aviation dab digital radio DMB

Korean Air Crashes and French Digital Radio

대한민국 터치다운 - McCarran Intl Airport, NV USA (CC) gTarded at Flickr
대한민국 터치다운 - McCarran Int'l Airport, NV USA (CC) gTarded at Flickr

I’m enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers. In the same vein as Freakonomics, it looks deeper into why certain people or events deviate from the norm, become exceptional – why they are “outliers”. It’s helped create a new view on something that has puzzled and frustrated the world of Digital Radio, and handily includes references to Aviation and Korea, which is where we start.

One of the chapters in the book is called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes“, and describes the infamous crash of Korean Airlines flight KE801 into Guam in August 1997. (There’s an episode of Air Crash Investigation that covered it – Part I, II, III, IV, V). To summarise, the pilot flew his 747 plane into the ground, despite the instrumentation and the crew being well aware of what was going to happen in good time to be able to avoid the accident. 228 of the 254 passengers died.

It happened at a time when Korean Airlines was putting planes into the ground with worrying frequency. In the book, Gladwell says Korean Airlines was crashing planes 17 times more frequently than United Airlines. This wasn’t due to badly maintained aircraft, or dangerous conditions – the crews just kept crashing their planes. (I don’t know if “17 times” is accurate, but I do know that it’s a well established rule in flying circles never to fly KE metal, and one I have myself stuck to rigidly, preferring to route LHR-FRA-ICN on my trips to Korea).

The obvious conclusion is that Korean Airlines crews were incompetent, but Gladwell suggests it wasn’t incompetence – it was deference. The Korean culture is so deferential to figures of authority or power, the  members of the crew who could see danger increasing simply did not feel that they could bring it to the captain’s attention. It was socially unacceptable for them to question his judgment, or even infer that he wasn’t fully aware and in control of his aircraft. Looking at the transcripts from the flight recorder, it’s excrutiating listening to the First Officer hint and suggest to the Captain that they might actually be flying straight into the ground. Only when there’s less than 7 seconds to impact does the First Officer clearly call for a “Go Around”. Too late.

This degree of deference can be measured – the PDI (Power Distance Index) measures the degree to which people are deferential to figures of authority or power. The PDIs of many nations (cultures) have been measured, and there is a remarkable correlation between  the amount of deference in a in culture, and the plane crashes in those countries. It seems to be that such a degree of deference negates the value of having subordinates to help provide vital input and monitor situations.

So where’s the connection with Digital Radio?

It turns out that there’s another nation with a high PDI. France. France has a  PDI value of 68 – it’s a highly deferential nation. (In context, Britain and Germany have values of 35, and Austria just 11).

All of a sudden, things are clicking for  me. Here’s why.

France chose a non-standard version of DAB – a cut-down version of mobile TV (basically, mobile TV minus the video, or with very little video). Something that the Koreans (them again) invented and dubbed T-DMB. The most prominent figure in that decision for France to the use Korean originated T-DMB system was a man called Sylvain Anichini.

M. Anichini was the Director of Technology for Radio France – in hierarchical terms, he was pretty much at the top of the roost in French Radio. For whatever reasons he had, he became a passionate and vehement supporter of T-DMB. And he would give not a moment to anyone who didn’t agree with his decision. It’s maybe understandable that he repelled approaches from the other DAB nations, on the basis that his “sovereignty” might be undermined. I believe he stormed out of more than one WorldDMB meeting, and was very insulting in public session to a number of fellow professionals. It might also be the case that M. Anichini found dealing with Koreans, and their deferential culture, much more appealing than dealing with those apparently insolent and disrespectful English and Germans.

What’s interesting is the number of people within the French radio industry who privately disagreed with both M. Anichini’s decision, and his behaviour. I’m aware, both directly and indirectly, of heavy sighs when discussing the path being followed, but I (and others) could never understand why those people who were uncomfortable with the direction taken would never raise the issue more openly. I was obviously failing to understand the immense gulf between our culture and the French culture, and what appears to be a overriding and almost smothering cultural barrier to challenge bad decisions made by a person above you. (Maybe this is also why the French are so apparently tolerant of the dalliances of its politicians?).

What was happening in France with DAB had parallels with what happened to flight KE801. One man, whether intentionally or just out of disorientation, was about to bring everything crashing into the ground, and his subordinates and colleagues could not do anything to stop it.

