What We Can All Learn from the Aviation Industry

The “fly” button is third from the left on the second row. The “land” button is cunningly hidden behind a removable panel in the rear lavatory. The rest control the in-flight-movie.

The aviation industry is one plagued with red tape and strict process, and not without good reason. With more than half of all plane crashes caused by pilot error, and the flying public unwilling to fly without pilots in the pointy end, aviation authorities are doing everything they can to turn the cockpit into a robotic, process-driven office.

Believe it or not, the problems that pilots face, and which cause aviation disasters, are often the same issues we face every day at the office. So the ways these have been solved and mitigated are worth a look, whether you’re flying a plane, or flying a desk…

Don’t distract me when I’m busy

Take-offs and landings are extremely busy times for pilots. Besides being the cool, calm head there to deal with emergencies when they happen, take-offs and landings are where they really earn their money.

Under 10,000-feet, airline pilots must obey a concept known as the “sterile cockpit”; that means they aren’t allowed to discuss anything except the job at hand. Checklists, departure or arrival routes, weather and radio communication with air traffic control, that’s all, nothing extraneous.

And you can tell when you’ve climbed to 10,000ft even as a passenger, it is usually signified by the pilots turning off the landing lights (the bright white lights in the wing roots) and turning off the fasten-safety-belt lights (as weather permits).

Applying this to the office: We all have busy times, I’ve seen several ways of signifying  that you don’t want to be disturbed and just want to get things done. Sometimes small flagpoles on desks can be have status flags hoisted up them, “do not disturb” or “only disturb me if it’s urgent”, for example. Other companies have employed simpler policies, business intelligence (BI) experts BusinessObjects, now part of German megacorp, SAP, uses headphones to indicate disturbability (a word I just made up). No headphones means the door is open. One headphone in means it needs to be pretty important. Both headphones means my head is down and the building had better be on fire…

Be specific when you tell me something

The language used by airline pilots has evolved over decades to become very strict and specific, and not without good reason. The deadliest aircraft accident in history (besides 9/11), where two fully-laden 747 collided on Tenerife’s Los Rodeos airport’s runway in fog in March 1977, has been put down to a misunderstanding of terminology.

Waiting to depart at one end of the runway, a KLM 747’s impatient Captain said on the radio that he was “ready for takeoff”. Meanwhile, a Pan Am 747 was still taxiing on the runway.  Continue Reading “What We Can All Learn from the Aviation Industry”

Answering Some Common Questions About Flying

That’s what you want in a pilot. Someone trustworthy-looking.

Flying is such a common occurrence these days that it’s almost a non-event. We’re pre-programmed to sit upright on take-off and landing, keep our arm-rests down, seatbelts on, but why? Time and time again, everyone asks the same questions about flying.

It’s a sad fact that most of the procedures we go through, and the weird rituals we must follow on board an aircraft, are in direct response to fatal accidents that have happened. So in this article I hope to dispel some myths and explain exactly why it’s important to follow the instructions given by your flight attendants (FAs).

It might just save your life.

Why does my window shade need to be up on take-off and landing?

This is the question I get asked most often and there are many assumptions, commonly: it’s so accident investigators can see the bodies in the plane if there’s a crash.

Not true, in fact, quite the reverse. Take-off and landing are historically the two most dangerous phases of flight, statistics back this up comprehensively. So if you’re going to be in a plane crash that’s when it’s most likely to happen. But most aviation accidents are survivable, in fact most are as much of a non-event as the flight in the first place.

One of the most terrifying things to occur on an aircraft is a fire. Whether that is a galley fire or an engine bursting into flames, it’s not a comforting experience. You’re on a craft filled with potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds of Jet-A and the lowest number of exits the manufacturer and airline could get away with (doors are relatively heavy increasing fuel consumption, and you can’t sell Sprite and peanuts to emergency exits…). So with that in mind, if you have a crash, you’ll really want to know where the big pools of flaming jet fuel are so you can leave the big metal bird from the exits on the other side.

Air France 358 overshot the runway at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in Canada on 2nd August 2005, it slid into a creek at the end of the runway and burst into flames. The aircraft, or “equipment”, was an Airbus A340-313X and there were 309 people on board. This is the result:

Continue Reading “Answering Some Common Questions About Flying”

Ultimate Plane Geek Toolkit

Fly, Bessie, Fly!!!

It can often be disconcerting for new people who meet me when they realise I’m a massive, anorak-wearing aviation geek. But aviation is something that unites us all. We all board those giant metal tubes with wings with a sense of excited trepidation. We all know the joys of miniature packets of peanuts and/or pretzels. We all hold our breaths as we barrel down the runway at 180mph before escaping the bonds of our mother planet to spend hours suspended at 39,000ft by nothing more than hope and complex equations. And we’ve all felt that interminable wait while a loved one blasts through the troposphere to distant climes praying for that text message to come in saying they “got down safely”. Flying is great and amazing and awesome. So, if you feel the same way, here is the Ultimate Plane Geek Toolkit…


FlightRadar24: LIVE Flight Tracking

The two sites I use for flight tracking are FlightRadar24.com and FlightAware.com. They each take a slightly different tack to flight tracking.

FlightRadar24 uses a visually-engaging embedded Google Map with aircraft icons floating over it. This information is live and is provided by a digital signal broadcast by (most) modern aircraft called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (or ADS-B for short). This signal can be picked up by ground-based receivers connected to the Internet and contains information about an aircraft’s location, heading, altitude, callsign, airframe registration, etc.



The data is provided by amateur enthusiasts (and a few commercial ones too) but anyone can buy an ADS-B receiver and plug it into the FlightRadar24 system. In fact, FR24 are keen to get greater coverage so are offering free receiver equipment to anyone living in certain areas of the globe. More information on that here.

Some aircraft don’t have ADS-B on-board. In particular, I’ve noticed that FlyBe don’t operate the equipment.

The reason ADS-B came about is to stop Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) from having to rely solely on their ground-based radars. Radar (or RADAR to use its proper name because it’s an acronym, for RAdio Detection And Ranging) is affected by things like weather, distance and electrical faults. So some smart alec decided if you’ve got a $150m flying computer cruising around the atmosphere, why not get it to tell you where it is?

Where FlightRadar24’s coverage stops, I switch over to FlightAware.comContinue Reading “Ultimate Plane Geek Toolkit”