Ergonomics done right.®
April 22nd, 2008

Hazardous design, silver bullets, and big bears…Oh My!

Last month, Shaun Sayers of the capable blog asked a question:

Do you have a "safe system of work or (are you) hazardous by design?"

Dangerrunway_2  What spurred his thought was some whistle blower activity that suggests the volume of air traffic at London Heathrow is such that they are trying to land planes as close together as legally possible. He goes on to ponder that if a key to health and safety is to reduce risk, wouldn’t you want to create a system that allowed planes to land as far apart as possible with the same volume?

That leads us to an article in yesterday’s New York Times. David Pogue debates a solution to our own air traffic mess, the proposed ADS-B air traffic control system (dubbed NextGen) scheduled to be introduced in 2020. In the article, David quotes one of his readers (succinctly):

"David: I read your article on ADSB with great interest, as I have been an air-traffic controller for nearly 30 years. But please: before you encourage the spending of $20 billion, ask the F.A.A. to let you go to the Newark or LaGuardia towers any weekday from 3-6 p.m. You will quickly discover that providing more space in the air is not what is needed: it’s concrete.

New York, Chicago, LA…they all need concrete. A runway can only have one airplane on it at a time. The backup is at the runways. It is very rare that aircraft have to hold in the air for any reason other than weather or airport capacity."

So, as we too often see, a Big Modern Technology Silver Bullet is thrown at a supposed problem, while the root cause is left unaddressed. No matter how many planes you can fit in the air (by the way, the three mile seperation mandated between aircraft is under a minute at 160 knots) you can only land one at a time.

What we’re talking about is The Efficiency Conundrum (Thanks to Ron from LSS Academy). Apparent Efficiency is getting more planes safely in the air. True Efficiency is getting more planes safely on the ground at their destination. Another effect of apparent efficiency is often times it is the employee (in this case the air traffic controller) that gets the blame when the "fix" doesn’t work.

Furthermore, after spending $20 billion (or some other ridiculously high number) management starts to feel confident while the real problem is still out there ready to bite!

Do you yell "BEAR!" or do you watch the carnage? Remember, you could be next!


airstrip photo credit: dweekly