Category Archives: Transport

He was watching the defectives

Extremely sad to hear about the sudden unexpected death of long-time friend, crony and partner in crime Tom Barry, of BorisWatch and @boriswatch fame.

Tom provided exactly the kind of hard-nosed, subject-expert and ruthless research and writing into London’s terrible mayor and supine general assembly that nobody in traditional local journalism has (bothered to do / had time for) in decades.

He did this while carrying on a day job as a telecoms expert and being a fully committed dad to two  adorkable boys aged under 11*, and whilst being at the very least a good enough partner to Ish that she put up with him for the whole timeframe.

And he was only 41, and this has broken me a bit. Young people get run over or end their lives or  have tragic but long-running illnesses, they don’t just die, that isn’t how it works. They don’t send pics from beer gardens the same month they die of glorious fun with the kids they love mockingly labelled “when will the torture of parenthood end?” because the fucking concept that it might is ridiculous.

This blog seems to be eulogy-focused lately. Unlike Meg Williams , as well as not being  in his 80s, Tom had a great deal of internet presence – but the two share the context of having touched shedloads of lives for the better. Also, CAN EVERYONE FUCKING STOP DYING?

Two updates.

One: Tim Fenton has written a great piece on Tom’s extremely well researched ‘blogging’ (or ‘investigative journalism’, as it used to be called when paid journalists could be bothered to do it) exploits.

Two: I wrote this at the start of day on 3 November (AEST – lat night 2 November GMT) when the news was under semi-embargo from family. Even since then, I’ve had at least one thought on naval history where I  thought “I’ll ask Tom about this one… fuck.

*I fully expect to get a write-in comment from Tom’s eldest saying “actually I am 11 so I’m not under 11”, because did I mention adorkable? Hopefully I’ll be able to ask him for naval history clarifications in due course.

Don’t get your Germanwings over France

Regular readers will be aware that France is to air safety what Scotland is to gastronomy and New South Wales is to probity in government. Today’s news, though, had me genuinely shaking with incredulity and rage.

Not the fact that Germanwings flight 4U9525, flown by 23-year-old A320-200 D-AIPX crashed mid-morning on 25 March (Europe time), of course. Flying is unnatural. The fact that we don’t all die every time we go up in an aluminium-and-plastic tube that doesn’t even float in water is a miracle in its own right, and like all the best miracles it is down to limitless human innovation, experimentation, and learning from experimentation.

It is generally better to be in a plane of the sort that has learned from experimentation, rather than the sort which is experimenting, which is why despite building the world’s first jetliners, De Havilland is not the world’s leading civilian aircraft manufacturer (although admittedly, it is one of the companies that is now merged into Airbus, so it sort of is, a bit, but not really).

Anyway. If you hit granite at 600km/h, then you become shrapnel, which definitely makes learning from experimentation harder. In particular, if you hit a low but pointy Alp at 600km/h, then you end up with bits of aeroplane and person and luggage all over the unwalkable hellhole that vaguely resembles a place, so it will take you months to collect the full jigsaw of former Airbus and frozen Germans.

Every passenger aeroplane carries two black boxes, which are orange because aviation engineers believe themselves to have a sense of humour, and are easier to find and survive crashes better than their fellow passengers. So far, the only one authorities have for D-AIPX is the cockpit voice recorder (CVR); the one recording technical data (FDR) hasn’t yet been retrieved.

After the CVR was recovered and read on the night of 25 March (Europe time), The New York Times, which is broadly honest, quoted some unnamed officials who had heard it. According to them:

  • one of the two pilots was locked out of the cockpit during the eight minutes that the plane went from cruising height to mountain height.
  • the plane’s path, in longitude-and-latitude terms, was in line with the flight plan.
  • the plane descended, quite consistently and at about the steepest level consistent with a normal rather than emergency descent, for the eight minutes before it hit the mountain.

This seems like a reasonable enquiry leak, of the sort that the people leading the enquiry should deny, but which focuses the public mind on key issues. Such as, why did the fucking plane fly into the fucking ground, and why couldn’t the locked-out pilot get in the cockpit?

