Lessons from our Responses to Ethiopian Air Flight 302


My social media feeds have been full of tributes to the victims of Sunday’s Ethiopian Air Flight 302 crash, which killed 157 people. Many of those who died worked for the United Nations, World Food Program, and other international development and policy groups, among which I have many friends and friends-of-friends.

I’m relieved not to see many virtue-signaling “why are people upset about a tragedy in X but not Y part of the world” posts. It is, of course, human nature to respond more powerfully to a tragedy to which we have personal connections.

Biases in human nature also shape the reasons behind our collective risk responses: the countries and airlines that immediately grounded future flights by the Boeing 737 Max 8 and the ones that waited; and the people who were willing to fly on the remaining Max 8 flights and the ones who refused.

Those factors include emotional salience tied to personal connections to the disaster; political and societal factors; attitudes of peers; how much information people had; how much benefit people see from taking a risk; and how much control people feel they have. All of these influence how risky anyone sees the Boeing 737 Max 8 to be.

Emotional salience again plays a part: people who had connections to the victims certainly are more sensitive to the risk of flying on a new airplane model that experienced two fatal crashes in less than six months.

Memories are still vivid of the October crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia, another Boeing 737 Max 8, which killed 189 people.

That fatal crash was followed by intense scrutiny and identification of a problem –but the problem wasn’t solved in time to prevent a similar crash just months later.

Media coverage has focused on Boeing’s failure to provide more training for pilots on the Max 8.

But even better training may not have been effective in solving the problem. Ethiopian Airlines says that its pilots did receive additional training after the October crash, following a directive from Boeing.

US pilots have filed at least five complaints in a federal safety database over the plane, including software and training. One called the training manual “inadequate and almost criminally insufficient.”

Risk tolerance varies widely within families and among peers.

A business traveler who was scheduled to fly on a 737 Max 8 but switched to another, less convenient flight penned this thoughtful essay on his rationale. He was comfortable with flying on the plane, but his family was not. “I’ll avoid the 737 MAX not because I’m worried I’ll die, but rather because it’s worth me going out of my way to put my loved ones at ease,” Ben “Lucky” Schlappig wrote, noting that his response might have been different if he were single and parent-less.

His dilemma and response are a great example of how important it is to recognize that not everyone has the same risk tolerance, and find solutions that work for everyone. Let’s hope his family appreciated just how considerate he was being. (By the way, it’s worth a read through the comments on his post as well.)

Schlappig’s risk perception was likely lower and/or his tolerance was likely higher -because, as a journalist who writes about aviation, he had access to more facts than other people might. He cited a statement by the Allied Pilots Association, as well as the fact that American Airlines had equipped its planes with AOA displays to provide additional safety.

The policy makers and executives making decisions also had access to more information than did the general public, but didn’t do a great job of communicating their rationale. And it was a mistake from a public relations perspective to ignore the gap between expert and public attitudes and instead to lobby to keep the plane in the air, as my friend Tom Vogel wrote for PR Week.

The United States was the last country to ground the 737-Max, in part because Boeing is a US company and because the company’s president reportedly personally called Donald Trump. The slow response of the US government has further damaged the country’s reputation abroad, as evidenced by the decision to send the black box from the crash to Europe for analysis instead of the US.

It’s interesting that Boeing saw more benefit and less risk to itself from keeping the plane in the air –essentially ignoring well-founded concerns—instead of putting a priority on reassuring the public.

The company’s response highlighted a number of biases that lead organizations to ignore obvious “gray rhino” risks. For one, it appears to have suffered from the backlash effect, a bias that leads us to push back against information we don’t want to hear. This case was particularly egregious since Boeing itself had identified problems and a potential solution that simply had not been fully implemented.

It also fell victim to two biases common to risk perception: the more benefit anyone sees to themselves, the less risky they are likely to judge a situation to beThe same goes for how much control they feel they have over a situation. These two biases combined to make the backlash effect that much stronger.

The control bias explains part of the difference between the responses of the Allied Pilots Association statement in favor of keeping the Max 8 flying and the Association of Flight Attendants statement against it: the pilots have control over the flights, while the flight attendants don’t. So it’s natural that the pilots would evaluate the risk as being less.

One big lesson here is that not everyone will see a risk the same way –and companies, policy makers, families, and friends all need to recognize that those differences matter.

Second, when evaluating risks, we need to take into account how our biases shape our perceptions.

Finally, companies and governments need to be held to higher standards of responsibility when clear warnings go unheeded.

#safety #risk #airlines #crash #travel #judgment #decisions

This article is part of my new weekly LinkedIn series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

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Michele Wucker

About Author

Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at https://www.thegrayrhino.com/about/michelewucker

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