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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Volcanoes and air travel chaos: Blaming the messenger

It didn't take more than a few days for the airline industry to start slamming European officials responsible for air traffic safety, and the media has given industry officials plenty of ink and air time. I followed events mostly on BBC World, whose reporters often lobbed softball questions to International Air Transport Association spokespersons while mercilessly grilling air safety officials.

In my view the "bureaucrats" made exactly the right decisions and demonstrated that they were the ones most concerned about the public's safety, while the airline industry was clearly ready to take risks with peoples' lives in the interests of maintaining their profits. Could this have been more clear? Certainly the lives of hundreds of thousands of people were disrupted, but at least they are still alive and not the victims of aircrashes caused by melted silicates in aircraft jet engines.

This situation reminds me of the recent criticisms of public health officials around the world who pushed the emergency button on the "swine flu" epidemic. Thanks to their efforts and cautionary advice, we avoided a major pandemic, although thousands of people did die, especially young people. Yet now public health officials are accused of "overreacting," even though the virus is still lurking in the shadows, ready to spread again, while armchair experts with no knowledge of viruses or epidemiology hold forth about how silly it all was.

These situations have given me a new found respect for those who must make difficult decisions on a minimum of knowledge, and a new contempt for those who would criticize them when their decisions create inconvenience. In the case of the airline industry officials, it was profits first, safety second--but wow, you wouldn't know it from all the self-interested self-righteousness they are now dishing out.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano/ Photo: REUTERS

Update: Lest readers of this blog think I am exaggerating, I just watched the top of the hour report on this on BBC World. It featured interviews with three airline executives--Richard Branson of Virgin, Ryanair president Michael O'Leary, and an American Airlines VP whose name I did not catch. Not one interview from a European government official, air safety official, or ANYONE on the other side of the issue. If the respected BBC is so amazingly biased in its reporting on this issue, what is the future of journalism?