CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
Today, instead of chronologically narrating another episode from my career, I will write something different. It is something close to my heart. At this difficult time, I am happy to share this story with the readers of my column. It is a story of how my curiosity about a young lady turned into an unconditional love that lasted over 25 years. On November 6, 1995, I was introduced to Miss Mélaine Patrice le Mercier DuQuesnay. Since then, until July 27, 2021, she was my Princess of Hospitality…
November, 1995 – A Sales Call in Jamaica
Soon after organizing a series of Halloween special events, I left my position as the General Manager of the main hotel in Guyana – Forte Crest Pegasus – and an eco-resort in the Amazon – Timberhead. I landed in Jamaica the next day, on November 1, 1995, at noon to start my orientation as the new General Manager of the largest business hotel in the island as well as the best hotel in the capital of Jamaica – Kingston. Forte Grand Jamaica Pegasus had 360 rooms and over 400 full-time staff including a large sales team.
As my predecessor, a Swedish hotelier, had two more weeks in Jamaica, I decided to dedicate half of my time during those two weeks to do 30 sales calls with ten different members of the sales team. My aim was to meet the main customers of the hotel and observe the effectiveness of the sales team. On November 6, the Director of Sales took me to one of the two largest printing companies on the island – Lithographic Printers Limited. While waiting to meet with the Chairman of the company, we chatted with his daughter. This young lady in her late twenties was the Director of Operations and Sales of the printing company.
She was also a chatterbox. She quicky said, “I am Mélaine. Welcome to Lithographic Printers. I handle all printing for Jamaica Pegasus.” I was intrigued by her beautiful smile and her mesmerising greenish blue eyes. I told her that, “You may have to impress the new General Manager to continue to handle all printing for the hotel.” Her eyes sparkled, while she smiled again. I felt that she liked a challenge.
A week later, Mélaine came to see me for a meeting over a cup of coffee at my office. I was surprised to learn that she had earned a Bachelor of Commerce Honours Degree from one of the best comprehensive universities in Canada, University of Guelph, with Hotel and Food Administration as her major. Mélaine then told me that as a teenage girl growing up in Canada, she was fascinated with the mid-1980s TV soap opera, Arthur Hailey’s ‘Hotel’, and decided to become a hotelier. She said that she loved the bearded hotel general manager, the main character in the series, acted by James Brolin. She then said, “You look like him, but with curly hair.” I returned a compliment, “You look like Julia Roberts, but with green eyes.” She corrected me, “They are blue, but the colour changes a little depending on the colour of my dress!”
November, 1996 – A Fighting Friendship in Jamaica
Later, I learnt that Mélaine had done her university co-ops/internships at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Tourist Information Centre in Canada and the Forte Grand Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. That explained her popularity among hotel employees in the front office and food & beverage operations. I continued to give her printing contracts and her company gave us some room business.
In addition to Forte Grand, Melaine handled a few other prestigious key printing accounts in the hospitality and tourism industry in Jamaica. Her corporate clients included Ramada Renaissance, Sandals and SuperClubs hotel brands. She also handled Air Jamaica and Jamaica Tourist Board accounts. Her university education in hospitality management had become useful in serving these organisations as a supplier, since 1990.
A year later, I became very busy with an unprecedented calendar of entertainment shows, art exhibitions, food festivals and holiday programs including a record-breaking 100 holiday events over a period of 38 days. We printed a monthly newsletter using Lithographic Printers. Some of my tough price negotiations led to a few disagreements between Mélaine and I. Once or twice, she left my office in tears. One day, I heard that her father had been annoyed with our ongoing love-hate relationship. He had told Mélaine, “Don’t mix business with relationships. Whatever you do with the Coolie Man, don’t lose the Pegasus account!” I was offended by that outdated racist term, but soon realized that it is a common ‘friendly’ term in Jamaica for anyone who looks Indian.
November, 1997 – An Affair in Jamaica
In 1997, my employer, Forte PLC in the UK, purchased Le Meridien from Air France. Jamaica Pegasus was one of the five-star Forte Grand hotels from around the world chosen for rebranding as Le Meridien. I was entrusted with a major upgrading project prior to the rebranding. All stationary, menus, etc., had to be reprinted in keeping with Le Meridien standards. This meant that I had frequent weekly meetings with my favourite printer in Jamaica.
