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Fly the Dang Plane

By   /  November 14, 2011  /  11 Comments

Flame Bucket Switchby Karen Lopez

Last week I flew from Washington, DC to Toronto via Philadelphia. This was at the end of about 3 weeks of many flights, having done a DAMA speaking tour, a class and two SQLSaturdays. I’ve been known to Tweet my travel experiences along the way, but usually these are first world problems like not getting an upgrade, weird non-TSA baggage inspections or complaining about the terribly rude service I seem to experience on a regular basis. But this time my experience in Philly was different. My flight from Philly was delayed. It seems all my flights from Philly are delayed, as if there is a big time suck in that general area. I knew about this delay because I use TripIt to track my itineraries and TriptPro notified me that my flight had been delayed by about 40 minutes. But as usual for many airlines, the boards in the airport and the official websites showed the original time — no delay. I have been told that airlines do this so that you will get to the gate anyway and therefore give the airline a few more seconds to slice off their abysmal on-time performance stats…by having you wait in a crowded, no-place-to-sit-not-even-on-the-floor gate area.

Alternative Data Sources

Because USAir had chosen not to delay the flight on the boards, I made my way to the gate area near the original boarding time of 12:45. There was no plane at the gate. This is your number one sign that the flight is delayed. A missing plane can’t be deboarded, it can’t be cleaned and it can’t be boarded. So I found a spot to sit on the floor underneath a pay phone next to the door to the jet way. As soon as I sat down, a harried gate agent called off about 20 names to come to the podium. Normally this might mean upgrades, but in this case I was sure it was the sometimes required, sometimes not “document check”. Since this flight was headed to Canada, airlines sometimes want to see your proof of citizenship again before you get on the plane. This document check is done because airlines are required to return you at their cost if you aren’t able to enter another country. So I showed my passport as the gate agent scolded me for waiting until boarding time to show up to the gate. She was frazzled and irritated because so many other passengers still hadn’t had their documents checked. I went back to my seat on the floor.

Sitting next to the door were three women who had just been scolded by the gate agent for asking if the flight was delayed. It seemed that 80% of the passengers who approached the desk were asking the same question. Before we had mobile data devices we passengers were in the dark about flights, but now we have access to third-party data sets that can tell us when flight are delayed or cancelled. The airlines haven’t quite changed their data sharing processes to acknowledge that. They still assume that we have no other sources of data for flight information. Gate agents everywhere are distracted by passengers asking why the board data and their data services data is in conflict.  We should fix that.

But I digress. Data issues do that to me.

Distraction and Flying the Plane

As the three women and I were discussing the fact that it was 1:04 and our plane had not yet arrived for our 1:18 take off, a woman who had no badge or uniform walked passed us and into the propped open door of the jet way. Our friendly gate agent was busy reviewing documents, then using the PA to call for missing passengers to show their documents. She was consumed by two tasks: checking documents and convincing passengers that the flight was on time. Finally one of the three women (I’ll just call her Woman One) approached the desk and pointed out to the gate agent that someone who appeared to have no credentials or uniform had boarded the jetway without clearing with the gate agent. The agent paused, then said that she knew what she was doing and no one had entered the jetway. We stared in disbelief. Woman One said again that she had seen someone board without clearance.

Remember that the Department of Homeland Security has a See Something, Say Something campaign. Airports are covered with signage repeating this message. So this group of women had seen something and said something. Now they had reported it to an airline employee. What was the gate agent’s response? She repeatedly told Woman One to sit down an shut up. Woman One kept up with her reports, but the gate agent was focused on two things: getting those dang documents checked and ensuring that we all stayed at the gate area so that the flight could be boarded as fast as possible.

Do you see what’s happened here? The gate agent was so focused on these two tasks that she missed the whole point of her job: to be the agent that ensured only the right people got on that jetway. Sure, the document check is part of that, but she was presented with a much bigger threat than expired documents and she discarded that report in favor of her heads-down task of matching names on a document to names on a list. The airline industry has a name for this: forgetting to fly the plane. My friend Mike Walsh (@mike_walsh ) has blogged and presented about this several times. In See Something, Say Something he writes about a flight crew on United 173 being so distracted by a light bulb they flew an airplane into the ground. Other air disasters involve the same type of mistake: pilots forgetting that their job is to first fly the plane. It seems so obvious is hindsight, but it’s easy to get distracted by project goals, urgent tasks and personal goals that we forget to do the number one priority in our jobs.

