With ash clouds, terrorist threats, environmental concerns and recession, itís been a tough year for the airline industry. Gunther Matschnigg, Senior Vice President of Safety, Operations and Infrastructure at IATA, speaks with Ian Clover about the industryís security aims, regulations and operational future.
When the 'Fasten Seatbelt' light dings into action toward the tail end of your flight as you begin to make your descent to your chosen destination, what do you do? Most normal folk will close their laptops, remove the earphones, wake their travelling partner or maybe make a daring last minute dash to the toilet. However, for Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab - a 23-year-old Nigerian student aboard a Northwest Airlines transatlantic flight coming into land at Detroit on December 26 last year - this final ding was his cue to embark upon his fiendish plan to bring down the plane.
Attempting to ignite a device comprised of small firecracker-type explosives hidden in his underpants, Mutallab's plan failed thanks to the diligence of crew members and passengers, and his own ineptitude. Frogmarched to the front of the plane, his trousers in tatters and his legs burnt and black with soot, Mutallab's attempt at martyrdom and an eternity spent immersed among virginal bliss instead ended in the unedifying sight of being bundled into a security van on Detroit airport runway and whisked off to await trial. If Mutallab's actions are seen to have been in any way as serious as 2001's Richard 'shoe bomber' Reid, then a life sentence awaits.
The airline industry has always had to be tough on terrorist threats, even before 9/11. Aeroplanes are obvious terrorist targets, and so the security measures and processes passengers have to adhere to in order to fly are willingly accepted as overly heavy handed, time-consuming and thorough. The subconscious removal of jackets, belts, shoes and jewellery as we are herded through full body scanners has become second nature, as has the more recent procedure of gathering together miniature liquid bottles in clear plastic bags for our hand luggage - all thanks to 2006's foiled Heathrow attempt to bring down six planes with the use of liquid explosives.
Earlier this year, the aviation industry faced yet another threat to its ability to safely, conveniently and efficiently transport travellers to their desired destination - the now-infamous Icelandic ash cloud. This time, however, the threat was all natural (we are, as yet, to hear Al Qaeda claim responsibility for billowing millions of tonnes of ash into the air from their base camp deep in the bowels of Eyjafjallajokull) and totally alien to European travellers. Aircraft all over the continent were grounded for weeks; timetable chaos ensued and exasperated passengers ranted, raved, pleaded and then, eventually, accepted their lot. The planes were going nowhere. Safety came first. Punctuality came second. Passenger comfort trailed a distant third.
This brief period of plane-free skies was latched upon by environmental groups keen to highlight just how damaging the aviation industry is to the environment, decrying the imminent demise of airlines as we knew it. Far more injurious, though, was the financial damage this downtime did to the industry. With recession still barely shaken off, the airline industries and travel operators could ill-afford to be grounded. Businesses in Europe alone lost an estimated $3.2 billion during those trying few weeks in May. Unsurprisingly, airlines were some of the biggest victims, with losses totalling something in the region of $1billion in revenue.
Such a challenging start to the year proved wearisome for figureheads throughout the industry, yet Gunther Matschnigg, Senior Vice President of Safety, Operations and Infrastructure at IATA - the International Air Transport Association - has watched the last 12 months unfold from his Montreal headquarters with a mixture of pride, frustration and excitement at what the future holds.
"There have been numerous challenges for IATA over the past 12 months, particularly the economic environment and the volatility of the industry," begins Matschnigg. "We are only now beginning to see an upswing in the fortunes of the industry and may, by the end of the year, start to see parts of the industry making money after year on year losses."
The past 12 months have, reveals Matschnigg, been wholly characterised and defined by terrorist threat, ash clouds and the ongoing drive for increased passenger security. "The terrorist attempt at the end of December last year and the volcanic ash cloud are the two issues that are still very fresh. Both of these unforeseen events shaved quite a bit of money off the industry - €1.4 billion is a lot to lose, especially when our profit margins are slim to begin with, so an unforeseen eruption like the Icelandic ash cloud wiped away any buffer we had in place.
"Then there was the event of December 26th. In that instance we were lucky that the terrorist attempt didn't bring down an aircraft, but we have to be prudent and continue to work extremely hard together with the governments to ensure that these things won't happen again. It is so challenging, because on the one hand we have got to tighten security and implement measures to ensure that our passengers are safe, yet we have also to try to enhance the travel experience for passengers, particularly in the current economic climate."
The unforgettable events of 9/11 changed the aviation industry forever. Transatlantic business flights - previously the realm of perhaps the most relaxed form of airline security - suddenly became an arduous journey of long queues, intense scrutiny and often-invasive procedures inflicted upon innocent passengers. Suspicion reigned and security was tightened to levels never before seen. "This was nine years ago now and I think it's fair to say that flying is much more secure today than it was then," says Matschnigg. "There are a number of measures that have been introduced since then that have greatly improved security, including the data transmission that goes to the airports; the information that reaches the cockpit, and the information that is generally submitted to staff at every level of the flying procedure.
