The Many Faces of Aviation
Swissair Flight 111 departed JFK Airport, New York, USA, at 2018 eastern daylight savings time on a scheduled flight to Geneva, Switzerland and approximately 73 minutes later crashed into the sea off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. Within hours, there was growing speculation that a catastrophic electric failure aboard the seven-year old MD-11 was a likely culprit considering the pilot had reported an abnormal odour in the cockpit nineteen minutes before impact. It was also the case that the plane’s flight recorder had not recorded the final six minutes of the flight, suggesting that the plane had lost all electrical power prior to impact.
If only it was that simple.
The official investigation into the crash, carried out by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), took four and a half years and cost in excess of $40m. When the TSB released their final report on March 27th 2003 they cited the investigation as ‘…the largest, most complex aviation safety investigation the TSB has ever undertaken’.
What the crash of Swissair Flight 111 has demonstrated is that when considering the circumstances in which an aircraft crashes one has to look not only at the conduct of the airline and the crew concerned but also the conduct of the aircraft manufacturer, the third parties who carry out modifications to aircraft and most importantly in this case the regulator; the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
As an industry, aviation is elitist. It is an industry made up of a number of clubs. There are clubs made up of airlines, manufacturers and regulators amongst others. Each of these clubs unites when their collective commercial and political interests are under scrutiny. This is traditionally the case when an aircraft crash is under investigation. A finding of fault can result in financial penalties both in the short and longer term. In the case of Swissair Flight 111, Swissair was not just an airline. It was a national emblem of Switzerland’s efficiency, excellence and propriety. There was a lot at stake and it cannot go unnoticed that within three years of the crash of Swissair 111, Swissair filed for bankruptcy and a criminal investigation was launched into whether Swissair's parent company acted illegally in amassing losses of 2.9bn Swiss francs ($1.7bn) in 2000.
The individual who guides IASA is a member of the most exclusive of clubs; a club whose membership is restricted to those who have lost loved ones in aviation disasters. Bureaucracy does not perturb such individuals nor are they intimidated by protocol or the customary way of doing business. Their motivation is to see that justice is done and the factors that contributed to the needless deaths of their loved ones are not imposed on other innocent individuals. As Chairman of IASA, Lyn has always strived to give a voice to both the technical issues that brought Swissair 111 crashing down into the sea and to the humanitarian issues that surfaced as a result.
Whilst each faction has different resources at their disposal and is motivated by different interests, there is room for both. Indeed balance is critical in ensuring that all possible measures are taken regardless of other interests. What we have come to realize is there is much work to be done in this regard and until then it is the responsibility of organizations such as IASA to ask the difficult questions and put a human face to aviation safety.