Who in their right senses will derail an industry with such promising future?
Yes, just as anything in this world, aviation has suffered its good and bad sides as it evolved from the early 19th or 20th century to date. It has also had its fair share of ups and downs. It is not like somebody really woke up one day and said I want to destroy the industry. The acts and/or omissions and commissions led to the industry nearly suffering a setback; it would not have propelled it to this day. It all started innocently from a postal service at the end of the World War I through commercial services.
Laws were enacted in that era to take care of the uniform manner of civil aviation. Then technological breakthroughs came in through the early 1930s all the way to the 1950s, and even today more technology is improving. However, somewhere along the line, aviation started to suffer some setbacks that nearly thwarted its progress.
That notwithstanding, it always demanded never to give up the dreams and vision people had in the industry and that kept it growing. Thus, there were so many setbacks, of which some were man-made, some intentional, and some unintentional. Some were environmental, over which man had no control – such as unfavourable marketing forces, acts of God, adverse weather, recessional economies of some countries, and a host of others.
From 1950s onward, the industry started to see threats to progress of the evolution of the aviation industry. In summary, as is with human and other evolutions, setbacks of many kinds almost stalled the breakthroughs and growth the industry started enjoying.
Some of the setbacks recorded, which nearly grounded the industry to a halt, was the hijacking – an unlawful seizure of an aircraft by a group of persons who have a certain agenda to pursue or to hold passengers to ransom to satisfy their agenda with arms.
As the aviation industry was getting popular and the breakthroughs of people’s confidence to fly heightened, some people too were fighting the agenda. Some were diverting aircraft to Cuba. Pilots were threatened to divert the aircraft. There was no attempt to resist such threats as it had implications – such as shooting the pilot or any passenger or any part of the aircraft body, creating a puncture. A puncture leads to the aircraft depressurising where air escapes and if the aircraft does not dive to an area of higher pressure to sustain life in 5 minutes, all souls will perish owing to the effects of hypoxia. Also, depending on the size of the puncture, passengers could be sacked out of the aircraft into mid air and the catastrophic consequences need not be mentioned.
The first hijacking happened in 1931. From the 1950s to 1960s, it began to escalate; and between 1968 and 1972 – which was called “The Golden Age of Air Hijacking”, 305 of such incidents occurred. In 1973, the industry started to advocate for screening of departing passengers before they embark on their various journeys. Then from 1973 to 2001, the average hijacking was about 20 to 40 per annum. The year 2001 was the peak – that was the 9/11 September Attack we are all familiar with – where five different unlawful seizures in different aircraft were attacking strategic parts of USA; and about 3,000 people lost their lives – some in the air and some on the ground. They seized the aircraft from the pilot and flew into the World Trade Center, where they thought they would hit America economically. The hijackers aimed at the World Trade Centre and at the Pentagon, where America has her citadel of economic and military power, respectively.
It was very scary in the 1950s to mid-1970s because aviation was still at the evolution stages, and nobody had put in proactive systems to curtail the hijackings. That made people reconsider their positions to go by ocean liners wherever they wanted to go or drive anywhere motorable. It was so unpleasant to be experiencing hijacking, in that after the seizure and diversions, the arrival at the diverted airport started another plethora of traumatic events. These hijackers, again, will resist the security officials by holding a passenger to ransom with a gun at his forehead; so the whole event leads to lengthy back and forth negotiations between them and the security forces that could go on for hours and in some cases, a full day. The security forces’ approach to rescuing those miserable, distressed and traumatised passengers was like using a sledge hammer to kill a housefly.
The next is aviation accidents. The maiden casualty occurred with Lt. Thomas Selfridge in 1908 during the dare-devils’ exploits. Thomas Selfridge was in Orville Wright’s aircraft to test it to award contract for building military aircraft. During that test, one of the propellers suffered a glitch and the aircraft lost control and crashed killing Selfridge. That was not considered as commercial aviation crash because it was the time the aero dare-devils were doing their exploits. Since then, we have had many accidents from the time commercial aviation had evolved to date. It also sometimes makes the industry suffer a setback depending on what caused it. It was also a setback to the industry because the trauma that went with it was too unbearable.
There are so many recorded accidents that changed the face of the industry. Some too shut down operations of certain airlines, resulting in redeployment of workers. Aviation accidents, irrespective of their causes, came in as a setback. Some of the accidents were weather related, pilot error, air traffic control, technical hitches, airline systemic management negligence, and other related issues.
