Chaos at Orly

I’m rather glad I went through Orly airport last weekend, not this one:

A man has been shot dead after trying to seize a soldier’s weapon at Orly airport in Paris, French officials say.

He was killed by the security forces in a shop after the attack in the airport’s southern terminal.

The airport has been shut after what the authorities described as an extremely serious incident.

The eye witnesses interviewed in the article are clearly unfamiliar with France and how things are done over here:

“We were sitting in Hall Three when all of a sudden people started running and telling us to run with them,” Ellie Guttetter, 18, from the US said.

“The people running were passengers and flight attendants. It was pretty chaotic and everyone was panicking – it was scary.”

Another eyewitness, Meredith Dixon, described seeing panicked airline personnel, with no security or police personnel to usher people outside the airport complex.

“It was complete chaos,” she told the BBC.

“There were no alarms. No overhead announcements. No organised evacuation. People just began running.

“In the meantime, passengers kept arriving at the airport. I am stunned that after the events in this country, and Paris in particular, the airport had no organised evacuation plan for what I would surmise is a high-value target.”

This doesn’t surprise me in the least. A few years back a friend of mine, a Russian, was travelling on an Air France flight when one of the passengers took ill. She started having some kind of seizure and collapsed on the floor. The stewardesses had no idea what to do and so called their chief from first class, a man. He arrived and also had no idea what to do and started to panic. This induced panic in the rest of the stewardesses which was quickly transferred to the nearby passengers. Eventually somebody got the sick woman some medicine from within her hand baggage and things calmed down. I remarked to my friend that I’d seen a similar incident take place on an Aeroflot flight and the stewardesses just took it in their stride: asked some firm questions, got the answers, and administered some medicine. My friend and I also had a discussion about how Russians, especially men, really aren’t prone to panic. Stuff goes catastrophically wrong in Russia so often that people are used to it, and learn to deal with it. I expect the Aeroflot staff wouldn’t panic even if the plane was upside down and on fire.

Chaos and panic are common in France, as is poor organisation, especially when things go wrong. There are reasons for this. In France, promotions in organisations are achieved not by the calm, consistent delivery of quality output but by firstly being a member of an elite group, and then secondly by doing everything in your power to stand out in meetings where the hierarchy is present, preferably by making your rivals look stupid. One of the most common ways to do this is to “challenge” somebody or something, i.e. make yourself look smarter than whoever set up the prevailing orthodoxy. Nobody got anywhere in France by following the rules; those who want to get ahead must learn to break them as a matter of routine.

They would have had an evacuation plan at Orly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve actually held drills. The problem is, every drill would have gone differently as successive people in charge decided they knew better than the person who drew up the plan. Yes, if you spend a decade or more climbing the greasy pole in a French organisation, eventually you start to believe your own bullshit and genuinely think you know more than anyone else. Until the shit really hits the fan that is, and then it’s panic followed rapidly by finding somebody to blame. France has some of the most brilliant minds in the world at its disposal, but sound management eludes them and they lack leaders almost entirely.

It is worth looking at the fate of Air France 447, which came down in 2009 between Rio de Janeiro and Paris. A 2011 article in Popular Mechanics went into considerable detail as to the causes of the crash, going through the cockpit recordings line-by-line. It paints a dismal picture of experienced pilots engaged in a litany of human errors as they abandon warnings, procedures, and protocols because – presumably – they think they know better. When I first read about this the crash started to make sense.

The primary reason for intensive training in dealing with emergency scenarios and carrying out drills is to ensure key people will be familiar with the chaotic environment and won’t panic, and each person will know exactly what their role is so, together, they can bring the situation under control. But French organisations have a culture of promoting highly-ambitious, usually very intelligent people who are extremely individualistic and must demonstrate their brilliance by throwing orthodoxy out of the window.

I’m not saying any other country could manage an airport attack better than the French authorities managed the one at Orly this morning. But I’m not in the least surprised that there was chaos, panic, and a complete lack of anyone in charge. This goes to the very heart of their organisational culture.

22 thoughts on “Chaos at Orly

  1. I am not in the least surprised either given the lack of emergency response at the Bataclan theatre attack, why, the fuck, was there no assistance given to those folk that were dangling from window ledges in alleyways in the middle of Paris?

    They really are not good at much the French and I have worked with them as well and found them to be nothing more than emotional back stabbing amateurs that back down on the first challenge, no wonder their country is fucked.

