Faster travel time, a feat of human imagination and a masterpiece of engineering. These are but some of the things that airplanes embody in the world. While there have been many records and variations throughout history of emulating flight, it was the Wright Brothers that finally made modern aircrafts possible back in 1903 . Since then the “aeroplane” has been used in many situations of human history. Such situations include public transportation, combat and even entertainment.
This invention did not come without a price however; just as when dynamite was used in manners that were against the wishes of Alfred Nobel (leading to the foundation of the Nobel Prize), the use of airplanes have led to the death of quite a number of people due to either accidents or terrorist motives. An example of this is the accident of Japan Airlines Flight 123 which holds the record for the highest fatalities in a single aircraft accident which led to the death of five hundred and twenty (520) people .
Accidents and acts of terrorisms such as these have also led to the loss of millions, if not billions of dollars in damage to the aircrafts in general, the lives of the people who survived and the public image of both the airline and the commercial air flight market in general . Thus, certain precautions must be made to ensure that, while events such as these may never be truly stopped, they can be avoided in the future.
This report will look into two specific disasters which cost the aviation industry a great deal of damage, the Tenerife Airport Disaster of March 27, 1977 and the September 11, 2001 on the United States of America. This report will look into the events, the lessons learned and the possible plans for businesses to not only protect themselves from being in said circumstances, but also to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Summary of the Range of Potential Airline Disasters and the Strategic Impact they can have on the business
According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation Annex 13, “an aviation accident is a term used to describe any occurrence association with the operation of an aircraft, which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight until such time as all such persons have disembarked, where a person is fatally or seriously injured, the aircraft sustains damage or structural failure, or the aircraft is mission or is completely inaccessible” . There is another term, aviation incidents, in the airline industry that is often mistakenly interchanged with aviation accidents. An aviation incident is a term used to describe any occurrence, other than an accident, that is related to the operation of the aircraft that has the potential of affecting the safety and flow of any one or more than one operation .
There are different types of accidents or incidents that can occur in airline operations. Most people without formal education about the aviation industry would immediately think that airline crashes are the only form of airline disasters. There are actually a lot of other airline disasters aside from airplane crashes; it is just that some of such accidents occur more or less often than the others. Types of airline disasters include: mid-air accidents, ground collisions, mid-air collisions, taxiing accidents, and landing accidents . Mid-air accidents can be any incident that may happen while the aircraft is in mid-air such as but not limited to engine failure, and electronics system malfunctions. Ground collisions are accidents that usually happen in the airport runway involving two or more aircrafts. Mid-air collisions are accidents that usually happen when the airplanes are on flight involving two or more aircrafts. Taxiing accidents, just like ground collisions happen in the airport, usually in the runway, that involves an airplane that is taxiing on the ground, and any structure, vehicle, or craft in the airport. The last type of airline disaster is landing accidents. The two major causes of landing accidents are engine failures and electronics system malfunction. Landing accidents often happen when the pilots intentionally or unintentionally crashes the airplane during landing in an airport or in any other place which may or may not be conducive for landing an aircraft.
In summary, there are can be three major strategic impacts of any given airline disaster. Firstly, airline disasters can lead to loss of lives. This is the heaviest and toughest impact of an airline disaster so far. Secondly, such disasters can lead to the loss of reputation of an airline company. Thirdly, airline disasters can lead to significant losses of financial and tangible assets. Financial losses may be due to the negative toll of airline accidents on the airline companies’ reputation, the financial compensation that the companies, as required by the law in some countries, have to pay to the people affected, and the financial resources they have to reinvest to recover from the losses in tangible assets secondary to the airline disaster .
Summary of Two Airline Disasters: 9/11 and Tenerife
Tenerife Airport, 1977
However, due to a terrorist attack on Gran Canaria International Airport while both planes were in flight, they were both rerouted to Tenerife North Airport, along with many other flights . Making a long story short, quite a few factors, both controllable and uncontrollable led to the death of five hundred and eighty three (583) people, making the Tenerife disaster the worst aviation accident in history . These factors include the crowded situation at the airport due to the said terrorist bombing of Gran Canaria International Airport, miscommunication between the two captains of the individual planes and the control tower, and the foggy weather condition of that fateful day .
While influenced by a terrorist attack, the Tenerife disaster is considered to be an accident as the loss of lives was not the main objective of the disaster, merely a devastating side-effect of it . However, the coordinated attacks on mainland America by the Islamic terrorist organization al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001 were. This series of attacks led to the death of nearly 3,000 (2,996 to be specific) people and injury of over 6,000 others .
What makes this incident relevant to this report is the fact that the ‘weapon’ used by the terrorists were aircrafts . In this case, the four planes that were hijacked to carry out the attacks were American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93. These four aircrafts were intended to be crashed into four different targets with only United Airlines Flight 93 not reaching its target when the passengers of the aircraft fought back against their hijackers .
While the Tenerife incident was merely an accident with no motive, the September 11 attacks in turn was motivated by a number of events that the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden, considered as acts of war against his people. These include, but are not limited to the United States support of Israel, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and the sanctions placed upon Iraq for their invasion of Kuwait in 1990 .
