It's less than two weeks since the Iceland volcano blew and already it's a dim memory in the memory of most of my friends and colleagues.
That's not to say my ears aren't still ringing with invective from people trying to get into or out of Las Vegas two days after the fact, (while I sat comfy at the thought of an easy flight back to Philly). I seemed to know a lot of people losing money by the minute because the planes wouldn't go where they wanted. There was yelling at airlines, yelling at whole governments for costing everybody money. What strikes me is how quickly such a severe incident was endured and forgotten, like dodging an oncoming car and feeling the adrenaline fade.
Not for everyone, of course. First estimates put the cost at $1.7 billion for airlines, millions for perishable produce providers in Africa and a hundred other costly examples. The rest mumbled, took their unplanned "volcations," as The Economist put it, and picked up the pieces.
It made me stop and think about risk and how the notion of controlling it is such a human conceit that extends to uninformed behavior and looking for those responsible.
It also made me back up and wonder what actually results from the outcome of a big expensive outlier like the Iceland volcano.
The FAA, NTSB and Flight Safety Foundation face enough risks that they don't afford much time to rare events like the Iceland volcano, and they all told me so. "All I can tell you is a lot of people are hopping mad, losing a lot of money and blaming it on us," an NTSB spokesperson told me. "Try the ICAO."
That was good advice. The International Civil Aeronautics Organization is precisely the group that studies everything that keeps a plane in the air -- except for paying the bills to buy and run it. That includes security, the environment, airports, a basket of risk parameters that affect your flying experience more than you know.
And it turns out that the ICAO nailed the Iceland event perfectly. Since 1987, the group has maintained a network of nine global advisory centers that discover ash clouds, create perimeters for safe travel and steer aircraft around them. In this case the ICAO quickly detected the eruption and accurately tracked it, even as the cloud took a hard turn into the jet stream and flushed south across Europe.
The ironclad proof of the ICAO's success is that not one person was injured in the many high-traffic flight zones the ash cloud crossed. "We don't have very many significant events in history like this so we were thrilled that our system for data collection and transmission worked really well," Denis Chagnon, spokesman for the group told me from Montreal. "The system set up in 1987 actually prevented any accidents."
There's evidence to believe the ICAO's work saved lives, potentially hundreds or thousands. Admittedly, a lot of people lost money on missed meetings, deliveries and other deadlines. That's how risk ripples from an event like this and demands mitigation.
Even though the ICAO got everything right, what they lacked was a standard for determining when and where it's safe to fly through an ash cloud. "Without the evidence, we have a zero tolerance," Chagnon told me. "The British and the EU have a low minimum threshold, which is really what got a lot of people unhappy because it seemed to say different things are safe."
Now the scientists who work with the ICAO are excited at the prospect of an abundance of data to work with that will help them understand events like this. And that is going to trip off a multitude of new risk investigations and questions of merit.
If a standard is established by the ICAO or another body, how will traffic controllers be able to identify a safe flight path in a rapidly moving cloud of changing ash density? How will they measure a point in time and communicate that to an aircraft?
And how will an aircraft engine designer decide to warranty safe passage through an ash cloud? As it turns out, advanced engines that burn hotter more efficiently transform ash into destructive glass fragments that cause catastrophic failures.
Political lobbies and other interests will line up in favor of flavors of risk mitigation because rare events like the volcano ripple with effects to commerce. You can pretty much follow the dollars connected to a rare, destructive event. The building codes of San Francisco stand in contrast to the iniquity of ongoing suffering in Haiti or New Orleans or the victims of the Asian Tsunami.
The flip side of managing risk is our tolerance for it, a personal equation that changes as consequences become more expensive, elongated, and consequential. The best advice for the average fortunate person might be to locate your activity in places where assets, whether they are things or people, hold the highest value.
Most of my friends are not comfortable with this kind of social design and it doesn't mean that the rare outlier isn't going to fall on you like a piano from a delivery crane. But maybe it does mean that we'll start to think more about personal risk exposure versus the egotistical expectation to be protected when events go very wrong.
The connectedness of our modern lives makes it more likely that more of us will meet such events personally in the future. My good friend Bob Charette, who I hold in near-hero status as a risk management expert, says there's never been a good dialogue about personal risk management versus what people think is the responsibility of governments and other authorities. "It's just ridiculous how people are surprised when their risk isn't managed for them," he's told me more than once.
I'm going to look more into Bob's view of a emerging risk frontier, because it's something I think you'll want to know about. In the meantime, let me know what the Iceland volcano cost you and how you managed it, or how you should have managed events beyond your influence.
And to a few of my peers, you might drop a note of thanks to the ICAO -- and don't forget to watch out for falling pianos.
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