppliers but no cash flows in from customers. In addition you have to carefully act within the legal frame as lawsuits are mounting.
Don’t ever forget the stock price. The modern American business fears more about shareholders dumping their shares than customers switching to competitors. On May 21, the Wall Street Journal published an article and mainstream media in the US quoted “Boeing Crash May Have Been Caused by Bird Strike”. Immediately market reacted to that headline and Boeing stock price jumped 3.5% pre-market (it ended up increasing 1.7% on that trading day). The online forums I participated in suddenly changed the technical debates into sarcasm and ridicule. Read some of the posts:
It's not easy to build a huge multi-engine aircraft that can be crashed by a pigeon, but they did it! They're quite proud of themselves.
Short BIRDS!!!!! BULLISH BA!!! (BA is Boeing’s stock ticker)
In our last week’s meeting with China’s aviation authority – CAAC in Shanghai, I talked with two leaders who are seasoned pilots previously with China Eastern Airlines. One was specialized in flying Boeing jets. He told me that China had taken serious measures after the Indonesian Lion Air crash and shared the “best practices” among its pilots in such a Runaway Stabilizer Trim situation. He was quite proud and said: that is why we did not have such a problem. On the other hand he was not hiding his anger. “Boeing made a big mistake.” He stated.
If you ever made a mistake, the best way to move forward is to admit it and correct it. Make sure it will not happen again. In this case, it is not as easy as it sounds. Admitting it is tantamount to say “I am guilty” which implies not only the financial remedies you have to pay to the victims and customers but also ensues conclusion of the two criminal investigations. Not admitting it? Think about the blemishes to your reputation and credibility. They may last for years and decades if people ever forget.
In China things have turned more intertwined as the grounding came at a time of trade war. Right after the American President Donald Trump announced his crackdown on Huawei, all major Chinese airlines claimed financial compensation from Boeing. China was the first country in the world that announced the 737 MAX grounding. Its resolute reaction proves to be prudent and right. When Boeing wants its plane back in the air, China is the foremost nation they need to rectify and receive a green light from. What’s going to happen? Quote the CAAC leader, “grounding is easy but ungrounding is not going to be easy”.
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 being 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 airplane, there is no such a chance for 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 and the landing named "Sully" starred Tom Hanks was released in 2016.