We can learn from the aviation industry about preventing and managing disaster

Air travel is safer than it has ever been. Despite a 60% rise in worldwide passenger numbers in the ten year period to 2015, that year was the safest on record for aviation. The following year was the second safest.

So this begs the question of whether we should look to the aviation industry when we consider how to respond to future tragedies like the Grenfell fire.

Put quite simply the airline industry is very good at learning from past accidents and near misses to understand why these have happened and what changes need to be made to make flying safer.

As an example after the Manchester airport runway fire in 1985 in which 53 people died, procedures from how pilots should react to an on board fire on the ground, to the seating configuration on planes were altered.

Planes are taken out of service when deemed a safety risk  and parts changed, pilots are re-trained and technology moves on to adapt to the safety needs of the industry. National air accident investigation bodies from different countries share knowledge and often work together after a crash.

This gives passengers re-assurance that their odds of being caught up in a plane crash are incredibly low.

Many people living in British tower blocks or with children won’t be feeling re-assured right now, in the knowledge that their flats or kids’ school may have been built with the same materials used to pretty up the exterior view of the Grenfell tower.

Our governments do not seem to learn lessons from fires in the same city, let alone elsewhere around the world.  If the cladding is indeed the root cause of the Grenfell fire spreading so quickly then it is a legitimate question to ask why if the material was banned in Germany or the US is it allowed in our tower blocks and schools?

Ultimately there is no point in having laws if there are not teams of people to police them. Airlines have large internal audit teams who will visit and review every aspect of the business from engineering to disaster recovery planning and health and safety. Aircraft have statutory maintenance schedules which are set by manufacturers and augmented by national laws. When it comes to British tower blocks, the number of fire inspections has been cut by 25% since 2010.

Can we imagine what the public reaction would be if the Transport Secretary told British Airways they could cut back on “red tape” and reduce the frequency with which their ageing fleet of 747s had to be inspected?

Again when it comes to the airline industry, arguably no other sector is better prepared for dealing with tragedy. Staff are thoroughly trained on how to deal with accidents and when these do happen, they are flown immediately to the site of the disaster to provide both practical and emotional support to the families of who have perished and any survivors. I cannot imagine an airline CEO refusing to talking to victims’ families and survivors after a plane crash on security grounds as Mrs May initially did last week at Grenfell.

Even yesterday, days after the fire, some families who had lost loved ones were still sleeping in a sports hall, not even able to have some privacy in their grief. So why has Theresa May has not called on the Kensington Council leader to step aside even though she has herself admitted that their response was not good enough? And why was it not possible for Kensington Council to have similar immediate support in place as airlines have?

You need properly qualified staff  to help those looking for their loved ones and provide counselling to the bereaved. And it cannot wait.

If an airline failed to provide hotel accommodation to those who survived unscathed from a plane crash thousands of miles from their home, the Board would be calling for the Chief Executive to go. It is patently obvious that either the Council did not have a proper disaster recovery plan in place or if it did, it was not properly resourced.

The next time such a tragedy happens perhaps we should ask airline bosses to sort out the aftermath. At least they might know what to do.

* Chris Key is dad of two girls, multilingual and internationalist. He is a Lib Dem member in Twickenham who likes holding the local council and MPs to account.

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  • Phil Beesley 21st Jun '17 - 2:35pm

    Over the last 30 years, councils have been de-skilled. Councils do not employ many building experts because councils do not own many buildings; they hire professionals for a day or two to check on buildings they rent.

    Junior management talent is diminished owing to schemes like Hay Job Evaluation. Hay Job Evaluation implies recruitment and salary for the bare bones of a role. When things go wrong, councils need people who can step beyond the role of their defined jobs.

    Would an airline manage things better? It is too close in time to the BA data centre melt down for serious debate.

  • One of the big differences is that in aviation, safety is massively more important than any other part of a specification. Whatever the laws and regulations are, it’s in all players interests to make them as rigorous as possible.

    In the case of social housing you have a market where the “customer” has no power. Very few people choose to live in a grubby unsafe environment but they have no alternative. On the other hand the provider wants as few customers as possible. No council wants more social housing tenants. Therefore you have a market where all players have an incentive to deregulate, bar the customer who has zero power.

  • Dave Orbison 21st Jun '17 - 4:02pm

    I agree there is a lot that could learnt from the aviation industry. There are two big areas of focus that should arise from the Grenfell tragedy. The obvious one as to why this cladding was used. Was it defective, or made to specification, was the specification in conformance with building refs etc.

    But in many ways the more important issue is why wasn’t there a complete and immediate review of cladding and refs when previous incidents occurred.

    The inability to learn from tragedies or near misses has led directly to so many avoidable deaths examples being Aberfan, Hillsborough and Noe Grenfell with many in between. The HSE should be restructured and expanded to give them a much wider investigative role with teeth to ensure regulations are revised as required and in a timely manner.

  • The writer is correct, of course, but it is much simpler than that. Something made the tower block burn like a torch. It seems likely that the culprit was the cladding. If that proves to be the case, who authorised the cladding to be fitted?

    If the cladding was deemed fit for use, who decided that? It was obviously not suitable on flammability grounds.

    That seems fairly simple to establish but I suspect much effort will go into making it as complicated as possible.

  • One of the key approaches in aviation is that there is absolute attention to detail at every possible level.

    In that respect, we must resist the temptation to say ‘it was the cladding wot done it’, and neglect the other failings, or which there will be many.

    But the big difference between aviation and social housing? The people who work in aviation use planes. Most of the people involved in the provision of social housing won’t be in need of it, and I include politicians and even voters in that one. Is ‘probably OK’ good enough when it’s your nearest and dearest living there?

    And dare I say it, is this the sort of thing that happens when we’ve ‘had enough of experts’, and public sector staff with specialist scientific and engineering knowledge are paid not much more than the national median wage?

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