Two years after I first met her outside of her father’s office, Mélaine and I went on our first date. It was a grand ball organised by the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce at the Pegasus. We were at the head table. Our friendship soon blossomed into a romance. I was occasionally invited to her father’s house for dinner parties. On some Sundays, we went on her father’s boat to the Lime Cay and Maiden Cay located just off the coast of the famous pirate town, Port Royal. Frequent dinner dates, movie nights and short breaks to resorts became common. On Mélaine’s invitation I delivered a training session to her team. We became a couple for festive events and Christmas. After that I called her ‘Mélaine’ only when she annoyed me. All other times, I affectionately called her, ‘Boo’. She was my ‘Boo’, forever…
November, 1998 – In Love in Jamaica
Towards the end of my three-year contract, I was considered for the opportunity to open a new Le Meridien in Kathmandu, Nepal. I invited Mélaine to leave her family business and travel with me to Asia. However, she was a bit nervous about taking our relationship to such as an adventurous new level. This led me to instead accept an offer by the University of West Indies (UWI) as a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Tourism Management. With that, I was able to remain in Kingston – Mélaine’s birth place. We were now lovers and I moved to her house in an affluent area in Kingston. Having lived in the hotels where I worked for nearly 20 years, I was good at running hotels but clueless about running a house. Mélaine soon became my trainer, coach, mentor and boss! I was a bad trainee and that annoyed Mélaine for some time.
May, 1999 – Getting Married
One day, when I was at work at UWI, I received an urgent call from Mélaine. She was so thrilled; the message was not clear to me. I asked, “Boo, for heaven’s sake, calm down and tell me what happened.” She happily screamed, “I am pregnant!” After returning home that day early and giving my Boo a big hug, I sat on our back patio looking at pouring rain on large bamboo trees. I served myself a large Appleton Rum and Coke to build up my courage. When Mélaine joined me, I went on my knees and proposed to her, “Boo, would you marry me?” “YES!”, she screamed.
We married on May 1, 1999, and ended up on a six-week long honeymoon in nine countries (Canada, England, Italy, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, Greece and Sri Lanka). In between, we had a memorable homecoming wedding at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, Sri Lanka. In later years, we travelled to 30 countries together, including a tour of Africa for nearly a month performing my duties as the President of the Hotel & Catering International Management Association, UK (HCIMA, now the Institute of Hospitality, UK).
July 2001 – Moving to Canada
After a decade in Jamaica, Mélaine wanted to move back to Canada with our little daughter, Danika. I was very happy in Jamaica, and I was not keen about moving to Canada, to experience those freezing ‘brass monkey’ weathers. Finally, we compromised and agreed to give it a try for a year. I was fortunate to arrange a faculty exchange Professor post at the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. Mélaine worked for a couple of years in guest service at the 4-diamond hotel Queens Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
When our son Ché Rana was born in 2003, Mélaine took a 10-year break from work to dedicate her full-time focus to raise our two kids and support my career. To me, that was the most noble job a parent could do. Mélaine was simply a Princess of Hospitality. She did everything at home including maintaining our backyard swimming pool which was a popular meeting and partying place for our neighbours. She entertained many of our friends and family with her cooking, infectious laughter and story-telling. In between, we found time to do a few quality assurance consulting assignments as a husband-wife mystery guest team at Le Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel in Canada, SuperClubs Resort in the Bahamas and Le Meridien Dubai in UAE.
Mélaine’s Return to the Hotel Industry
In 2013, she re-entered the hotel industry as a Guest Service Agent at Holiday Inn & Suites in St. Catharines, Canada. After training with the InterContinential Hotel Group (IHG), she was entrusted with the role of IHG Loyalty Champion (Platinum Level).
After five years in that post, she accepted an offer as the Front Office Team Leader of the hotel opening team for Hampton Inn by Hilton in St. Catharines. In this position, she received world-class training with the Hilton Hotel Corporation. Soon after the hotel opening, she was promoted to Front Office Manager.
Impressed with Mélaine’s dedication, professionalism, and her desire to ensure customer satisfaction, I nicknamed her the “Princess of Hospitality.” Every day when she came home after work, our children and I enjoyed hearing various interesting stories about her day. I was re-living my hotel management days through Mélaine. Occasionally she sought my advice, but I quickly realised that she did not require any advice. She was a natural hotelier. Everything was perfect.
