Incompetence

Earlier this week, I flew back from the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, with what I thought would be a comparatively simple itinerary, at least for me, given that getting to and from Cedar City isn’t ever a single flight – except to Salt Lake. My first flight was from San Antonio to Salt Lake City on a fairly comfortable aircraft, an Airbus 320.

Boarding was without incident. Then a few minutes before scheduled push-off from the gate, the pilot announced that there was a fuel discrepancy that needed to be resolved. It took more than an hour and ten minutes to resolve the “discrepancy” and handle the paperwork.

The pilot had announced that the aircraft had the proper amount of fuel, but that the discrepancy still had to be addressed. So, believing that we had been sitting around for more than an hour just to unravel a bureaucratic paperwork snafu, I inquired into the nature of the discrepancy. One crew member finally told me that the problem wasn’t the amount of fuel, but that its location was. Apparently, there was a 20,000 pound imbalance of some sort. How this occurred or whether the crew member had it precisely right, I don’t know, but I do know that an Airbus 320 has two tanks in each wing and a center fuselage tank. To me, a 20,000 pound fuel imbalance sounds serious [especially given that the maximum fuel load is roughly 42,000 pounds], and according to FAA regulations, aircraft are prohibited from taking off with significant fuel imbalances, not that I knew that at the time

As a result, once we arrived in Salt Lake, despite my sprinting between gates, I missed my connecting flight to St. George by ten minutes… as did at least three others, who were either smart enough or pessimistic enough not to run. That meant a five hour wait for our connection. Several others couldn’t leave Salt Lake City until the next day, while a few “fortunate” souls could sprint and make their connections. I finally got home at close to one in the morning.

While I’m very thankful that the pilot caught the error/problem, the incompetence of the refueling crew cost everyone time and money, and had the problem not been spotted, it’s possible that matters could have been far worse.

I may not like weather delays for aircraft, or Air Traffic Control delays, or even some maintenance and repair delays, but delays created by incompetence are another thing entirely. Now, it could be that I’m getting more curmudgeonly as I get older [although some of my offspring might claim I’ve always been that way], but it appears to me that I’m seeing a great deal more of this kind of sloppiness. My wife sees it in students; an Army lieutenant colonel who’s a battalion commander tells me that new soldiers need much more training and “reminders” about the importance of details, and has the statistics to back up his statement; and our son, who runs a very high-end retail outlet, has had to fire more people in the last two years than in the previous decade for exactly the same reasons.

Yet I see statistics insisting that the young people of today are more intelligent than ever. In my view, intelligent people don’t misfuel aircraft or require continual occupational reminders and babysitting.

And then I got a survey from Delta asking how they could have better handled the situation. My answer won’t be considered, I’m sure. I suggested that passengers who are delayed and inconvenienced by incompetence should be financially compensated, and that such compensation should be funded by deductions from the paychecks of senior airline executives.

11 thoughts on “Incompetence”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    How many years of participation awards did it take to so dilute the concept of people holding themselves accountable to do properly what they’re paid to do? Not to mention that if the pilots have checklists, why don’t the fuelers…or if they do, why did’t they use them?

  2. Ralph Wilson says:

    Speaking as a current A320 pilot, it is unlikely to have been incompetence on the part of the refueller. The A320 has a refuel panel where either a pilot or a refueller sets the desired total fuel load. The computer then automatically controls the refuelling to each of the tanks. It’s likely to have been either a technical defect in the refuel panel (although under my company’s (non US) rules, passengers would have to be offloaded while fuel was transferred between different tanks on ground using internal pumps OR a paperwork snafu. My money’s on the paperwork snafu. After the Air Canada fuel starvation deadstick landing of a B767 due to kg/lbs conversion issues in the 80s, pilots are rightly quite careful about reconciling fuel in tanks with previously recorded arrival fuel quantity, fuel uplift, fuel density etc. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but aviation is an increasingly rule-driven, inflexible system in normal operations.

    1. Thank you for the information. Still… if you’re correct about this, and you’re far more likely to be so than I am, isn’t it still incompetence of some sort? The pilots needed the refuelers to return to the aircraft.