The growing industry suffered a lot; but we still have some of the casualties today. Another setback during the teething era of commercial aviation was the economic downturns. Some countries went into recession, and it affected people’s ability to travel.
The mistake so many people commit is that anytime we see somebody as rich, we think the person can afford travel; but that is not the case. The airline product is such that one has to have a sizeable amount of what we call discretionary income. Thus, when you have your take-home pay, you first take a fraction of it to pay basic needs of life – that is disposable income. At the end of the day, we – in the airline marketing space – measure customers who have what we call discretionary income, meaning that after you spend your money on food, clothing, shelter and utility bills, how much is left for travel? That must revisit economic environment. Does the economic environment promote people to have enough discretionary income? So anytime there is a sharp decline in economic activity in any territory, what happens is that people’s discretionary income suffers because obviously, their disposable income will suffer – let alone, extra for discretionary income. Adverse weather was another factor during the peak of aviation evolution. Aircraft are not allowed into all weather. For instance, volcanic ash – which is the release of certain earth-heated materials into the atmosphere – can suspend for about three weeks to one month. These substances interfered with operation of aircraft engines and other moving flight control parts in midair flights. An experience of such happened in Europe, where so many aircraft were grounded. Aircraft that had flown to places to bring passengers got stuck and that affected the industry.
Hurricane as well as thick fog, snow and severe dust too ground about 10,000 aircraft a day. Also, acts of God create setbacks for the industry, and no other scenario can explain it better than the COVID-19. The pandemic literally grounded everything that was flying. If an aircraft is grounded for even 3 hours, the kind of huge losses incurred within the period is unimaginable. That was exactly what happened during the COVID-19 period, where almost the whole world had to be grounded. For example, even if airlines were allowed to fly in the COVID-19 and other services – such as hotels, fuel station – were not allowed to operate, there would have been no aviation. In effect, COVID-19 taught us a great lesson. Acts of God grounded almost everything in the world. There was also the SARS in the early 21st century that had its effect on travel. Around that time, there were certain procedures passengers were mandated to go through, such as security screening. So many things disrupted the growth of the industry when things were reaching its alarming proportions.
How did that affect travel?
Hijacking had some sort of psychological trauma to air travel. There were times, when people vowed never to fly in an aircraft anymore because of the effects of hijacking. Pilots are trained to dial a certain code in their transponder which will let the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) be aware the aircraft has been hijacked. The idea is that ATC will monitor the flight on a RADAR and because of this, there is about 99.9 percent chance that the hijacker will not take the flight to its intended destination.
Some hijackers are reasonable if the aircraft does not have enough fuel to travel that distance. Sometimes too some hijackers are very unreasonable. However, in either way you will be compelled to veer off your course. The moment you slot in the code, the ATC monitors you and prepares for security back-up. The sad part, as hinted early, is that when you think the hijacker has taken you to a certain destination and you have touched down and begin to heave a sigh of relief, it won’t take too long to realise that your freedom or woes is far from over.
There have been times when the back and forth of negotiations have been going on and the demands of the hijacker were not met for one reason or the other; and the passengers had to be detained in the aircraft for 20 hours. There have been sometimes when leftover food in bins were sought and given to crying hungry children on board who were traumatised, especially when negotiations between the security and the hijacker locked horns.
When you are flying from Accra to Dubai and the aircraft is hijacked and diverted to Libya and you go through such a traumatic and bizarre encounter, you would be compelled to resolve never to fly in an aircaft anymore. Such scenes really affected aviation growth. When it was at its peak somewhere between mid-1970s to late 1970s, it was all for political and religious reasons. Those areas were so sensitive if the hijacker is doing it for political reasons.
Such hijackings in the industry make people change their perspective of flying, resulting in so much money loss.
Lastly, the negative effects of an aircraft accident cannot be overemphasised. It is more traumatic when the passenger involved is a friend, relative or a loved one. Airline companies encounter series of law suits from relatives of the victims and more often than not, airlines have to doll out huge compensations aside from insurance claims to relations of such victims in order to avoid bad publicity, depending on the known cause of the accident. Every stakeholder – be it the airline involved, site of the accident, passengers, relatives of victims – suffers to a large extent when these unfortunate events occurred.
The good news is that some modified aspects of the Chicago Convention of 1944 have institutionalised proactive measures to bring safety and threats to an acceptable level.
More on this in future feature.
Until then, it’s adieus!!