But then, something really terrible happened: the formal investigation was handed over to a French judge-prosecutor.

In the US and the UK, which are generally recognised as being at the forefront of aviation safety – and also in Germany and Switzerland – formal authority over air crashes goes to an independent governmental agency. They have priority over cops and prosecutors seeking to assign blame, because it is recognised that working out what the fuck happened is far more important.

In France, this is not the case. The French BEA is generally respected for its technical skills, but doesn’t have control over air crash investigations or sites. Instead, they are handed over to local avocats (I’d translate this as “solicitor”, but I got a bit of pushback from doing so on Twitter), who know a fair amount about French law, absolutely jack shit about aviation, and are immediately forced into an adversarial situation of assigning blame (the word for ‘investigator’ and ‘prosecutor’ is the same).

Provincial avocat Brice Robin, who is in charge of the Germanwings crash, is a perfect example of this. Less than two days after the crash, he gave a press conference insisting that the plane was deliberately destroyed by its first officer whilst the captain was in the toilet. And naming both gentlemen.

This conclusion isn’t completely inconsistent with the evidence available. But it’s a gigantic reach from the evidence available, of the sort that a prosecuting counsel would absolutely reach for, but which someone seeking to find the facts would absolutely not. We still don’t have:

  • Any physical evidence from the wreckage showing the status of the door.
  • Conformation of whether the captain’s problem was the electronic lock or the manual deadlock.
  • The Flight Data Recorder
  • Any psychiatric or other medical evidence showing the state of the pilot
  • Basically anything explaining why the plane flew into the bloody Alp

As a result, well before there is any justification for doing so, the French system has struck fear into the hearts of air travellers worldwide, grossly impugned a dead man who may well be completely innocent, and – worst of all – forced the investigation into a specific narrative rather than going through the facts until a narrative is unimpeachable.

(Falsely claiming people are responsible for jet crashes is a bad idea. It turns out that even when they’re dead already rather than waiting to be shot by a crazed relative their homes still need police guard.)

No, white people, we don’t get to decide what’s racist

Boston Review editor Simon Waxman wrote a piece this June in the Washington Post, saying that the US Army’s decision to name its weaponry after Native American tribes – like the Apache helicopter above – is worse than the Washington Redskins’ decision to keep its gross racial slur name.

Waxman is white and not of Native American descent [1]. His piece doesn’t contain quotes from, or interviews with, Native American writers tribal leaders, or members of the public. Or indeed anyone at all, except Noam Chomsky, which is probably slightly worse than not quoting anyone at all.

This makes him less qualified to comment than, uh, the US Army. Who, sensibly, require any decision to name a weapon after a Native American tribe or chief to be approved by both the relevant tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs:
Untitled

Native Americans get to decide whether the Washington Redskins is an acceptable term. They think that it is totally unacceptable. Therefore, the Washington Redskins need to change their name. Native Americans get to decide whether Apache helicopters is an acceptable term. They think it is fine. Therefore, Apache helicopters don’t need to change their name.

Neither white sports fans, nor white Boston lefties trying to demonstrate their contrarian right-on-ness, get a say in either, and nor should they. Case closed.

Why am I bringing this incredibly basic point up now? Well, because of a response to Waxman’s piece by US Army aviator Crispin Burke. It is well-researched; indeed, it is where I found the reference to the consultation with Native American tribes that I’ve reproduced above.

But the tone it takes is absolutely terrible. The lede is:

Everyone Relax—The Army’s Native American Helicopter Names Are Not Racist
There’s a difference between honor and exploitation

The piece goes on from the tone set there, pointing out for several paragraphs how the names are chosen to honour Native American warriors, complaining that Waxman’s piece reads like an Onion parody of political correctness, and generally following the irrelevant ‘it’s honour! Not a slur!” line that the Washington Redskins’ defenders tend to spout.

The key point that Burke has found: that all decisions to name military hardware after Native American tribes are approved by the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is buried almost as a sarcastic aside.

And it ends with this sign-off, which is a vat of aaaaaaagh no large enough to pickle an elephant:

Taking Waxman’s logic to the extreme, we should expect to see legions of Peloponnesian-Americans demand the military purge its references to Spartans from its lexicon. And let’s not forget the howls of protest from disgruntled Fighting Irish.