On January 30th, 2020, while the world was struggling to comprehend the danger of COVID-19, I returned to Canada after a one-month trip to Sri Lanka and the UK. That day, we celebrated Mélaine’s 53rd birthday. A few weeks later, when I came home after some work in Niagara-on-the-Lake, my son told me that, “Mommy is not well. She looked yellow at work and we took her to the emergency room!” I was surprised. Mélaine had never been sick in her life. I rushed to the hospital to be with her. A few hours later we heard the results of the CT scan. The doctor who came to Mélaine’s hospital room knelt down before giving us the shockingly bad news. Mélaine had pancreatic cancer.
Having lost both of her parents within the last three years due to different types of cancer, Mélaine was well-informed and educated about this deadly disease. When the kneeling doctor described the stage of her cancer, Mélaine calmly asked, “this means that I have maximum eighteen months to live?” After a pause, the doctor looked down and reluctantly said, “yes.” I hugged my Boo and cried, uncontrollably. Mélaine ordered me, “’stop crying, Chandi. Let’s fight this thing, while we enjoy the short time left for us to be together.” We did exactly that for seventeen months in the midst of pandemic-related restrictions, hospitalizations, surgeries, procedures and twenty-three bouts of chemotherapy.
During the last one and half years, I realised that my new role as the key caregiver is the most noble job I have ever done. I was optimistic till last week, when the hospital stopped treatment and transferred Mélaine to a palliative care unit. While our two children and I stayed with Mélaine by her bedside day and night for a week, I wrote my final poem during my wife’s lifetime.
Smiling blue eyes full of love
Fun and laughter until now
I cry, head down and bow
When to stop and how?
Days come and go
We are holding on
Right beside your bedside
Hoping for a miracle
The darkness of night, slowly
Hoping for another slight smile
Before sleeping peacefully
Comfortably as possible
Payers and wishes from all, in unity
Loved ones hugging, in uncertainty
Closer to meeting with divinity
Our love is destined for eternity
On July 27, 2021, at around 5:00 AM, the night nurse woke me and said, “your wife is ready to go…” While I was holding Mélaine’s hands and kissing her forehead, Mélaine passed away quietly and peacefully. My daughter’s favourite teddy bear was with Mélaine. My last poem was placed closed to her heart when Mélaine was cremated, the very next day.
Mélaine’s final wishes included no funeral, no flowers and no tomb stone. She wanted us to sprinkle her ashes over moving water. I will do so wishing to see her again, one day, somewhere else… She requested that instead of flowers, donations be made to Hospice Niagara where she spent her final week. For those who wish to watch a video tribute to Mélaine or comment about her extraordinarily happy but short life and how she touched many, please do so on www.butlerniagara.ca
Now Mélaine has ceased to be my Princess of Hospitality, but she will live in my heart as my angel, until it is my turn to join her. GOOD NIGHT MY ANGEL PRINCESS…
Preventing the Preventable; Preserving healthcare services
Recent address by
Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva
to the Galle Medical Association
It is indeed my privilege and pleasure to be given this opportunity to address the members of the Galle Medical Association (GMA). I am grateful to the President and the Council of the GMA for inviting me as the guest of honour at the inauguration ceremony of your annual academic sessions.
Coming here today is like getting back to my roots again. I was born and bred in Galle and had my entire primary and secondary education at Richmond College. Between 1982 and 1995 I was associated with the GMA in my capacity, first as a senior lecturer in medicine for two years and then for nine years as a Consultant Physician at the Teaching Hospital, Karapitiya.
I was the President of the Galle Medical Association in 1994.My colleague Prof. Ariyananda and I were the first two senior lecturers in the Dept. of Medicine, with Prof. Hettiarachchi as the head. We knew almost every student in the first few batches by name, taking a personal interest in their welfare, to make sure that they did well as doctors.
The academic and non-academic staff took it up as a personal challenge to prove that the Ruhuna Medical Faculty, though rather hastily established, was second to none in the island. Looking back, we can be happy that all did very well, most of them becoming very competent specialists in various fields, later on, and are providing an exemplary service here and abroad.