"But on the other hand what we haven't yet done as an industry is place more focus back on to passenger travel - some security regulatory bodies have lost sight that it is actual people going through their security processes. Although security is presently heightened, I think we can still make travel convenient and enjoyable, which is why we have decided, with the support of the Department of Homeland Security and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to develop a checkpoint for the future, to really focus on making the passenger experience as enjoyable as possible.
"We have to utilize the same dedication we have shown with our security measures on passenger comfort and ask ourselves: 'Is it really necessary that we implement this or that security measure?' While I cannot fully reveal exactly what is in the pipeline at the moment because we are still at the development stage, I can safely say that we are working toward fewer queues, less waiting time, more technology and the eradication of this two, three hour waiting that still prevails in some airports across the world."
Even the most exhausting and frustrating delays are tolerated by the masses if there is a legitimate reason for the hold up. But May's ash cloud deposited not just very fine particles on to the wings of planes, but also a collective volcanic funk throughout the moods of travelers at most airports across the world. If this seemingly unprecedented occurrence was hard for pending passengers to comprehend, then the airlines' collective response was even more arcane for Matschnigg to grasp. "From an airline point of view we followed the instructions given by the service provider and regulatory bodies. On the first day of the ash cloud they closed the airspace in Europe and nobody knew exactly what was going on, although it was only the first day so we were willing to accept this.
"But as the second, third, fourth and fifth day came along and we [IATA] knew that there was no threat to airlines, there was still nobody with the courage or authority to instruct airspace to be opened up fully. I can clearly say today that it was a wrong decision not to open the airspace quicker, and the whole debacle was all handled based upon incorrect information - many test flights were undertaken by airlines and governments that proved there was no risk to engines or aircraft in that part of the world. But still, the newsreels showed maps and charts with ash cloud cover. This was totally wrong. It was an overreaction; Europe was completely uncoordinated."
While an individual with Matschnigg's expertise might have been able to challenge the folly of the prevailing attitude toward the ash cloud as it was happening, the issue of safety hung heavy over the industry. Surely it was better to ground flights wholesale than run the potential risk of even one fatality or injury? "If that were the case, then why did France open up but Germany and Belgium did not? The ash cloud, rather peculiarly, stopped at the political border. Nobody can explain that. This was a very uncoordinated event for Europe. Our strong recommendation to the governments of Europe was to implement a crisis management team that could have dealt with this better.
"Volcanoes and volcanic ash occur right across the entire globe. There are more than 500 active volcanoes and nearly every week there is an eruption somewhere, so this ash cloud was nothing new for the international flight community. Europe handled it totally differently, closing airspace that would have remained open elsewhere in the world, all to the detriment of passengers, the airlines and the economy. A lack of knowledge, a lack of experience and a reluctance to look at other parts of the world for guidance made the problem worse. But Europe's aviation industry has learnt a lot from this experience."
Aviation in general has much to learn as the industry continues to mature. Consumer demand is at its highest ever levels, while environmental and safety pressures continue to be the catalyst for better technologies and more streamlined collaboration between the various entities that ensure passengers get through check-in, on to the plane, on to the runway, into the air, then safely on to their destination. This patchwork of professionals has proven to be something of a logistical nightmare in the past, which is why Matschnigg devised the internationally-recognised IATA Operational Safety Audit, which aims to make the entire regulatory process of aviation smoother, more accurate and, by default, safer for the passenger.
"This audit came about when I was working for Austrian Airlines and we would be audited 13 times a year," says Matschnigg. "I was thinking 'what the heck? Why do we have to go through theses audits?' I didn't see where they added any value. Other airlines thought the same - they saw it as a redundant process that wasted a lot of time and money because there was no unified standard. So when I came to IATA I brought this up with the operations group and they fully endorsed a concept for a global safety audit. Then between 2000-02 we developed the standards to cover the industry and the regulators, and launched the audit program in 2003.
"Since then we have completed 860 audits on 330 airlines on the register, where before there would have been thousands of disconnected audits on the go, because under the previous system the IOSA (IATA Operational Safety Audit) recognised some but not others. So one goal - to reduce the number of redundant audits - was achieved. The second goal was to enhance overall safety, and I think the fact that ground operation units and airlines use this same audit process has led to a standard that is known by everybody. It is a very thorough and methodical audit of safety procedures, flight operations, engineering departments and every aspect of the airline process. If a company passes the audit then I think it's fair to say that they have an extremely robust set of practices in place."