No, if Greek-Americans were overwhelmingly offended by the term Spartans; if Irish-Americans were overwhelmingly offended by the term Fighting Irish, then changing them would be a good idea. The only reason changing them is not a good idea is that those groups aren’t offended [2].

Neither Simon Waxman nor Crispin Burke get to decide whether the use of a term is racist. Only the people on the other end of the term get to decide that. Although Burke’s conclusion is the right one in this particular case, that appears to be only by coincidence.

[1] Unless I’ve missed something whilst researching his biography and his other work, in which case I apologise. Although if he is of Native American descent then it might have been a good idea for him to mention this in the original piece.

[2] Relative privilege and historical guilt may also mean that people in the US are obliged to give special consideration to the views of Native Americans compared to those of Greek- or Irish-Americans. But since the latter groups aren’t making these requests, we don’t need to worry about that here.

A Qantas of solace

Qantas announced its financial results today. Predictably, they were a car crash (Qantas still hasn’t had a plane crash [*], but they’re definitely a crash). $646 million operating loss, and $2.6 billion in one-off write-offs from revaluing the company’s aircraft fleet. No rock and roll fun.

Fiddling and burning

As Qantas CEO for the last six years, and about as many restructuring programs, much of the blame has fallen on Alan Joyce. “Alan Joyce is to Qantas what Caligula was to the Roman Empire”, said independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who never met an exaggeration he didn’t love.

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Qantas CEO Alan Joyce chairing a board meeting

And it’s true: while he hasn’t yet made his horse a board director, Joyce’s strategy has been something of a disaster. His approach to a long-term structural weakening in Qantas long-haul, combined with an epic boom in domestic demand, was to ignore the former (leaving the long-haul airline with a fleet of fuel-guzzling 747-400s, highly-efficient-when-full-but-hard-to-fill A380s, and senescent 767s up to the end of 2013), and deal with the latter by starting a price war with its only real domestic rival, smaller, lower-resourced, lower market share Virgin Australia. Although at least the domestic airline’s ageing planes were replaced with efficient new 737-800s.

Under Joyce, Qantas’s investment has been focused on expanding pan-Asian short-haul budget airline Jetstar, which has had modest success in Australia and Singapore, less success in Japan, embarrassment in Vietnam, and dismal failure to even get an operating license everywhere else (including Hong Kong, for which the airline bought six brand new A320s that have been sitting idle). Much of the failure has been due to Qantas’s and Joyce’s failure to understand the Asian operating environment, where the perception that the airline is controlled by local partners is vital to local regulators.

More recently, as long-haul became predictably loss-making, the airline has slashed services, cancelled further A380 deliveries, life-extended 747-400s up to the point where they’ll be welcomed in museums on decommissioning, postponed 787 deliveries (despite the fact that, due to Boeing’s program delays, the airline is due an exceptionally good price on its 787s), made no effort to lease 777s in order to decommission 747-400s, and negotiated a codeshare with its biggest international rival that hands over most of its long-haul services out of most Australian cities.

And rather than attempting to either blitz or alleviate Qantas’s troubled relationship with staff and their unions, Joyce ratcheted the tension up to maximum, closed the airline for a day to hold a lockout, and then stuck a band-aid over the wound.

So, yes, Joyce has been inept. But what about the environment he’s facing?

They can’t be better than us, so they must be cheating

A lot of cant is talked about this, partly because local airlines in rich-people countries are very good at placing PR stories in the media, and partly because it’s the only area where rich-people country airlines and airline staff have aligned incentives. The general story is that it’s grossly unfair that airlines like Qantas are losing out, because their rivals in less-rich-people countries are “government sponsored foreign airlines with unlimited piles of cash”.

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A highly subsidised government-controlled airline stealing Qantas’s passengers

Anyone using this lie should be banned from aviation commentary. It is a bullshit excuse used to defend the incompetent management & overpaid staff of legacy airlines in rich-people countries from profitable foreign rivals.