We started in the dilapidated buildings at Mahamodera and then moved into modern facilities at Karapitiya, which at that time was still a building site. The long-established Galle Clinical Society later merged with the relatively new Galle Medical Association under the presidency of the late Prof. Tommy Wickremanayake, the Dean of the Medical Faculty, at that time. This wonderful auditorium, named after him, is a tribute to the late Professor’s energy and determination to see that we had the best facilities in the Southern Province. He took me round this building site on several occasions, and I once nearly had an accidental fall trying to mount this stage, only half built at that time. Today I feel quite confident standing here on a firm foundation, a podium graced by many medical luminaries over more than 40 glorious years, in the service of medical education.
The Galle Medical Association has done justice to the ideals and aspirations of its founders. As a life member, I receive regular information of your activities. The Association is meeting amply the academic and non-academic needs of its membership. Your lecture series on beyond medicine; religious and sports activities, musical programmes, leisure trips, etc., would provide much relaxation outside the exhausting routine of medical practice. Your annual academic programme is not second to that of many professional Colleges and Associations based in Colombo or elsewhere in the country. This wide array of activities is indicative of an Association keen on providing an all-round service to its members and their families, as well as to the medical students. My congratulations to all concerned.
Your theme this year, “Preventing the Preventable,” is very timely. With the economic crisis we are experiencing, the age old saying “Prevention is better than cure” is more relevant today than ever before. Certainly, true in the case of prevention of diseases, I am concentrating today on other aspects of healthcare the doctors have overlooked and to a great extent failed to prevent their decline.
Preventing the Preventable; Preserving the Healthcare Services is my concern today.
All the remarkable achievements in the fields of communicable and non-communicable diseases, with world acclaimed health indices, are now being nullified by the economic crisis in which the healthcare services appear to be caught unawares. The shortage of drugs and other equipment, costing more and more with every passing day, has made it near impossible to give proper treatment to needy patients. I will not be surprised to hear of deaths due to lack of treatment in the near future. We already hear allegations, though authorities keep refusing to accept their responsibility, of deaths due to poor quality of drugs hastily imported to overcome shortages in a poorly planned system.
This is compounded by poor household incomes, high transport costs and other difficulties the patients experience in seeking medical care.
While most of the blame for this unfortunate situation falls on poor planning and corruption by the rulers, the medical profession, too, has failed in preventing this calamity. They have contributed by their irrational prescription habits, doing unnecessary investigations and the like, leading to a high cost in the delivery of healthcare. Irrational prescriptions contribute in a big way to multidrug resistance to antibiotics, as well. Poorly regulated private practice by doctors needs an overhaul. Exorbitant fees charged by some specialists are the talking point in the society. I need not bore you with details which should be well known to all of you by now.
We as a profession should not allow ourselves to be exploited by the profit-oriented private healthcare services and the pharmaceutical industry. The patients are compelled to pay a heavy price for our shortcomings in this regard. Thus, by our inaction in dealing with such, we have failed to prevent the gradual deterioration of the respect the society has for the profession.
Has the medical profession knowingly or unknowingly colluded with the misdeeds of the politicians? As an example, I wish the institutions, like the drug regulatory authority, NMRA, did more to prevent corruption and irregularities in the procurement of drugs. They have remained mostly silent knowing very well how their decisions regarding the registration of drugs are overruled or circumvented by politicians and administrators with ulterior motives.
Functioning of the Sri Lanka Medical Council is being looked down upon by many in the profession itself. The amendments to the Act governing the SLMC has been proposed over many years to broad base its membership to include non-medical professionals and make it more effective in its primary duties of regularizing medical practice, maintaining discipline in the profession and maintaining good standards of medical education. Politicians have so far failed to enact them. With poor standards of medical education, due to shortages in staff and other facilities in hastily established new medical schools, SLMC has been largely silent on these aspects. At present it appears that the medical trade unions and indirectly the political influence are hampering its proper functioning. As a result the SLMC remains mainly a body for holding the ERPM for foreign medical graduates and registering the medical practitioners. Our professional associations should be more involved in its affairs and add their voice for reforms.
I have been a member of the SLMC for 10 years in the past. But your chief guest as its immediate past president, who was removed from the post in a most unprofessional way by the politicians, with perhaps the connivance of our own colleagues, will be in a better position to address these issues. That action initiated by our own professional colleagues has now established a precedent for the Health Minister to have a bigger say in the SLMC affairs, seriously undermining its autonomy.
