A few months ago, I was operating a sector from London to a major European airport. In all respects this was a fairly normal day at work - in the morning I'd woken up in Edinburgh, flown to London, then out to Zurich and back - and this was one last sector before heading to a hotel for the night. Unfortunately, we were running late. It happens.
Everyone usually does a fantastic job when the aircraft is delayed - pulling together to off-load, clean, fuel, on-load and dispatch as close to schedule as we can. Today the pressure is on - we're only 10 minutes adrift of schedule and with a bit of effort we might even be able to depart on time. The captain does a great job motivating the crew and the ground teams and we're on track. As it's my turn to fly the aircraft, I don my high-visibility jacket and head down the stairs to conduct the 'walk-around' - a pilot's pre-flight external inspection of the aircraft. I'd like to share a snippet of conversation I heard whilst making my way around the aircraft:
Baggage Handler: "Oi! Frank! (Not his real name) You got 22 bags, right?"
'Frank': "Yes mate!"
All is well. I complete my walk-around and join the captain in the flight deck just as the passengers are starting to board. We complete our checks, sign our paperwork and hand it off to a slightly frazzled but satisfied looking dispatcher. We're ready to go with 5 minutes to spare - good work team.
We get our clearance, start engines and taxi off stand. We're on route to the far end of the runway for takeoff when the Air Traffic Controller in the tower informs us that there's an important message from our company and could we please contact them. The Captain is steering the aircraft, so he brings it to a halt and I tune up the secondary radio and hail the ground operations office.
It turns out that we might have too many bags on board.
This is called a baggage discrepancy and it's not something that we take lightly - an unknown or un-accounted for bag is a massive security issue and so we promptly return to our stand to try and resolve it.
"A simple change in phrasing...
might have caused Frank to pause"
Sometimes this can be a really tiresome process, in some cases even requiring passengers to identify their own bags from what's in the hold. Today is not one of those days, thankfully. The extra bag was in the forward hold, a 23rd bag where there should have only been 22. This bag was due to travel on a Lufthansa flight - how they got mixed up I couldn't say, but there it was. We offloaded the bag. Simple.
Now to depart we need more fuel, as we'd burnt some taxiing out and back to stand and now we didn't have enough to legally complete our flight. We called the fuellers and waited for our turn. We can't refuel with passengers on board unless we have both main exits available so we called the airport and got them to position steps and front and rear of our aircraft and when this was done we loaded the 400kg of fuel we were missing. More paperwork, more checks and then, finally, we were away.
Over an hour late.
Now, I'm not qualified to theorise on how to prevent any baggage discrepancy, nor am I comfortable talking at length about the security risk associated with baggage discrepancies - though there is much that could be discussed on these points. My observation is simply: what if Frank had had a different question asked of him?
What if, being trained in Ramp Resource Management, the Baggage Handler had asked an open question - perhaps "Oi, Frank! How many bags have you got there?" A simple change in phrasing but one that might have caused Frank to pause and count his bags.
CRM (Crew Resource Management) principles, in which all airline pilots are trained, teach us that under pressure we tend not to think much when asked a closed question. Our brains, already stretched for capacity, will gravitate to the easiest, quickest answer - usually 'yes'. Therefore, we are trained to ask open questions - questions that cause us to pause and think more carefully about what we're doing.
In this case, that pause might have yielded the problematic 23rd bag that might have been pulled before it even got loaded into the hold, reducing a significant security breach to nothing, saving nearly 400kg of fuel and not to mention helping nearly 100 fare-paying passengers get away on time, without a hitch.
What if the entire team were trained in Ramp Resource Management? And they were able to recognise that they would be more prone to error under time pressure, at the end of a busy day and that it could have only taken one voice to say "OK guys, we're tired and up against it a bit here, but shall we slow this down a little and get it right first time?" to prevent any misplacement of baggage in the first place?
I can't say for sure that this would have mitigated or even prevented this particular incident, but perhaps we can agree that an awareness of human factors is as vital on the ground as it is in the flight deck, or passenger compartment, or air traffic control tower?
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Mike is a commercial pilot working full time for a major European carrier - his experience of real-world aviation issues and his work training pilots, dispatchers and ground staff ensures AviationShake are at the very front of thinking in flight safety and aviation training.