Looking at airlines that could be considered Qantas’s competitors, Emirates is immensely profitable; it does not have any state subsidy. Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand, both major shareholders in Virgin Australia, and Cathay Pacific are all slightly less profitable, but also unsubsidised. The remaining foreign government-controlled airlines that run on subsidy are basket cases that can’t fill their seats anyway: Malaysian Airlines, Air India, Alitalia.

The alleged indirect subsidies that critics like to pretend Qantas’s rivals receive are also illusory. Yes, fuel is cheaper in Dubai than it is in Sydney. But the economics of long-haul air travel are such that you have to refuel every time you land, so a Qantas flight that goes Sydney-Dubai-London has exactly the same fuel cost as an Emirates flight that does the same. It’s also true that company profits are taxed less in Dubai than they are in Australia, but you need to be making a profit in the first place before anyone taxes it.

The problem is, if you are an airline with new planes, new IT systems, and staff recruited on current contracts, you have a hell of a cost base advantage over an airline which doesn’t. This is highlighted by, um, Jetstar and Virgin Australia, never mind the foreign rivals. The foreign rivals also have the advantage of being on the way between somewhere and somewhere (with the exception of Air New Zealand, which really doesn’t).

The “cheating” narrative exists, of course, because it’s a first step in the one cause that unites unions and management everywhere: extorting money from the taxpayer to preserve unviable business models. Once you’ve established the trope that it’s unfair of Emirates and Cathay Pacific to steal all of Qantas’s international passengers using their home advantage, a subsidy to ‘level the playing field’ is a logical next step. To the current Australian government’s credit [**], it doesn’t so far seem to be showing any signs of playing ball.

Portrait of the CEO as a doomed man

Alan Joyce said in the results statement, “We expect a rapid improvement in the Group’s financial performance – and a return to Underlying PBT profit in the first half of FY15, subject to factors outside our control”. Note that ‘factors outside our control’ here means whatever he wants it to, like Humpty Dumpty. And note that he has said variations on this theme at almost every results announcement so far.

Etihad CEO James hogan
Etihad CEO James Hogan

Things should be less terrible for the airline going forward. The various doomed attempts to forge new Asian carriers seem to have been dropped; Qantas has addressed some of the terrible usage patterns of its international fleet (no longer leaving $300m aircraft parked up in London for 20 hours a day), 2,500 of the 5,000 layoffs in February have actually been made; and the write-off to aircraft values will save about $200m a year in depreciation charges. If not quite profit, that would seem to be enough to keep the airline’s loss manageable given its cash in the bank.

But while Qantas’s future is reasonably secure, Alan Joyce’s surely can’t be. The results today were greeted with near-universal incredulity that he hadn’t been sacked already, given the sheer number of times he’s come forward with another round of sorry apologies, another insane unworkable Asian solution, and failed to save money on the core business. He’s a hate figure for the airline’s staff and the Australian public.

So why hasn’t he been, then? There are two possible alternatives:
1) As with the sacking of BP CEO Tony Hayward following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there is no point in bringing in the untainted CEO until the worst of the disaster is over. Joyce’s head needs to roll, but this might as well happen in six months when the current cost-cutting program is complete and it’s time to make longer term strategy decisions again; or
2) Australian business is utterly nepotistic and corrupt, with supine boards made up of drinking buddies who cosily tolerate each other’s incompetence no matter how gross.

We’ll see which it is over the next 12 months. Meanwhile, if I were the chairman at Qantas, I’d offer the Australian CEO of Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad, James Hogan, all of the money in the world and total free reign over all decisions to come home and repeat some of the magic he worked out in the desert.

[*] Fatal or hull-loss accident since the start of the jet era.
[**] Given the current Australian government’s performance at literally everything else, you have no idea how much this pains me to say.

Why security and safety theatre is the worst

Safety and security are brilliant. Safety and security theatre is bullshit. If you support safety and security theatre measures, which includes nearly all routine airport security, you are helping to make everyone worse off and nobody safer.

Whilst world-travelling over the last month, I discovered that most European carriers [1] now allow the use of small electronic devices except for actual RF transmitters throughout the flight – including take-off and landing. Which isn’t surprising, because there isn’t and never has been any evidence that they ever have (or indeed potential that they ever could) do anything whatsoever to harm a plane.

