Are there HCIT lessons in Volcanic Ash Clouds?

April 11, 2013
It’s a powerful visual: A nest full of chirping birds asking to be fed and you have to try to spread the limited amount of resources to each. Who gets fed? Well the loudest Chirp of course! The problem with this approach is that the requirements and strategy of the organization does not always match the loudest voice.
What have airlines learned from dealing with volcanic ash when, last week, much of the European airspace was shut down? (If you're a listener rather than a reader, click here.) Are there lessons for HCIT? Yes.
IATA: International Air Transport Association Governments were slow to understand the world-wide impact of the shutdown and based decisions to close airspace on theoretical models with little data collected or few tests done, complained Giovanni Bisignani, director general and chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, a Geneva-based airline-industry group.
source link

I'm not trying to be exhaustive, but here are some highlights. I've provided some source links for those of you who might be interested, if only to read the titles.


  • The decision to shut down all of the airspace was an over-reaction, probably driven by over reliance on weak computer models, and a failure to consult with airlines and government agencies (including government agencies in the US).

  • The problem of volcanic ash and jet air travel is far from new. Alaska Air and KLM both have more than two decades of relevant experience. Bottom line: collect the right data early and continually, validate your models, and you can safely fly around volcanic ash.
  • The congested airspace in Europe, hundreds of airports and 28,000 flight per day make it more imperative to build, maintain and validate airspace models in real time, and use them.
  • "Your data is bad and my patients are sicker." This volcanic ash was different (involving glaciers), but crisis response was contrary to best practices.

The Lessons For HCIT:

  1. Train the decision makers ahead of time; this is critical to avoid ignorant responses. A pre-occupation with what can happen and how systems fail if critical to HCIT system design. Not a new lesson for HCI readers, but timely validation. Training requires planning, simulators, testing and often external expertise. Are you testing your data backups by restoring them on another system?

  2. Computer modeling is becoming essential in our complex world. Accurate and early input data is crucial. Using the data is crucial. Getting experience with using the models is critical. Those of us who use our car's GPS, even when we don't need it, are practicing this lesson. You cannot know the false-positive rates if you only use the technology during a crisis.
  3. Learn from others; this takes patience, time and discipline, but it's essential. Alaska Air (think Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 ), deals with volcanic ash on a regular basis and has for years. Apparently, it's not just Americans being too parochial to learn from the Europeans!
Losing all four engines and living to tell about itIn 1989, for example, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines 747 encountered an ash cloud while descending through 25,000 feet towards Anchorage, Alaska. The pilots added power to try to climb out of the cloud, but that only made engine damage worse. The wide-body jet lost all four engines and about half its instruments failed. Pilots restarted engines just one minute before impact and landed safely.

The crisis response is rarely pretty, whether to a natural act like a volcano, or to a social or technology breakdown in HCIT. Having a well-designed set of rules, policies and information reporting systems in place and matured are essential to avoiding panicked-based over-responses. That's what I think volcanic ash clouds teach us, or at least remind us.

Source links:

How One Airline Skirts the Ash Clouds- Scott MCCARTNEY's The Middel Seat Column in WSJ, April 21, 2010

Volcanic Lessons: Build Better Models, Collect Data Faster - Scott MCCARTNEY's blog


The ash cloud that never was: How volcanic plume over UK was only a twentieth of safe-flying limit and blunders led to ban

By David Rose, Matt Sandy and Simon Mcgee

Volcanic ash: cloud of uncertainty

It transpires that thousands of flights were canceled simply because of a mathematical model

Lessons of the Iceland volcano

Travel chaos caused by the volcanic ash cloud is a reminder that having everything we want in an instant is a privilege not a right.

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