Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Decision Making in Real Time: Are Your Priorities in Line?

Steer clear of this

I recently operated a flight from Las Vegas to New Orleans which, while having an unremarkable outcome...we landed safely at our destination...presented my first officer and I with some interesting challenges. In short, a solid line of thunderstorms had formed stretching from southwest Texas up to Wisconsin. While the line was mostly unbroken, there were a few gaps that an airliner might have safely passed through. The rest of it was bad news and several serious tornadoes were spawned by this storm.

The questions confronting us were: Could we get around the line? Did we have enough fuel to deviate around the line and continue to our destination? Should we deviate to the south to go around the line or to the north and try to shoot through a gap? Should we turn around and return to Vegas? Or should we simply divert to a closer airport to wait out the storm?

We of course knew that there was a forecast for convective activity and were carrying extra fuel for that reason, but the exact shape and location of storm formation cannot be forecast with any accuracy. We deal with a world of probabilities.

First, though, I should describe the nature of thunderstorms for any aviation laypersons who might be reading. Thunderstorms, otherwise known as "convective activity" or "extreme precipitation" are not to be trifled with. There are essentially no aircraft, including military aircraft, which can safely penetrate a large thunderstorm. Even the military "hurricane hunter" C-130 aircraft must avoid embedded storm cells, and while a fighter aircraft might not be torn apart by a storm, it's engines can be easily extinguished by the sheer amount of water that they would ingest or the canopy might shatter due to hail.

Airliners, of course are soft targets when it comes to large thunderstorms. Though built to take a lot of pounding, intentionally penetrating a thunderstorm in an airliner would be a supremely foolish and dangerous act. It just isn't done, and much care is taken to avoid tangling with these monsters.

Operational Priorities are at the Heart of Good Decisions

Having been made aware of the unbroken nature of this line several hundred miles prior, we had to make a decision and implement it with not much time before we were upon the storm. Decision making is never done in a vacuum, but must include the consideration of current conditions, collaborative input from other resources such as my copilot, air traffic control, and our dispatcher, and finally and perhaps most importantly, our operational priorities.

My airline, along I suspect with most others, has published a list of operational priorities to which we must adhere in all our operations. Those priorities in order are 1) Safety, 2) Service, and 3) Being efficiently on time. I must confess that having such a simplified and straightforward list of priorities really makes my job a lot easier. I can also see that losing sight of these priorities is an easy way to get into trouble.

So keeping these priorities in mind, we had to decide the best way to either navigate around the storm or to turn around and to wait it out. Revisiting our decision tree with these priorities in mind, we determined that the storms were too high and dangerous to go over, and while the gap up north might have worked, there was no guarantee that it would stay open until we got through it. Turning around and returning to Las Vegas would have been safe, but would also have caused an unnecessary delay and burned a lot of fuel for no reason, violating priorities two and three.

We were left with choosing between a divert to a nearby city to wait out the storm or to deviate to the south to go around the line. As we had fuel for the extra distance, we elected to fly several hundred miles to the south to go around the line while enjoying a truly awesome lightning display. Had we decided, however, that the extra flying took more fuel than the extra fuel that we had, a divert to a nearby city would have been the next best choice.

What are Your Priorities?

I have it much easier than you. My company has given me a short and cogent list of priorities, and any decision I make will be weighed with those in mind. You, however, may not have a list or it may be a long and constantly changing one. Or perhaps it is vague to the point of uselessness. Your challenge, in whatever business you may happen to be in, is to ferret out what those priorities are and to apply them correctly in your business decisions.

When you do make a decision, be sure to make a note of the priorities that were under consideration at the time. Monday morning quarterbacking is easy to do (which is why it gets done so often) so it is always best to be able to explain your thought process. A bad decision is much easier to defend if it was made in good faith with pre established guidelines.

So that's it. We lived to fight again another day by keeping our priorities straight, and you will too. Now if we can only get through Atlanta one more time with our sanity intact.

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Capt Rob