Only human: Safety and Low-cost carriers

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Low-cost carriers have created an operating model that is changing the way short haul works. But it has never been critically examined

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has the task of overseeing an air transport phenomenon that is unlike anything else. It is also a phenomenon that is changing the face of short- and medium-haul scheduled commercial operations. No prizes for guessing that the subject is Ryanair.

It is the fact that Ryanair has gone back to the drawing board with the model of how airlines should operate that the travelling public has incomparably low scheduled fares, and the airline makes a healthy profit from doing so. Significantly, in its 20 years of operation Ryanair has suffered no accidents.

Ryanair cannot be compared with its original role model, Southwest Airlines: Southwest is culturally all-American and logistically all-domestic. Ryanair is Irish-registered, but has hubs all over Europe and employees of most European Union nationalities, cultures and mother tongues. Its headquarters and one of its operating units is based in Ireland, but Dublin is not the group’s largest hub. It may be domestic in the EU sense, but that is much more complex than being all-American.

Add to this the fact that Ryanair is a fast-growing, very large airline and the only comparable carrier anywhere is EasyJet.
Meanwhile, the influence of the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe and Southwest in the USA has been considerable. They are role models for numerous burgeoning operations working the same basic example, and they are forcing the traditional scheduled carriers to imitate – while maintaining a semblance of product differentiation – the type of short-haul operation they run.

These new carriers are subject to exactly the same kind of safety and economic oversight as their “legacy carrier” peers. That is as it should be, but there is an issue here. The operating model that is changing the short-haul world has never been subjected to academic scrutiny or a total audit, even though the type of operation is so different. So why should it be subjected to study? Low-cost carrier operating cycles have the same components as those of any other airline, but faster if possible. No nonsense at any stage, and turnarounds like a formula one pitstop.

Great stuff. But different, and no-one seems to have asked whether this difference is worthy of scrutiny in its own right. The IAA flies route checks with Ryanair, looks over its operating manuals and practices and is satisfied – even impressed – by what it sees. That is still not the same as checking out an unfamiliar operating model as a whole. The traditional airlines are the devils the aviation authorities know, but now the agencies are using a traditional template to measure a revolutionary model. And the traditional carriers are moving to the low-cost operating model, not the other way around.
There is no suggestion here that the basic low-cost model needs to change, but the oversight methods and mindset needs to be brought up to date.

Why now, and why Ryanair? There are several reasons: Ryanair is now a mature operation that has worked out how it does things, so it is a stable business model – a fixed rather than a moving target. And all the vibes coming from the big low-cost carriers indicate that the target for an operating review should be human-factors centred rather than the traditional checks on manuals and adherence to standard operating procedures. Human factors are more difficult to check, to measure, and more difficult to prove, but most accidents are caused by human factors.

In the last year Ryanair aircraft faced two anomalous approaches that came close to ending in tears. In one of them the Irish Air Accident Investigation Unit ventured that the pilot flying’s out-of-character conduct was the result of stresses outside – but related to – the workplace: in the other, an internal investigation by Ryanair concluded that a bereavement had affected the captain’s capacity. Meanwhile a Ryanair pilot’s demotion after refusing to fly extra sectors at the end of his rostered duty day is being examined in the courts. Safety experts always talk of the iceberg model for incidents and accidents: the accidents are the tip, the incidents are the bulk of the iceberg and the indicators that it is time to look for trends.

The bereavement-related incident is to be investigated by the Italian ANSV. Now the IAA should lead the world by commissioning an academic study of the human factors of low-cost operations.