Of course, with Digital Radio, nobody got hurt (apart from a bit of pride) and nobody died. Compromises were made, and positions adopted that allowed the French decision to accommodated, albeit at a financial cost for the entire DAB community worldwide. M. Anichini left Radio France at some point after the decision was taken, but before licences were awarded by the CSA.

So what did Korean Airlines do to turn around their appalling safety record? They hired an American and enforced the use of English in the cockpit, as a way of breaking down the deferential barriers created by the Korean language. It seems unlikely that the same approach would be appropriate for Digital Radio in France.


There’s getting it wrong – and there’s being downright obnoxious

ryanair by jayfreshuk @ flickr

Someone was very nice to me this week, and said they like the occasional dip into the world of aviation that I indulge in. So here’s a short one, linked to last week’s blog on a major international airline brand that appears to have snafu’ed their engagement in social networking.

No sooner had I committed that to teh Interwebs, than another not-major-international-brand but nonetheless well known airline was similar managing to spectacularly mis-engage with the on-line world. Step forth Ryanair.

The major-international-airline was trying to be good but got it wrong, largely through over-enthusiasm and mis-understanding. They’ll survive, apologise in a way, and ultimately probably won’t damage any perceptions of their otherwise immaculate, excellent and courteous service. One cock-up won’t damage the reputation that all their employees uphold with admirable consistency.

The problem with Ryanair is that they know they’ve behaved badly, they don’t care, and their opportunity to put their hands up and apologise appears to have been turned into an obnoxious rant.

And that’s the Ryanair brand in a nutshell.

Ryanair specialises in being obnoxious. It’s not clear who from Ryanair provided the official response:

Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion. It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won’t be happening again.

“Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel.”

however those words could have sprung lightly from the lips of Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s CEO. Indeed, just the following day, something almost as amazing did spring from his lips:

One thing we have looked at in the past and are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future.

We are always looking at ways of constantly lowering the cost of air travel and making it affordable and easier for all passengers to fly with us. I don’t think there is anybody in history that has got on board a Ryanair craft with less than a pound. What do you do at Liverpool Street station at the moment [when] you need to spend a penny? I think you have to spend 20p to go to the toilets.

or, indeed, the delightfully customer focused opinion of:

I have no patience with the Luddite approach that says people don’t want to use their mobile phones in-flight. You don’t take a flight to contemplate your life in silence. Our services are not cathedral-like sanctuaries. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things.

If you make obnoxiousness one of your brand attributes, if you make it a core emotion of the business, then it’s not much of a surprise that the employees radiate it so readily too.

Ryanair have prospered by being cheap. They drive volumes of traffic through low-costs, and persuading people that flying to anywhere, no matter how ridiculous or remote, is “a good thing”. They benefit from smaller airports offering them good commercial terms, in order to bring incoming passengers to their particular region of Europe (and it usually is EU States, you’ll notice). The majority of people who step onto a Ryanair plane have low-expectations, and often they’re not disappointed.

But do they have to be obnoxious too?

Easyjet seem to do well, and are viewed far more positively than Ryanair. I don’t like the LOCO model (for various reasons) but I’ll fly Easyjet (and AirAsia and VirginBlue and JetStar and South West and TED etc.). I won’t fly Ryanair – I won’t reward obnoxiousness. (#)

As we hit an economic downturn, aviation is bleeding to death. If you think last year’s roll-call of airlines going under was bad, this year’s could be even more dramatic. Last year was knocking out the weaklings and the also-rans – this year, someone big is going to go down.

I feverently hope that Ryanair get punished for being obnoxious. It would be a real justification of the value of the soft-elements of brand for Easyjet to make it through because they’re generally pretty good guys, and for people to turn their backs on Ryanair and their atrocious attitude to their customers (actual and potential).

Bootnote: Someone else has applied Ryanair’s unique approach to revenue generation to the obligatory safety card, to humorous (but possibly also clairvoyant) effect.

(#) I have one exception. I will fly FR on the BRS-DUB route, because it’s neither time nor cost efficient for me to get over to LHR, and it’s not very environmentally sound to do so either. FR use a relatively modern, efficient 737-8 on that route, and loadings are naturally high. It’s a legacy route that has pre-dated O’Leary’s tenure at FR, and so whilst it’s a nasty, demeaning and irrating experience, it’s only so since FR went LOCO. Added to that, I make dammned sure that I get their “1p” flights, pay with a debit card, and don’t spend a penny with them anywhere else, thus ensuring that by the time they’ve paid APD and PSC in the UK and Ireland, they’re losing about £35 of real money on me, which makes me feel much better.