In my address to the Colombo Medical Congress a year ago, I stressed how our Professional Colleges and Associations kept a blind eye without getting involved and having their say in the administration of the health service. Even when there was an uprising asking for a system change, the medical profession remained largely silent without adding their voice. This was in stark contrast to the legal profession who stood up with the people asking for justice. By remaining ‘respectable’, confining ourselves to academic activity only, we have allowed our efforts at improving services to the public and training postgraduates to become meaningless. As a result, we are now spending tax payers’ money for training specialists for service abroad. With an unprecedented exodus of locally trained doctors and other healthcare staff, we are helping richer countries to serve their citizens better. The world-acclaimed health indices we have achieved by hard work over the years are becoming irrelevant with rampant malnutrition and other maladies affecting a significant proportion of the people.
Even the few medical men who dared to warn the authorities publicly on impending childhood malnutrition in their area had to face disciplinary action. The services of an alumnus of the Ruhuna medical faculty have been terminated as a result. Unfortunately, there is hardly any protest heard from the trade unions or other medical organizations against such action, at a time when elsewhere numerous unlawful activities and rampant corruption remain unpunished.
As much as the people are asking for all 225 in the Parliament to be thrown out, there are loud whispers in the society that the medical profession, too, is corrupt exploiting the people in various ways. There is no use in our grumbling about any shortcomings of doctors and incidents of medical negligence being highlighted in mass media regularly. Naturally, the good work done by the doctors will not be talked about with praise as that is the minimum the society expects from us.
It is high time our annual conferences and other meetings had a regular session or symposia on various aspects of the doctor in society, discussing our own faults and ways of rectifying them. All Colleges, especially those dealing with clinical disciplines coming into direct contact with the public daily, should communicate regularly with their members on these issues. They should also keep a close watch on the activities of health-related institutions like the SLMC and the NMRA already referred to, and intervene where necessary, without waiting till it is too late.
Thus, prevention in broader terms involves not only prevention of diseases but also prevention of other irregularities in the administration of health and questionable practices of our own colleagues that have a direct bearing on the health of the people. The medical profession, despite its many shortcomings, is still respected and influential. Our strong voice will be heard by the rulers, medical administrators and the general public.With these thoughts let me conclude by wishing you all a very successful and enjoyable annual sessions. I wish you all a very good evening.
Ambiguity of National Evaluation Policy?
By Dr Laksiri Fernando
For the second time, Ranil Wickremesinghe has inaugurated a National Evaluation Policy (NEP) for Sri Lanka. The first one was in 2018 and also in September at the Global Parliamentarians Forum for Evaluation (GPFE) held in Colombo. As its website said, “The National Evaluation Policy (NEP) of Sri Lanka, was launched by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at ‘EvalColombo 2018,’ the first ever global conference on evaluation organized by the Global Parliamentarians Forum for Evaluation (GPFE).”
He inaugurated the same or a different one as the President of Sri Lanka on 8 September 2023 at Temple Trees with the participation of some key Ministers, Officials and Foreign Delegates. The Presidential Secretariat’s website quite genuinely titled the posting of the speech as “Sri Lanka’s long-awaited National Evaluation Policy finally commences after seven years.” However, there was no policy document posted on the website. When I searched on the President’s website (president.gov.lk) the following was the message I got.
“Sorry, you have been blocked. You are unable to access president.gov.lk.”
It is still difficult for me to figure out why I have been blocked. Is it a technical error or a political decision? Is the website closed to everyone or only for me? My primary objective was to see the details of what they called ‘National Evaluation Policy Implementation Framework.’ That is what the President mentioned in the Speech.
However, on the website of the Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization and National Policies, (Ministry of Finance – Sri lanka (treasury.gov.lk) there was a pdf titled, the ‘National Evaluation Policy of Sri Lanka.’ It is only a four-page document even without page numbers or a date. Two pages were devoted to a long glossary and references. There were five references all being websites accessed in 2017. This is quite intriguing.
For Good Governance
A National Evaluation Policy (NEP) is part of good governance. In the case of Sri Lanka, such evaluations should particularly address corruption and misuse of funds. Without an NEP, governance accountability to the people and to the international community cannot be achieved. In 2009, the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) said, “There is general consensus that evaluating the performance of public policy is an important instrument for good governance. There is, however, a gap between this general agreement and the actual implementation, use and sustainability of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems, processes, and tools on the ground.”
