Monday, August 25, 2008

Madrid Airport Accident....The Reactions

Following last week’s crash at Madrid airport, there has been an interesting debate taking place in sections of the Spanish blogosphere and press about where the limits lie for media coverage of this kind of disaster. Much of the discussion focuses on the invisible line that exists between genuine journalism seeking to bring the reality of events home to people, and the exploitative variety that squeezes tragedy for every drop of sensationalist content it contains. Unfortunately, those who participate in such debates are not usually those responsible for the worst variety of ambulance chasing coverage, or the endless harassment of victims relatives.

A different brand of sensationalism is seen from El Mundo’s reporting, from the moment of the crash the paper has sought to tie the accident to Spanair’s internal crisis. This has now developed a stage further to (predictably) aim fire at the government with suggestions that a lack of control has enabled defective planes to operate. They seem to have decided that a combination of company and government negligence is the most newsworthy explanation for the crash, even though there is as yet no evidence to support any of this. They weren’t the first on the loony right to try and blame Zapatero for what has happened; they almost certainly won’t be the last.

Personally I believe that it’s only a matter of time before a major accident results from the current trends in the aviation industry, if it hasn’t already happened. A business model based around constantly cutting costs and minimising the amount of time aircraft spend on the ground is just not compatible with passenger safety taking priority. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the case here though. Indeed, the fact that the captain was able to abort the first take-off because of what seems to have been a minor technical alert is in some ways more reassuring than worrying, as it shows that those in control of the craft had the last word on when it should take off. Less reassuring is the report that the problem, in an anti-icing temperature control, was solved simply by disconnecting the offending item.

The investigation can easily take months to conclude its work, especially given that not much remains of the crashed plane. The initial reports of the crash being caused by an engine exploding have now been refuted, a video taken by AENA (the Spanish airports authority) shows no sign of an explosion before the plane hit the ground. It seems that for some reason the craft lacked sufficient power to take off, managing to leave the ground for a matter of seconds before coming down again and catching fire as a result of the impact with the ground. There have been reports that one of the black boxes has been damaged, and Spanair have announced that the tapes recording what was said by the pilots in the cabin just before the crash will never be made public. Meanwhile, the AENA video seems to have been shown to everyone from the King to the government to the Mayor of Madrid, but the judge investigating the crash had to demand to be given a copy for his investigation.

The identification of the victims is taking much longer than expected, this is because of the effects of the fire in the aftermath of the accident. Nevertheless, there is a determination to ensure that correct identification is done wherever possible, DNA tests are being used as confirmation. The disastrously hurried, and erroneous, identification of many victims following the crash in Turkey of a plane carrying Spanish troops a few years back has left its mark. All of this creates further anguish for families of the dead as they await the official confirmation of their loss, and there have been several stormy meetings between representatives of the company and the families.


bshaftoe said...

Well, something like a deicing device can be safely disabled in summer.

I guess that, regarding aviation safety, we are in a point in which minimum increases in security lead to big increases in prices. Given that air transport is way safer than anyother kind of transport, I don't see the point to getting paranoid with problems such "simply disabling deicing devices in summer", that would lead to more delays, more expensive tickets and air transport business being much less viable.

Anyway, I agree with you that, veyr likely, air companies are cutting costs. I don't see them cutting down maintenance and safety-related costs: it doesn't matter if your company has had profits for years: one accident like this one, and the company is pretty much over.

Graeme said...

Hi Germán,

I'm not being paranoid (honestly) about the deicing device being disconnected, I do understand the argument but I found the transformation of explanations from a problem being "isolated" to a problem being "disconnected" quite interesting. It does make you wonder what else is on the list of problems always to be fixed later.

The issue at the moment is not one of increases in safety, on the contrary its the question of when the downward pressure on costs has an impact the other way. What you say about an accident like this finishing a company is only true if the subsequent investigation establishes that the company was negligent. There are a lot of industry interests involved in crash enquiries and they almost always take a long time to report their findings. Although there is a logic in saying that fewer accidents means guaranteed profits for longer, many investors don't take a long term view.

Let me give you an example from the now infamous privatisation of the trains in the UK - the new company responsible for running the network the trains ran on simply decided that carrying out routine maintenance didn't fit with their core business activity of making huge profits. A couple of serious accidents later the government had to take over the company, those who got rich out of it remained rich.

Let's say a company does what Spanair was proposng to do, which is to cut their staff at outlying bases. You have a plane at one of these places with one of these borderline problems that doesn't stop it from flying - the decision they take when maintenance people are available to repair it may not be the same one when the only option is to fly someone in. Thats when the cost cutting could really hit and have consequences.

bshaftoe said...

Yes, I agree with you in the core. And maybe I chose "paranoid" too lightly, because I wanted to mean that people are getting paranoid (not you ;)).

What I mean is that a crash brings much more negative publicity for airlines (no matter if they're behind the crash), than a train crash for a train company.

This is, people use to think of air travel like something inherently dangerous, even when the probability of having an accident is waaaaaay lower than any other transport.

But of course, you're right in those "bussinessman" cutting down any expense they deem "unnecesary".

I like your blog. It's great to read an englishman's point of view on our spanish society.

Graeme said...

Well you get extra bonus points for saying nice things about my blog. Saludos.