Comparison of the Two Disasters
Let us begin by looking at the commonalities between the two disasters. Firstly, they are both airline disasters and an act of terrorism was a part of the list of factors that caused the disasters. Secondly, both disasters led to the death of hundreds of people. So far, these are two major common things among these two disasters. In terms of their differences, the Tenerife Airport Disaster was indirectly caused by terrorism because the two planes that collided were not really hijacked by terrorists per se. The collision was a cause of miscommunication coupled with a very bad and foggy weather. The 9/11 disaster on the other hand was directly caused by terrorism as evidenced by the fact that all planes that crashed in the incident was hijacked and at the time of the crash, controlled by the terrorists.
These two incidents, that people still remember today, both caused massive changes with the way how the airline system, particularly communications, traffic control, and security, is being operated. The occurrence of these two major disasters led to stricter and more complex protocols, which is a natural response from the airline authorities considering the simplicity of the causes and other factors that played a role in the event, and of course, the number of people who died.
Lessons Learned from the Two Disasters
September 11, 2001 Attacks
The series of bombings that occurred on 9/11 was caused by both terrorism and airline accidents. It can be asserted that during those times, airline security, particularly in the cockpit and to some extent, in the cabin as well, was not strict and that the crew and staff were complacent, at least when compared to the level of security and security reinforcement being enforced in air travel infrastructures and operations today. One big lesson that policymakers should have learned from the 9/11 incidents is that airline security is an awesome and at the same time, huge responsibility. It is awesome because the quality of airline security can spell the difference between a mitigated airline catastrophe and an unmitigated one and huge simply because of the sheer number of people that use airline services every day and the different procedures that airline security personnel should monitor to maintain at least a decent level of security. Another lesson learned from the 9/11 bombings was the fact that air travel is a very important part of life, especially in a highly industrialized country such as the USA and therefore, any disruptions in the air travel system may lead to disruptions that are probably even bigger in the economy too. As it can be recalled, the entire U.S. airline system and operations were completely halted following the series of attacks, putting the nation at a standstill. Policymakers, airline authorities, and the people must have learned the following week after the 9/11 attacks that air travel is a very crucial part of the U.S. economic system.
Tenerife Airport Disaster
As mentioned earlier, there were quite a number of factors, both controllable and uncontrollable, that caused the Tenerife Airport Disaster. One strong lesson that airline authorities should have learned by now is to have a good grasp or control of the controllable factors in airline industry such as the constancy of communication between the airport towers and the respective captains of any approaching or passing aircrafts near an airport, and etc., as much as possible. Unfortunately, there is little to nothing that can be done to prevent disasters caused by uncontrollable factors. Meaning, focusing on the controllable factors and minimizing human error and errors caused by miscommunications—as what caused the accident at Tenerife Airport, is the only practical way to minimize, but ideally to avoid, fully if possible, the occurrence of such disasters. The same lessons about the benefits of tighter airline security discussed in the 9/11 attacks may also be applicable to the Tenerife Airport Disaster as terrorism was believed to be an indirect cause of the accident.
Impact on the Airline Business
Tenerife Airport Disaster
In the conclusion of the investigations into the Tenerife Airport Disaster, it was found that while there were many probable causes, including the fog causing severe loss of visibility, miscommunication due to interference and human error, and that Pan Am Flight 1736 had missed their exit while taxing, the captain of KLM Flight 4805, Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, was mostly to blame for attempting a take-off without authorization from the control tower to do so . In the end however, despite KLM not wanting to blame the said captain, they still took responsibility and paid the families of the victims an amount between $58,000 and $600,000 which did not include settlements for property damage amounting to $110,000,000 .
The disaster also included a great number of changes in safety regulations and procedures that is still used in the world today . An example of this was the introduction of the use of standard phrases for all pilots such as repeating a critical piece of information twice back to the sender by the receiver to be clear about the message sent. Another example would be the use of the work “take-off” to only be used when clearance had been given, until then both the tower and the aircraft captain had to use the phrase “departure”.
September 11, 2001 Attacks
As the attacks during the September 11 incident was not merely on one structure, or just the loss of four planes, it had a great impact on the world. The residents of the city of New York (where the most devastating attack took place) suffered from numerous health issues due to the collapse of the twin Towers of the World Trade Centre . The economy of the world was also affected as Wall Street was closed from September 11 till September 17 of the same year . But what could possibly be the greatest effect of the September 11 attacks is the declaration of the Global War on Terrorism, a conflict which still has not met a resolution till today which has led to a number of changes in the world by itself .
Conclusions and Recommendations
While there have been other disasters in aviation history, the one that truly hit the hardest was the September 11 attack. Within ten years, the American Airlines Industry fell into hard times despite the changes in security measures that have been implemented . Before the attack, Airlines all over the world were already seeing a decline in yearly profit, but the September 11 attack has now cost the industry $55 billion . Because of this decline, services and jobs were lost, additional fees had to be implemented, jet fuel prices rose, less people flew, with even fewer when the recession of 2009 hit and some airlines had to close shop .
As with any other feat in human history, it has been proven that the higher the climb, the greater the fall, this is especially true both figuratively and literally in the business of Aviation. On an average, an aircraft flies at about 30,000 to 40,000 feet, depending on many variables and from that height, anything that goes wrong on the plane will most certainly lead to disaster. Other aviation accidents and disasters include mid-air collision, crashing into a building, a leaking fuel line or tank or even the sudden loss of power to the engines because of faulty wiring and most especially, human error .
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