I have to admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in trying to make a macro do some whiz-bang nifty thing while forgetting that my job is to get data requirements documented and turned into a database design. Some other things I’ve seen:

  • A data architect that is so focused on getting a data model laid out with no crossing lines and following a no-dead-crows approach that she has forgotten more than 20 important data requirements
  • A DBA so focused on applying surrogate keys to every table that he forgot to ensure that the alternate keys were applied, therefore leaving the data in an potentially harmful situation
  • A developer so focused on squeezing performance out of a query he failed to return all the data that should have been returned in the query
  • A project manager so dedicated to getting perfect Gantt chart she forgot to actually manage the tasks and people who needed a project manager.
  • A team so focused on a two week sprint they forgot to verify a bunch of assumptions that turned out to be wrong, causing a great deal of rework and loss of confidence in the team.
  • A DBA so focused on applying a “best practice” that he applied it in a situation that it harmed performance instead of enhancing it.

So what happened in Philadelphia? We don’t know. We never saw the mysterious woman deboard the plane. And when we boarded, she wasn’t there on the plane. Obviously either all four of us missed her coming back off the plane or she exited the jet way on to the tarmac. We’ll never know who she was or what she was doing on the plane or the tarmac. There has been no news of anything bad happening as a result of a failure to “fly the plane” that day. The opportunity certainly was there.

I’d love to hear about your examples of people who have forgotten to fly the dang plane.

It’s so easy to get bogged down in a short term task that we forget that our job is to do something more than that task. Make sure that you don’t lose sight of your job, no matter what it is. Every task has a purpose. Make sure you understand what the goal of a task so that you understand when you are distracted from flying the dang plane.

About the author

Karen Lopez is Sr. Project Manager and Architect at InfoAdvisors. She has 20+ years of experience in project and data management on large, multi-project programs. Karen specializes in the practical application of data management principles. She is a frequent speaker, blogger and panelist on data quality, data governance, logical and physical modeling, data compliance, development methodologies and social issues in computing. Karen is an active user on social media and has been named one of the top 3 technology influencers by IBM Canada and one of the top 17 women in information management by Information Management Magazine. She is a Microsoft SQL Server MVP, specializing in data modeling and database design. She’s an advisor to the DAMA, International Board and a member of the Advisory Board of Zachman, International. She’s known for her slightly irreverent yet constructive opinions and rants on information technology topics. She wants you to love your data. Karen is also moderator of the InfoAdvisors Discussion Groups at www.infoadvisors.com and dm-discuss on Yahoo Groups. Follow Karen on Twitter (@datachick).

  • While its distracting from the point of your blog post, I wonder if said non-uniformed person was known to be a plainclothes DHS agent by the gate, and was purposefully ignored. It sounds unlikely from how you recounted the situation, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

    Now, even if that were the case, the agent should have had a better story than “you didn’t see anything” like “that was a ground crew supervisor.” Of course said agent should have had an airline employee badge to present to the crew member in the first place.

    Some really good examples in the article, because most of them are well intentioned mistakes that most people in those roles have done or come close to doing. I’ve certainly optimized away the functionality of a few sprocs.

    • I wondered if perhaps the woman was an Air Marshal and expected to see her sitting in her seat when get boarded the plane. What was really weird is that later the gate agent claimed she saw the woman deplane. That’s after she first said that no one boarded.

      I also considered that perhaps this was one of those inside drug/weapon smuggling things. I don’t think those things work by having people get to the plane via a jetway, though.

      I guess my other lesson learned is that first we need to know which plane we are supposed to be flying, then fly it.

  • I see this kind of nonsense all the time. You may remember my story about having my hand swatted away by a US Airways flight attendant who insisted that I was not allowed to control the fan above my own seat. And the light bulb that took 4 guys 10 minutes to change (but not fix), then we waited over 2 hours for the paperwork about said lightbulb to be completed, and ultimately had to fly with all the lights on – on a red-eye from Philly to London. So maybe the Philly time suck is a paperwork issue.