This was after an international conference held on the subject in Casablanca (Morocco) in December 2009. Sri Lanka participated at the conference represented by the Director General of the Ministry of Finance and Planning, Velayuthan Sivagnanasothy. He presented a well-prepared paper, titled “Sri Lanka: National Monitoring and Evaluation System: Experiences, Challenges and the Way Forward.” As Sivagnanasothy assured, there was a national monitoring and evaluation system in Sri Lanka at that time. I also can remember its existence participating at several meetings and conferences as the Director of the National Centre for Advanced Studies (NCAS) and a Director of the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE).
It is possible that the above situation changed when unreliable persons like Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa became controlling the country’s Ministry of Finance. A large number of projects were undertaken with foreign loans without an evaluation of the project plans and the progress of their implementation. When countries like Norway, Canada, Japan, and Australia gave aid, grants, or loans to Sri Lanka, they themselves conducted their independent evaluations. However, there were some other countries and agencies who didn’t want this requirement. This is one reason why and how Sri Lanka became heavily indebted and failed to repay loans.
There is no question that national evaluation policies can easily become politicised. The best way to avoid the infection is to develop these policies independently and as part of management science/studies. There can be an independent commission on national evaluation. Project planning, management, monitoring, and evaluation are already subjects taught in universities. There are a good number of Sri Lankan people who are qualified in this field at least at the graduate level. What is needed is to introduce postgraduate degrees and develop the subject to be useful to the country and others.
Various sectors in Sri Lanka should have clear national policy/policies. In 2012 the World Bank published a book titled ‘Building Better Policies’ focusing mainly on monitoring and evaluation. It is fully available online (Building Better Policies – Google Books). It says in the foreword, “This book is useful to anyone who cares about the quality of public policies and who wants to learn and understand how public policies and programs can be shaped with the objective of improving people’s welfare.”
The report in the Presidential Secretariat’s website on the so-called inauguration says, “The President acknowledged a significant void in Sri Lanka’s governance system – the absence of a national policy.” This is very true as the immediate circumstances categorically revealed the situation.
On the day of ‘inauguration of NEP,’ it was reported “Sri Lanka will be transformed into an education hub in South Asia,” an assertion made by the Minister of State for Education, Dr. Suren Raghavan. People are not unknown to various dreams of ‘hubs’ declared by different politicians from time to time. Raghavan cannot be the same type given his educational and professional background. Yet, he has also stated “the focus of the new education reforms is on creating a system that enables students studying in the arts stream to attain a bachelor’s degree in science.” This is completely intriguing and no further information was given on how it could be done.
Four days later, Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe made a similar declaration about educational reforms and said, “vocational institutions to be given the same recognition as universities.” Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe primarily is the Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms. However, he is also the Chairman of the Parliamentary Special Committee on the Expansion of Higher Education and perhaps he made this statement in that capacity.
What is clear from these statements and declarations is that the present government or politicians in general in the country do not have any idea of expanding the university or higher education system. Renaming vocational institutions like Technical Colleges as universities is not a solution. Quality of higher education and integrity should be preserved. Also, giving the arts students just BSc degrees is not a solution for the problems associated with that stream. Sciences and social sciences should be promoted and developed. Immediate evaluation of the whole educational system is necessary. There can be an independent commission on the subject with capable people. Most important is the promotion of the English medium in higher education without discriminating against anyone who wants to study in the Sinhala or Tamil medium.
Aviation safety and human element
By Capt. G A Fernando
RCyAF/ SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, SIA and SriLankan Airlines.
Former Crew Resource Management (CRM) Facilitator, Singapore Airlines Ltd.
Member, Independent Air Accident Investigation Pool
(The first part of this article appeared in The Island of 18 Sept., 2023)
In 1982, an Air Florida Boeing 737 crashed into the Potomac River, Washington D.C., after takeoff from Washington National Airport in icing conditions. Erroneous engine thrust readings (higher than actual), and the co-pilot’s lack of assertiveness in communicating his concern and comments about aircraft performance during the take-off run were among the factors cited (NTSB/AAR 82- 08).
Experts say that one needs to be ‘aggressively’ safe. All communications (verbal or written) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be proactive, predictive and preventive. Some of the accidents mentioned could have been prevented.