Photo: ryanair by jayfreshuk @ flickr – who’s clearly experienced once of their flights before

aviation real life

Mis-engaging with social networks

BD Embraer 145 being de-iced at MAN

As you might expect, there are a few places on the Interwebs where people who fly now and then meet up to discuss the important things in life; destinations; routes; fuel surcharges, and how to maintain status with as few flights as possible.

But it’s interesting to see how the airlines and airports approach engagement with these communities of informed, eloquent, often high-spending and influential people.

Some airlines have created official representation on the forums. Often it’s someone with a passion for the web, who is pretty connected in their own life and works in or around the customer facing bits of the company. They participate in the community like anyone else, are subject to the same rules and moderation, but make it clear that they’re representing the airline/airport.

My experience is that these airlines are brilliantly super-serving their most influential customers, and also helping their own companies. They can see gripes arise, and often offer solutions or answers within hours, before pens have gone to complaint letters and grouses have spread around. Some of them will help people out with specific problems, and I can’t tell you how valuable I’ve found that personal attention when the system has gone wrong. (Incidentally, I always send those airlines a hardcopy letter to commend their online rep, and the airline’s commitment to engaging with the on-line community).

But the airline benefits from to it too. Now and then, someone might spot a loophole in the rules of a fare or routing, which allows people to accumulate vast numbers of miles, or fly on ridiculous routes, for tiny amounts of money. Those loopholes get quietly closed, and whilst there is sometimes a little “oh, don’t talk about that here, they’ll close the loophole”, generally it’s accepted that the airline rep is only doing their job by bringing it to the airline’s attention.

Some airlines/airports have unofficial presence. That’s where someone in the airline/airport is probably acting unofficially, and so has to stay very guarded in what they say. It’s nonetheless very valuable for them to watch what’s happening, and occasionally intervene with a salient point. The regular contributors know who they are, and the lurkers rarely come out from under cover.

But this week, one of the airlines is in the process of getting it spectacularly wrong. I’m not going to name the airline, but they’re a leading global brand and they ought to be smarter than this. For a start, the contributor has as his handle the name of the airline, correctly spelt and punctuated. He’s assured people he’s not connected with the airline, but then occasionally refers to information that would be hard to source from anywhere else. But what’s really annoyed people is that he’s not authentic. He’s always talking up the airline, saying how great the promotional fares are (even when they’re stinkers), how great the on-board experience is, and how well they compare against other airlines. (He seems to fly a remarkable range of airlines).

He’s being rumbled as a stooge because he chipped some information into a thread that could only have authoritatively come from within the airline. He is getting pilloried (for which I feel sorry for him personally), and his airline is a facing a mixture of laughing for being so cack-handed in their engagement, and indignation that they “have sent a spy into the camp”. Their failure to be authentic and upfront with their presence is backfiring on them.

I can’t understand what they were thinking. Surely they must have understood what the outcome would eventually be? Maybe these are the companies who need consultants to advise them how to engage with the web? That’s pretty sad, when all the have to do is be real, honest and authentic.

Interestingly (and with that exception) no matter how irate, heated or insulting the conversations on-line become, rarely does anyone attack the airline/airport rep. Indeed, the community will often turn savagely on those who start having a go at the rep. And it’s interesting because that’s often not the case when radio gets discussed on-line; in those situations, often the poor radio person who sticks his head in the door will get it torn off and thrown back at them. It’s a shame, because it means that it’s that much harder for the people who are passionate about radio to have a decent engagement with those people who are making radio. I don’t know how to change that.


Tangentially linked, I was playing around with SQ’s IFE on the A380 this week, and stumbled across their “The Chart of XXXX” albums. They’re pseudo-albums listing the 10 most-popular tracks, by UK Chart sales, of each year from 1960-2005. Whilst many of them are really very good, it became clear just how useless the charts had come by the 1990’s when around 5 out of the 10 tracks were novelty songs. When I reached 1989, the warning signs were set – 3 entries from Jive Bunny. That’s where radio programming trumps sales stats.

aviation real life

Fares, Yields and Recessions

Our Easyjet Boeng 737-700 on the tarmac at Bristol

Regular acquaintances of mine will know that I have an interest (“Bore for Britain”, I hear you shout) in aviation, and I have infrequently peppered this otherwise technology orientated blogged with occasional aviation events of note.

