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TENERIFE DISASTER: DEADLY COMMUNICATION



Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, retired American airline captain known for the "Miracle on the Hudson" landing, "The Tenerife accident is a textbook case of how a series of seemingly minor errors can cascade into tragedy. It underscores the importance of clear communication, situational awareness, and adherence to procedures, especially in high-stress environments like busy airports."

 

Canary Islands, located off the coast of Africa near Morocco is a pristine location for a holiday. It has beautiful beaches, seaside resorts, volcanoes, etc., which makes it a must-visit holiday destination.

However, this blog is not about how beautiful the Canary Islands is but more about how an airport disaster at this pristine location changed the face of global aviation.

More than 500 people were killed in the disaster which involved a near head-on collision between two passenger planes over the runway just because of a miscommunication.

The tragic death toll clearly shows us the importance and value of clear and direct communication.

 

This blog will dive into the details of the disaster, as to why it happened, we will further examine the theoretical aspects of communication and what organizations can learn from this incident.

 

WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED ON THAT FATEFUL DAY?

Patrick Smith, airline pilot and author of "Cockpit Confidential":

"The Tenerife accident serves as a poignant reminder of the profound impact of human error in aviation. It underscores the critical importance of thorough training, disciplined adherence to procedures, and constant vigilance to mitigate the risks inherent in complex flight operations."

 

Tenerife airport disaster happened on March 27, 1977, when two passenger jets one being a KLM Airline and the other being a Pan American jet collided on the runway killing more than 500 people.

This happened when KLM Airline was preparing to take off.

As per a KLM airline official, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) had not given it final take-off permission. Despite this, the KLM pilot proceeded to take off while the Pan American airplane was still on the runway, resulting in the collision. Source info here.

The KLM airline was apparently told to hold for take-off, but no final take-off permission was given.


However, the exact cockpit recordings state this is where the ATC is telling the KLM Airline pilot.

 

1705:53.4 APP: KLM 8705 [sic] uh you are cleared to the Papa beacon. Climb to and maintain flight level 90 ... right turn after takeoff proceed with heading 040 until intercepting the 325 radial from Las Palmas VOR. Source info here.


When you read the above message, it is a clear case of poor communication…. Any person reading the above message would presume that the ATC has given take-off permission.

 

The above communication was neither clear and was completely ambiguous.

 

The weather conditions at the airport were also foggy as a result both the planes including the ATC faced visibility issues. The Pan American plane also missed a turn due to foggy conditions which could have taken it out of the path of the KLM Airline. Miscommunication of this proportion is a real cause of concern.

Let us now understand a theory, which can help us, and our organizations, communicate better to prevent a repeat in the future.


GRICE'S COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLES

Deborah Tannen, linguist "Grice's Cooperative Principle provides valuable insights into how people navigate conversations, emphasizing the importance of mutual understanding and collaboration in effective communication."

 

Grice's Cooperative Principle is a foundational concept in the field of pragmatics, proposed by philosopher H.P. Grice in his seminal work "Logic and Conversation" (1975).

The Cooperative Principle is based on the idea that in everyday communication, people expect speakers to make their contributions to conversations in a cooperative, informative, truthful, and relevant manner.

 

Grice identified four maxims or principles that explain cooperative communication:

 

Maxim of Quantity: Speakers are expected to provide an appropriate amount of information to contribute to the conversation. This means being as informative as necessary, but not more so. Speakers should avoid providing more information than is needed or relevant to the current context.


Maxim of Quality: Speakers are expected to be truthful and provide information that is accurate and based on evidence. They should avoid making false statements or presenting information they believe to be untrue.


Maxim of Relation (Relevance): Speakers are expected to make their contributions relevant to the ongoing conversation. They should provide information that is directly related to the topic at hand and avoid introducing irrelevant or tangential remarks


Maxim of Manner: Speakers are expected to express themselves in a clear, orderly, and coherent manner. They should avoid ambiguity, obscurity, or unnecessary complexity in their language, and they should strive to be as brief and orderly as possible.

 

In the above case, Maxim of manner was clearly violated, as the ATC should have clearly said whether take-off permission was given or not.

The communication was not clear at all in this situation, which could be one of the possible causes of the disaster.


LESSONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS FROM GRICE'S CO-OPERATIVE PRINCIPLES

Margaret Wheatley, Author, and management consultant, "The real power and resilience of an organization resides in the people who belong to it and their capacity to learn and change together."

 

This Tenerife Airport disaster shows us that such a disaster can happen in any industry. A simple miscommunication can escalate to a level we cannot comprehend.

 

Below are the key steps organizations can follow to ensure proper communication and to ensure never again a disaster of this scale happens.

 

Clarity and Transparency: Organizations should prioritize clear and transparent communication to ensure that messages are easily understood by all stakeholders. By adhering to the maxim of manner, organizations can avoid ambiguity, jargon, and unnecessary complexity in their communications, making it easier for employees to grasp important information and directives.


Relevance and Context: In organizational communication, it's essential to ensure that messages are relevant to the recipient's needs and the context of the situation. By adhering to the maxim of relation, organizations can focus on delivering information that is directly pertinent to employees' roles, responsibilities, and objectives, thereby enhancing engagement and productivity.


Informativeness and Completeness: Organizations should strive to provide sufficient information to enable employees to make informed decisions and take appropriate actions. By adhering to the maxim of quantity, organizations can ensure that communication is neither overly less nor excessively big, striking a balance that conveys the necessary information without overwhelming recipients


Truthfulness and Integrity: Trust is fundamental to effective organizational communication. Organizations should prioritize honesty, integrity, and authenticity in their communications, avoiding falsehoods, exaggerations, or misleading statements. By adhering to the maxim of quality, organizations can build credibility and foster trust among employees, enhancing morale and fostering a positive organizational culture.


CONCLUSION

Had the ATC just been clear about the instructions and followed the Maxim of manners and if the pilot had just confirmed once before take-off, a tragedy of this scale may never have happened.

We take communication very lightly but even a small ambiguity can cause a disaster of such magnitude.

 

Gorisco has a wide range of experts who are experienced in defining and designing various solutions to help organizations mitigate their risks and resolve their problems.

At Gorisco, our motto is 'Embedding Resilience,’ and we are committed to making the organizations and their workforce resilient. Reach out to us if you have any queries, clarifications, or need any support on your initiatives.

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