As can be seen in the diagram shown, the SHELL boundaries are not smooth but inherently full of serrations, and much effort is needed to interact efficiently and seamlessly. Some experts stress that it is Communication in the form of SOPs that ‘lubricate’ the system for smooth interaction between elements’ while the captain (team leader) sets the tone. In fact, where air safety is concerned, Capt. Tony Kern, a human factors expert, says in his book Redefining Airmanship that to maintain air safety, it is imperative that the team leader knows himself, knows his team, knows his aircraft and equipment, knows his mission and, above all, evaluates the risks involved with the task at hand.There can be problems with the interaction within the team (Liveware and Liveware). Sometimes the Captain (Leader) has to be an expert in conflict resolution! (See Figure 01)
Threats and Hazards
Almost every situation in life is full of ‘threats’. When it involves one personally, it becomes a ‘hazard’. In the aviation context, if there is a flock of birds in the vicinity of an aircraft, they constitute a ‘threat’. However, if that flock of birds starts crossing the flight path of the aircraft, it becomes a ‘hazard’ and avoidance action needs to be taken. Remember the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’? The engines failed because of bird ingestion.
Many airports, too, contain manmade threats and hazards which are usually eliminated only after an accident. In fact, pilots say that blood has to be spilt for changes for the better to occur. At many airports high-rise or security-sensitive buildings are built without planning, and no consideration given to air safety, thus violating the law.
The Ratmalana International Airport is a case in point. On the landing approach from the Attidiya side there is the Parliament and Akuregoda Military Headquarters which are prohibited over flying areas. In the vicinity of the Ratmalana International Airport, there is the Kotelawala Defence Academy and Hospital. At the Galle Road end a solid wall creates a hazard for landing and departing aircraft. Elsewhere, at the Puttalam-Palavi airbase a cement factory is in line with the runway, whilst at China Bay-Trincomalee the silos of a flour mill obstruct landing and take-off paths. These hazards at the latter two airports render them useless as ‘alternate’ (alternative) international airports. If sufficient thought had been given to air safety planning, the loss-making Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in the Hambantota District would never have been built.
The Swiss Cheese Model
Just as one proverbial swallow doesn’t make a summer, one error alone will not create an incident or an accident. Rather, it will be caused by a chain of unsafe events not picked up by the system. The triviality of one such potentially disastrous cause or lapse is echoed in the words of a poem from the 17th century, later popularised by Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanac: (See Figure 02)
Reasons for accident occurrences are similar. In fact, the Toyota Corporation asks ‘why’ at least five times when determining the ‘root cause’ of a problem.Aircrew members are regularly taught to recognise unsafe patterns highlighted in past accident investigations, so as to nip them in the bud if and when identified.
Professor James Reason postulated the ‘Swiss Cheese’ model, which states that in any organisation, the layers of safety and security controls in place should be able to block, or cover, one another, to prevent accidents. But unfortunately, there are random holes of all sizes in these layers, like slices of Swiss cheese. Hence, the possibility that with the presence of latent conditions and active failures, these holes will align and allow a potentially dangerous situation or practice to go through without being trapped, thus creating an accident or incident. (See Figure 03)
As illustrated in Reason’s ‘Swiss Cheese’ diagram, latent failures of the system are those that compromise safety, having existed and been taken for granted for short or long periods of time; active failures are immediate, unsafe human acts. In fact, the crew (human element) is the last line of defence before an accident or incident occurs.
To illustrate these points, I shall revisit the 9-foot/3-meter concrete wall that was erected several years ago at the Galle Road end of the runway at Ratmalana International Airport.
This wall could be regarded as a man-made hazard. The runway is 1,833 metres (6,014 feet) in length, not long enough by worldwide standards for a so-called ‘international airport’. By international law, at a pre calculated critical speed (known as the go/no-go speed) pilots are allowed only two seconds in which to make a critical decision whether to stop or continue the take-off. According to calculations by the Boeing Company, a decision to stop any later than two seconds (called ‘dither time’) will result in an aircraft reaching the end of the runway at a speed of 60 knots (69 mph).
On a rainy day, if pilots of a medium-sized aircraft decide to abort the take-off three seconds late, they are unable to stop within the paved runway, with deployment of maximum braking and other stopping devices such as reverse thrust, and the aircraft will ‘overrun’. Because the grass in the overrun area is wet and slippery, the brakes are rendered ineffective. Consequently, in the case of Ratmalana, the aircraft will definitely impact the wall and perhaps catch fire as fuel tanks are usually full during departure.
