Thursday, 29 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes

It looks like the volcanic cloud business is over for the moment. What a fascinating affair and a good demonstration of the inability of the media to talk sensibly about risk.

First we had dramatic stuff about volcanic dust turning to glass inside jet engines and wrecking them, based on several stories about near misses. Excellent. I always like learning from near misses, they do so much less damage but still give us knowledge.

By the middle of the crisis we had questions being raised about whether it was all a panic about nothing. Surprise, surprise, but did we have a sensible discussion? No. At no point did anyone discuss the crucial questions. The first is, I think:

“How many planes crashing are justifiable?”

If the answer is none, then the ban on flights was probably inevitable. I suspect that was the number that the air traffic control people were working on, no increase in risk.

That has a cost, millions apparently lost in cancelled flights etc. I bet some of those calculations will turn up in due course at shareholders meetings and the like. So that’s the other half of the calculation:

“How much money can we afford to lose to maintain a given level of safety?” Again a question not asked.

I heard countless interviews with poor stranded tourists and others affected by the flight ban and no one got around to asking them:

“How big a risk would you take to get home?”

It is apparently the case that the public are not good at assessing risk – people keep doing stupid things because they don’t realise how dangerous they are. Here was a golden opportunity to do something about it. Is flying through a cloud of volcanic dust more dangerous than drinking twenty pints a night or smoking twenty a day for ten years? Is driving back from Spain more dangerous than flying through the cloud?

I think I finally despaired of anything good coming out of it when I heard that Willy Walshe was flying around in the cloud. Given his gung ho approach to industrial relations he was the obvious guy for it but no one asked him the obvious questions.

“Did you restrict the flight to uninhabited areas or the sea?”

“Did you have a parachute?”

He was flying over us and we were living under him, who was taking the biggest risk?

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