      1. Ralph Wilson says:

        I’m not willing to categorically say incompetence was the root fault, but it probably had a bearing. There is a much more ‘nuanced’ view of errors and error management in aviation these days. For example, ‘Human Performance Factors’ such as fatigue, circadian rhythms etc could have caused sub-optimal performance from the flight crew or refueller. Fatigue-related problems are more common than people might think – not everybody is like Jimjoy.

        The aviation industry is promoting what’s called a ‘Just Culture’ as part of each airline’s Safety Management System in the interests of increasing safety. As long as a mistake was honestly made and reported for analysis and corrective action, then formally, nothing more is said about it.

        The fuel load for that sector would be about 10000kg, so the figure of 20000lbs reported by the crew would have been the total fuel required, not the imbalance. Each type of aircraft will have a specific imbalance limitation in its FAA approved Flight Manual.

        Anyway, I’m sorry that you missed your connection. The old adage ‘Time to spare? Go by air!’ is still relevant today. Thanks for your writing and I’m enjoying reading your blog.

        1. JakeB says:

          Mr. Wilson–

          If you have time to respond, I was wondering what you think about some of the recent general discussions about the risk of automated systems damaging pilots’ abilities to respond in emergency situations. Losing the edge of training and failing to respond quickly enough, it seems.

          1. Ralph Wilson says:

            I think Captain Sullenberger is far more qualified to comment than I am. However, the maxim “Use it or lose it” applies in this case. As a professional pilot, you go into the simulator every 6 months to put your licence on the line. Unfortunately there is a world of difference between ‘checking and testing’ and ‘training’ – I can guarantee that all professional pilots are quite good at the mandatory test items. The trouble is that in real life things don’t happen like in the simulator. Add in the fact that a sim session lasts 4 hours, compared to my normal duty day of 13 hours, add in the cumulative fatigue etc and I’m not surprised that accidents happen. There have been some improvements in training styles and simulator objectives in some more enlightened jurisdictions and operators that try to address skill fade, but it’s still a problem. I’ve touched on a few topics here, I doubt I could do it justice in a PhD dissertation!

          2. JakeB says:

            Thank you.

    2. David Sims says:

      I agree that intelligent people don’t make stupid mistakes, such as loading nearly all of the fuel on one side of an aircraft. So it seems likely that you aren’t looking at work done by intelligent people. Instead, the problem was caused by workers who aren’t very smart, whom the airline was required to hire by government regulations: chiefly by EEOC regulations. Congratulations, Mr. Modesitt, on figuring out how liberal ideological goals can endanger the lives and property of innocent people.

  3. Aging says:

    Four or five years ago I was a working as a consultant on a grant that was being managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I had previously done 3 months of work for a very prestigious US University. It took significant effort and 6 months time to get them to pay me. So I was surprised when I e-mailed my invoice and the payment was in my checking account in 48 hours.

    I e-mailed the finical person I had been working with praising her work and thanking her very much. Her response was cool. The PI followed up also thanking and praising her work. She copied me on her e-mail. Her response was “Why are you people making such a big deal of me doing my job?”.

    I was stunned. I had missed it. Doing your job has become exceptional.

  4. Jim S says:

    I see it in many (not all!) police recruits as they hit the streets… They need reminders on things that they learned in the academy, repeated explanations of procedures, memos outlining procedures to be followed up by personal explanations… That’s not even getting into things like not understanding earning privileges/perks. The idea that they are actually about to held accountable and responsible for their actions is, apparently, shocking news to some of them…

    I don’t know who to blame; schools, parents, recruiters, the academy staff, bureaucrats pushing to fill positions… but we have people who apply and are shocked to find out that they actually have to have their required material in hand

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Perhaps the method in which people show their competence at their jobs and their qualifications for their jobs is part of the problem: it is much easier to have a computerized multiple choice test check a person’s competence than actually taking a person through a set of 5-10 random problems in a true simulator and see how they do. In people who are becoming Board Certified in procedural medicine specialities (the various flavors of Surgeon, Interventional Cardiology, Interventional radiology, emergency medicine, etc.), oral exams remain the norm. And they are dreaded by most for a good reason: they are hard. That being said, they can also be gamed to a certain extent.

    Perfect solutions, alas, are generally infeasible or impossible.

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