By Howard Green
Risk management is all the rage at banks. But imagine if you’re an airline.
As a top official at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington told me many years ago, if you think ensuring safety is expensive, see what it’s like after an accident.
This Labour Day weekend is the thirteenth anniversary of the crash of Swissair 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia, arguably the beginning of a chain of events that led to the insolvency of the airline. The four crashes caused by terrorists on 9/11, finished the job.
The inquiry into the Swissair 111 accident took four and a half years and there were a series of recommendations made to ensure the same thing would not happen again. I made a documentary chronicling that investigation, and I now think my spouse and I may be the beneficiary of one of the safety recommendations.
We were flying to Iceland for three days, en route to Copenhagen, then on to Zurich for the wedding of friends. Icelandair seemed like a fun way to make our way to Europe. The airline of the fiscally challenged island lures travelers with the bonus of a free stopover in Iceland, before flying on to the continent. We took the bait, looking forward to the geological beauty and geothermal baths.
As we settled in, I stared at the Icelandic printed on the back of the seat in front of me. It’s a hypnotic looking language and it said “life vest under the seat”, that much I could decipher. As I looked over the safety information, for a nanosecond, my thoughts went to the poor souls who’ve been faced with evacuating a plane after an emergency landing, or worse, having no opportunity to do so.
As a result of making the Swissair 111 film and another documentary on the science of crash investigations, I am oddly enough, a comfortable flyer knowing how much work goes into making commercial air travel safe. That night, though, I was finally about to find myself on a plane with a problem.
The flight attendant made the usual announcements about safety procedures, prefacing them by telling us that this aircraft in the fleet, a Boeing 757-200, had been named after one of the island’s many volcanoes. Somehow, that seems like tempting fate.
The flight left around 10 p.m. on a Friday night after a tiring week. I quickly fell into as sound a sleep as you can manage in an airplane seat, but was soon awakened by an announcement from the captain. He said in a calm voice that the plane was vibrating in a way that made him uncomfortable. As a result, we were turning back and would be landing in about half an hour. There was no panic, just disappointment.
We landed without incident, got off the plane and waited in the departure lounge for information. Fire trucks and emergency vehicles had surrounded the aircraft, and everyone stood at the windows snapping shots of the excitement. We still didn’t know what had gone wrong, but were happy to be on the ground and
I knew from the findings of the Swissair 111 investigation that time could be short when an emergency occurs. Within 20 minutes of smoke first appearing in that jet’s cockpit, the Swissair MD-11 slammed into the Atlantic Ocean at high speed, taking 229 people with it.
Among their many recommendations for dealing with an emerging crisis, investigators advised pilots set aside airborne troubleshooting. Instead, the advice was to land the plane as soon as possible. Not that the Swissair pilots frittered away time. They simply didn’t have enough under the circumstances.
The Icelandair crew’s decision to turn back was wise — prudent risk-management, if you will — and followed the Swissair report’s recommendation to the letter. Although inconvenienced, we were all alive.
The next night, checking in to give it another shot, the ticket agent told us that a water pipe had exploded in the plane. I knew from the Swissair case that crashes seldom occur for one reason. They are the product of a chain of events. A burst pipe could have been an early link in a deadly chain. Furthermore, he told us a tire on the plane had blown after we’d landed and disembarked.
Perhaps we came down heavier than usual with a lot of fuel on board, stressing the tire. But after a five-hour flight from Toronto to Iceland, had we not turned back, we might also have landed on a bum wheel and ended up in the ditch or worse.
Since 1998, the year of the Swissair 111 accident, more than 8500 people have died in almost 80 major air crashes, not including those lost in 9/11. Those of us on flight 602 to Reykjavik on that Friday night last spring may have been close to joining the list, but we may also have one of the recommendations of a crash inquiry to thank.
The replacement aircraft on the next night, it turns out, was also named for one of Iceland’s volcanoes. Note to Icelandair: as spectacular as your landscape is, please revisit this tradition.
Howard Green is anchor of “Headline” on BNN. His documentary on Swissair 111 has been shown worldwide, won
a Gemini Award and was nominated for two Emmys.
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