Aviation has some parallels with radio. It’s got big fixed costs, you need relatively skilled people to make it work, and the inventory is highly perishable. Once your plane has taken off / once your adbreak has started, you’ve made all you’re going to make from it.

Inventory management has been revolutionised in both industries, but the aviation industry is way ahead of radio and provides some useful pointers for radio. I know many people in aviation, at the big airlines, who laughed openly at the idea that someone would hop onto the web and buy their own ticket. That, they said, was far too complicated. That’s what we have agents and sales people for, because ordinary passengers could never cope. Big – BIG – mistake. Their failure to provide a low-cost entry point allowed Easyjet and Ryanair to enter the market and bring aviation to whole new demographics. Google Adsense for Audio is doing the same, and every radio company needs to think about self-provisioned audio advertising, and quickly.

But back to aviation. Unlike radio ad breaks, you can’t stretch a plane to stick a few more seats on when demand rises, so yield management is absolutely paramount. The algorithms that manage yield in aviation are e=mc2 compared to radio’s 1+1=2 inventory management (and yes, that’s even taking into account the most clever ad revenue management systems). Aviation algorithms process with thousands of inputs – absolutes, and trends. Current and historic. Your radio station may keep track of major sporting events, but airlines track events, conventions, and more.

The recession / economic slowdown is going to test those algorithms to the limits.

LOCOs (LOw COst Airlines) work absolutely on a high load factor, low seat-cost basis. Their central marketing pitch is “fly somewhere for £1”. If they sell 50 seats on a 150 seat plane at £1, the perception is “wow – cheap airline”, and never mind the people who are buying the last 10 seats at £150. Industry analysts watch LOCO load factors like a hawk, because they know that LF’s below 80% are seriously into danger zone for the whole LOCO business model. Not only do the last 10 seats make all the money, the last 30 passengers would also have paid £300 to check bags in, and about £100 for in-flight beverages. At some airports, the “marketing assistance” (backdoor discounting) only happens above certain numbers of passengers.

Full service airlines work differently. Yield is the key here. If a flight pushes back at 50% load factor, that’s fine, because that aircraft might have 3-4 business passengers onboard paying £500+, 20 passengers paying £350, 20 passengers connecting into long-haul flights paying £700-£800, and only 10-15 passengers on the £39 promotional fare. Promotional fares for full service airlines are marketing devices, not the foundations of the business model.

Ryanair, Easyjet et al. claim they’ll do better in a recession, because they’ll stay cheap and people will move from full service airlies. I beg to differ. The experience on the LOCOs is below that of a proper airline, and the majority of fares are moving towards parity. The kind of people who discretionally fly on Ryanair or Easyjet will keep their money to pay for electricity, petrol and food. No more jetting off to Prague for the weekend.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Easyjet and Flybe have been clever enough avoid the “Value Brand” perceptions of a LOCO, and have the right routes and additional benefits to hold business travellers in, although they’re still going to be paying more to fly. And the full service airlines can hold onto yield, because they treat their customers relatively well, and offer proper services like interlined tickets and unified schedules.

If Ryanair go under, I’ll be up the front cheering. Never has an airline (and its Chief Executive) treated its customers with such disgust and disdain. And they don’t do much for their staff too, by all accounts. Michael O’Leary’s “gobbier than thou” approach might have been acceptable a few years ago, but now it just personifies Ryanair as the yobs and louts airline, which doesn’t care a sh*t. I hear from more people who have paid “not £1” fares and had terrible service – when for £20-£30 more, they could have flown on a reputable airline. When the Chief Executive of an airline accuses BAA of being “rapists”, you know he’s gone too far – too much pressure, maybe?

There will be far fewer airlines in Europe in three years time. The Boeing idea of thousands of direct routes, used to justify the development of 787, is looking very shaky. In that respect, the concept of Airbus’ hub-to-hub future on which A380 is centred looks much more realistic, and environmentally sound. In broad terms, Europe will centre on a few hub centres, operated by either OneWorld or StarAliiance. (I have my doubts about SkyTeam’s strength beyond KL-AF). Once the airline industry has consolidated, and has optimised the size and capacity of its fleet, it might look commercially attractive again.

Maybe that’s another lesson for the radio industry too?

Photo: Our Easyjet Boeing 737-700 on the tarmac at Bristol Airport by alistairmacmillan@flickr