So, the delay in making a decision to reject the take-off rather than continue would be an ‘active’ failure by the crew. The presence of a solid wall at Ratmalana is the presence of a ‘latent’ condition caused by the Airports Authorities. Although the wall is an ‘accident waiting to happen’, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), which earns ‘welfare’ money from advertisements on the wall, stubbornly refuses to replace it with a frangible fence, that would break on impact and reduce damage to an over-running aircraft and even vehicular traffic on the Galle Road.
Returning to Reason’s ‘Swiss Cheese’ postulation, air accident investigators usually work backwards from the incident/accident, using the ‘model’ to find the root cause, unsafe acts and any failed defences. The best witnesses are, of course, the crew themselves, although they may not want to voluntarily give information if a punitive attitude is adopted by accident investigators and the authorities. It is a long-held belief that the crew involved are damned if they tell the truth and damned if they don’t. In the recent past in Sri Lanka, the Law and the Police were quick to ‘criminalise’ air accidents. Almost two years ago the accountable manager and chief engineer were arrested and remanded for failure to prevent an accident. That is another story.
The protocol should be for an independent team to do a non-punitive inquiry, and if and only if elements of negligence are highlighted in the final accident report, then the law should take its course under the direction and oversight of the Attorney-General. In short, the authorities in Sri Lanka need to get their act together and conduct themselves in a professional, impartial, fair-minded manner.
Accidents don’t only happen to “other people”, and with threats everywhere we have to learn to mitigate and manage them. While it is human to err, could we eliminate error completely? I think not. But pilots can learn to trap and minimise their ability to make errors by using their team effectively, including pre- and post-flight briefings. A common question that should continue to be asked is: “Could we have (as a team) done things better?”
Will automation of some tasks help? Instructors often repeat the adage, “Fly the aircraft and don’t allow the aircraft to fly you.” Conversely, “The aircraft flies by itself. You assist it to fly”. I believe it is the level of automation that matters, depending on circumstances.Bernard Ziegler, a French pilot and engineer who served in Airbus Industrie as senior vice president for engineering – and was the son of Airbus founder Henri Ziegler – was well known for his evangelical zeal for the application of computerised control systems in Airbus airplanes, commencing with the revolutionary A320 airliner. Bernard Ziegler attempted to design the human out of the flight deck in Airbus’s so-called ‘fly-by-wire’ airplanes, which in their early days were involved in a series of incidents and fatal accidents, due mainly to the mismatch of the man/machine interface. So much so that the A320 was called the ‘Scare-bus’ in jest. Even today many Airbus pilots are heard to ask while flying, in perplexed tones: “What is it doing now?” or “I have never seen this happen before.”
A more recent story is that of the Boeing 737 MAX. When I flew the basic Boeing 737-200 many years ago, our Irish instructor called it the ‘thinking man’s aircraft’, a perfect match between man and machine. Somehow, due to design quirks in the newly designed 737 MAX, an automatic system called MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System) was incorporated. If the aircraft got into an unusual and unsafe nose-up attitude, MCAS would be automatically activated and lower the nose to a safer angle.
Unfortunately, during the somewhat rushed introduction of the 737 MAX onto the market, many airline crews were not sufficiently trained in how to override the system – if MCAS was activated due to false indications from, say, a computer or instrument malfunction. Worse still, some airlines’ pilots were not even told that their new airplanes were fitted with such a system, and therefore unaware of what to do if and when MCAS became activated for no apparent reason. This ignorance, through no fault of the pilots, resulted in two disastrous MAX crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, with a total loss of 346 lives.
As the ‘cold hard facts’ later emerged, it became apparent that although the ‘MAX’ was arguably a totally new type of aircraft, it was designated as a Boeing 737-800 to minimise legal crew-training time on the type. This extra training was seen as an undesirable burden for Boeing’s customer airlines, who would have to withdraw captains and first officers from the line for training, thus incurring loss of productivity and revenue for the airlines.
Boeing’s intent was, therefore, for the training (non-productive) period to be as short as possible. But in practice corners were dangerously cut. The US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – in this case the ‘human element’ – went along with the manufacturer’s sales and training programme, which ultimately resulted in incidents, accidents, and loss of life.
In summary, statistics show that although accidents have decreased to a small percentage in terms of flights and hours flown, the number of certified air operators is also increasing, which causes the number of accidents to increase. Difficult as it is to contemplate, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the potential exists for more human factor-based accidents to occur in future.
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