Tallying audit procedures with overall operational safety is a very quantifiable goal, and one that - while ongoing - is progressing satisfactorily. Less tangible, but equally important for the industry, is the measure of human error. Complete eradication of manmade mistakes is universally recognised as impossible, but Matschnigg is confident that improved staff screening, staff training and technology can help minimise the impact humans play when things go wrong. "We always need people who have the right mindset to work in aviation and this is one issue where personally I am a little concerned," reveals Matschnigg. "This is why IATA and ICAO launched a program three years ago called the ITQI - the IATA Training Qualification Initiative - to find the right people because this business cannot survive without professional human beings. We know this. However, our needs can be supported by the right technology, and this is where we need to work hand-in-hand with airlines' development departments."
Striking the right balance between well-trained staff and optimum technology is something that Matschnigg is continuously working toward. "The optimum varies in each discipline. Flight operation is different to engineer maintenance for instance; the need for training for each technology differs drastically. For example, flying an Airbus 380 today compared to flying a 727 30 years ago - the difference is day and night. The technology has advanced immeasurably, so we have to make best use of the technology that we have at our disposal but, of course, human error will always be a factor. To address it, several programs are on the way for the cockpit, for the engineer, on the dispatch side of things and also for air traffic control."
Flying anywhere these days is cheaper and more filled with choice than ever before. The proliferation of budget airlines has opened up a whole new world of weekend-tripping opportunities, business ventures and stag and hen party destinations. We are all much more frequent flyers than we were ten years ago, yet for every two-hour flight to the sun, there's that immeasurable period of misery awaiting us at airports, in baggage claim and even online, where hidden taxes and extortionate baggage costs are making the experience of flying more stressful by the day. Profiteering, driving down overheads and the old 'sell 'em cheap, stack 'em high' mentality pervades throughout, all because the entire aviation network is comprised of a number of disparate entities competing for your business.
This is a situation that Matschnigg is looking to change. "I'm not satisfied with the cooperation between airlines, ground operations and travel companies. I think we need to do better with the regulatory bodies; there are situations that can be improved if only the industry had the chance to comment. This is only my opinion but I can speak from both sides, having been a regulator in the past. Aviation is built on trust and working together. It is the responsibility of the regulators, of the manufacturers, of the service providers. It is the responsibility of the airlines and the airports and the pilots and the ground staff to work together. Sometimes this coordination and cooperation is lacking because people are all pulling in different directions based on their constituency, and this is something we should do better on."
Better cooperation would no doubt lead to increased security and a more enjoyable and efficient flying experience, but with the skies open to all and sundry, Matschnigg is unlikely to ever get his wish. Besides, passengers are willing to go through the rigmarole of being corralled in like cattle, treated like criminals and subjected to stealth taxes as it is, so why should the industry change? "Our first and foremost priority in this industry is safety and security," concludes Matschnigg. "I do think that increased security needn't be more expensive to implement, even if it has to be to the detriment of some measures of comfort because ultimately, safety is paramount. However, the two issues of comfort and safety are not mutually exclusive - you can have both.
"As an industry we need to improve how we operate. The long waiting lines, this being treated like you're a criminal - these are things that can be avoided so long as we do things more intelligently. There is still lots to improve upon, but air travel can become the pleasant luxury it used to be."
Matschnigg stops short of saying that lower costs are in any way correlated to poorer security, but his passion for his final point hints that that may indeed be the case. "Why are governments not picking up security costs in aviation? Why is the government picking up security costs when it comes to soccer games, when it comes to travelling with the rail companies, when it comes to making sure people are safe when they visit theatres and festivals? Why not aviation? This is still an unanswered question. Why does the aviation community - the airports and the airlines, but also the passengers - pick up all of the cost of security? This is still not clear. This is something we have got to emphasize - responsibility. The government has a responsibility to create a safe and secure political environment, so why not in aviation?"
Governments and aviation authorities have worked hard in the past to foil and thwart would-be bombers and terrorists. Their collaboration has averted disaster numerous times when armed with tip-offs, intelligence and a sense of urgency. This desire to protect the public should not begin and end with each tangible terrorist threat. Increased government collaboration in aviation can help to make the entire flying experience safer, cheaper and more comfortable for all.
The history of aviation security
2002 - Richard Reid's failed December 2001 attempt to bomb a transatlantic flight with a bomb concealed in his shoe prompted the authorities to again make changes. From the beginning of 2002, all passengers boarding a flight to or from the USA now had to remove their shoes and socks when passing through the scanner.
The future - Aviation bodies around the world are constantly seeking new methods to further improve airport and airline security, including biometric scanning, retina scanning, advanced X-ray machines, combined shoe and iris scanners, RFID tracking and even more subtle passenger screening techniques, such as interviewing passengers, tracking their movements through the concourse and analysing body language.