However, most Asian and Australian carriers [2] still make you switch off your Kindle during take-off, despite the clear evidence and overseas best practice confirming that this is bullshit. This is solely because of safety theatre, enforcing archaic rules for no reason.

There is some (still only hypothetical) evidence that interference from actual RF transmitters could harm older aircraft, so banning mobile phone use in aircraft which haven’t actively been demonstrated to be phone-safe is for the best. It reflects the evidence-based precautionary rules which have made air travel the second-safest transport mode in existence [3].

However, efforts to provide mobile phone cells on modern aircraft which are certified safe have also flagged on many carriers, because they are required to overfly countries whose non-evidence-based regulatory requirements prevent it (chiefly China and the US, although US carriers do at least provide ground-cell-based wifi domestically). So online internet connectivity is a painful process confined to a few carriers, where it generally doesn’t work very well. Entirely because of dumb, non-evidence-based safety theatre.

Security theatre, meanwhile, is the one thing which makes short-haul flying unequivocally worse than 15 years ago, despite the immense improvements in the in-flight experience. The only thing which can prevent a terrorist attack on a flight is intelligence on terrorist groups. If a terrorist gets anywhere near an aircraft, that is an epic and terrible failure in security policy on a par with letting him blow the damn thing up – which, in any case, he almost certainly will be able to do despite the security theatre currently in place.

When a country is ruled by ignorant fuckwits and its security agencies are incompetent, as with the USA in 2001, evidence which would have got the 9/11 gang arrested even by the Keystone Kops long before any attack took place is ignored, terrorists gain access to planes, and terrible things happen. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

This is why getting a plane to America is now even more unpleasant than it used to be. It’s why you can’t take nail clippers on a plane, despite the fact that even McGyver could do no more harm with them than his nails. Even the US TSA floated the idea of resisting the ban on small pointy objects in 2013, on the grounds of its obvious uselessness, only to be shot down by grandstanding politicians screaming TERRORISM!!!!!.

When a country is not and its security agencies are not, as with the UK in 2006, a major terrorist gang gets intercepted and arrested long before they get anywhere near an aircraft with their ridiculous plot [4], and nothing bad happens at all. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

Which is why you [5] now need to stick your tubes of piles and herpes ointment in a transparent bag for public viewing, drink breast milk in front of random strangers, and pay $6 for a bottle of water airside. It’s why – if flying to the US or Australia – you can’t even buy duty free gin in the departure airport (or are forced to check it as cargo and hope it turns up in some random corner of the arrival airport within a few hours of your luggage).

As with safety theatre rules, security theatre rules don’t apply consistently across countries, because they are all made-up bullshit. If there were any need for them, they would be universal. For any rule which does apply universally – like, say, the transport of lithium batteries in hold luggage, or the prohibition on firearms in the cabin – this reflects the fact that it is evidence-based.

I’m not arguing that we should compromise on safety for the sake of convenience [6]. But if every airline, airport and regulator worldwide adopted EU rules on electronic devices on all aircraft (they’re fine), RF devices on tested aircraft (they’re fine), and Hong Kong’s rules on liquids, belts, and shoes (they’re fine), then flying would be a better experience, and the level of public safety would not be diminished at all.

Instead, for the sake of nothing but appeasing ignorant morons, we still have to arrive two hours early for a plane in order to queue endlessly whilst someone’s grandma gets interrogated over the forgotten nail clippers and syrup of prunes in her handbag.

[1] BA and Ryanair, who represent a decent cross-section. Probably there are some who don’t.
[2] Cathay Pacific and Qantas, likewise.
[3] Rail is safest, obviously.
[4] The plan would have failed due to its physical impossibility even had the plotters made it onto a plane – at best, the leaders could have burned their own dicks off, like the Nigerian gentleman whose Christmas 2009 was even worse than mine. Nonetheless, I accept that preventing people from burning their own dicks off on aeroplanes is for the best.
[5] Yes, you, specifically. You do all of these things. I know you. I know where you live.
[6] This is an argument I am happy to make in general, but I’m not using it in this piece.