    As for your more directly DBA-related examples, some good ones there for sure. How about some presentation-related lines, like spending so much time getting the demos to work right, but not spending any time rehearsing the information in the slide decks? How about not having any idea that your material does not come anywhere near to covering the time slot you’ve committed? How about spending more time on your “about me” slide than on any other single slide in your presentation?

    • Get me started on bizarre thing airline staff had told me. There was the Air Canada Jazz flight attendant who told me that it was against US federal law to serve me a second glass of water.

      Then there was the USAir FA who told me that it was against company policy for me to hold an elderly couples bags while they got into their seats.

      Oh, and my favourite was when a gate agent who wrote down my passport number and permanent resident card number on a slip of paper and put it in her pocket: “it’s company policy”.

      The real problem we have is that as travellers we really can’t complain if we want to stay flying. The balance of power is too far on the other side.

  • Rob Drysdale

    I think there’s also a bit of the old “if you measure the wrong thing you get the wrong results” thing going on here. It strikes me that perhaps the airlines are so focused on their on-time stats and getting the paperwork right that they lose sight of the paramount safety and security role they play in all of this.

    Over the years I’ve seen this happen a number of times where some particular stat is the new “hot button” for management so they tell everyone that they must focus on it and work to improve it. Management believes that the employees will still focus on all the other stuff, but give a bit more attention to the “hot button” issue. In reality it just doesn’t work that way. There are only so many hours in a day/week/month and people will focus on what the boss tells them. I’ve seen great processes fall apart because of this and people look back and wonder why it happened.

    So, as Karen says, remember to “fly the dang plane” and not just focus on that new shiny thing over there.

    • The funny part is that sometimes the distraction isn’t about shiny thing, but a mundane task that is somewhat important, but not urgent. Or urgent but relatively not important.

  • Re: your airline adventures, I find most disturbing the gate agent pocketing your personal information – downright creepy.

    In terms of project management, certainly team members need to overcome their “specialization myopathy” tendencies. Sometimes though, corporate culture makes this worse, by emphasizing pecking order over true collaboration within the team. A second factor is modern systems complexity: often we individually can’t know all aspects of an application or system, want ads to the contrary (there’s a great blog entitled “What If Drivers Were Hired Like Programmers?” that adresses this).

    I’ve worked on several agile efforts where emphasis on a sprint caused the team to overlook an important requirement. One involved constructing a message returning data warehouse table information. Much attention was given to the table design and needed parameters. Only late in the project was an unusual feature of the message format itself discovered. Rework and hand-wringing then ensued.

    Thanks for a great read.

    • Marie –
      The airlines also suffer from the pecking order, lack of co-ordination problem. This led to many crashes and deaths, too. So now they have the concept of Crew/Cockpit Resource Management, which requires subordinates to call out warnings or opposing opinions.


      Ah, data sharing formats: it’s XML, it must just work, right? 🙂

  • David Schlesinger CISSP

    A brief note on the L10-11 that flew into the totally dark Everglades as the pilot and crew watched a landing gear status light being changed. While you are essentially correct, the light bulb exchange was to determine if the landing gear was actually down, since the “locked” bulb did not light. They changed the bulb with a known good bulb to determine of it was just a burned out bulb. (Yes, this is truly poor error detection design.)

    But the real issue was that the manufacturer designed that plane’s automatic pilot with a critical difference from all other commercial planes. While the craft had been set to auto-circle when the pilot leaned on the control yoke and pushed it forward, he was depending on a safety measure that the manufacturer had not provided. On other planes the auto-pilot shakes the yoke to alert the pilot whenever autopilot is being overridden. In this plane, this only happened with left and right changes. The pilot never knew the plane was descending in a spiral. I mention this because the one-line quote implies total blame on the deceased pilot. The airplane manufacturer shares that blame, as does the designer of the one-bulb feedback on locked landing gear.

    • Thanks for that input, David. Mike’s blog post is actually about another pilot distraction event, the one outside of Portland, OR. In that case the pilot was focused also on landing gear issues and chose to ignore questions from other staff.

      I read about airline incidents, too. Most incidents are complex: no one thing causes the failure. It’s almost always a collection of events that leads to the crash.

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