    As for Russian fortitude in crisis. I was on a site visit in Darwin on Friday with a Russian colleague, its still very hot and humid up there in the swamp. I checked with him as we left our hotel in the morning if he wanted to bring a hat with him to keep the sun of his part balding head. He said in all seriousness to me that the life expectancy of a male back home was about 53, its 85 in Oz, so just by coming here he was up thirty years and he will take his chances with skin cancer any day.

  2. Speaking about AF447, the root cause of the disaster was the insistence on another fine gallic trait, namely the installation of a Pitot tube made by the national champion Thales, rather than the one made by, “l’horreur! Le choc!!” an anglo-saxon company. The french made one was prone to ice fouling because it was unheated, and that was exactly what happened in that flight, so the autopilot software after receiving wrong readings from the pitot, disconnected altogether leaving the pilots in charge.
    (As an aside, i always held in the highest esteem english, australian and canadian airline pilots. No nonsense people that would drive their ships competently and with the utmost respect to all the other souls embarked. Were they knew their machine mounted substandard components like an unheated pilot they would never takeoff)

  3. @Tim N,

    You omitted, perhaps deliberately, UK “Stiff upper lip”.

    As a born in 1960’s in Ulster, one quickly learnt panic and emotion were not advantageous.

    Logic and rationality helped survival.

    P

  4. “But French organisations have a culture of promoting highly-ambitious, usually very intelligent people who are extremely individualistic and must demonstrate their brilliance by throwing orthodoxy out of the window.”

    So….a bit like the modern British Civil Service, then?

  5. UK “Stiff upper lip”. Interestingly (or not) the phrase is of American origin.

    I doubt if there’s anyone still alive who can remember an era when it was applicable to Americans.

  6. Bardon – your Russian story possibly goes some way towards explaining why their life expectancy is so low

  7. The late Peter Ustinov once said that on an airline flight the pilot, very much not English and quite probably not French and without any crisis evident, came on the radio with news for the passengers: “You will be pleased to know I have regained control of the aircraft.”

  8. @Watcher: That has to be the origin of the bit in ‘French Kiss’ where Luc translates the French airplane announcement as ‘The pilot said there is a crack in the engine, but not to worry, he’ll take off anyway.’

  9. Israeli would’ve done better, but then they have far more actual training and incident to shape their response.

  10. @Matthew “your Russian story possibly goes some way towards explaining why their life expectancy is so low”

    I never looked at it that way but put like that it makes perfect sense.

  11. So….a bit like the modern British Civil Service, then?

    Exactly like the British Civil Service: recruited directly from Oxbridge and conditioned to believe that they don’t need experience or knowledge of the task at hand, because their superior intellect will allow them to “manage” any situation and take the right decisions every time. Yes, exactly like that.

  12. “It paints a dismal picture of experienced pilots engaged in a litany of human errors as they abandon warnings, procedures, and protocols because – presumably – they think they know better.”

    It’s a really interesting thing to study, but perhaps not purely down to them ‘knowing better’, The main problem seems to have been that the pilots didn’t think the plane could stall, so the cognitive tunneling led them to crash a perfectly functional aircraft.

    The main lesson, and one I take an interest in, is having automated systems that hand over control to a human only when things are going badly wrong means those humans are very badly equipped to deal with it. All automated systems need some random chaos simulated into them, to keep the humans sharp, before it’s really needed.

  13. Marostegan
    “(As an aside, i always held in the highest esteem english, australian and canadian airline pilots. No nonsense people that would drive their ships competently and with the utmost respect to all the other souls embarked. Were they knew their machine mounted substandard components like an unheated pilot they would never takeoff)”

    Qantas flight 32 is a masterclass in being a pilot with a damaged aircraft.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qantas_Flight_32

    Comparing this with the Air France 447 gives some profound lessons in how to manage an emergency in a highly automated environment.

  14. Thanks for that link to the QF32 incident. A very interesting text book response indeed particularly as I fly on A380’s all of the time and built the Yolla Offshore Unmanned Platform in a Japanese shipyard in Batam back in the noughties.

    By the way Emirates are now using A380’s for short haul flights around the Gulf these days, seems like an awful lot of tin to get airborne and land for less than an hour flight time to me.

  15. By the way Emirates are now using A380’s for short haul flights around the Gulf these days, seems like an awful lot of tin to get airborne and land for less than an hour flight time to me.

    The Japanese use 747s as shuttle aircraft between regional airports. When I did Tokyo to Niseko we were boarded and airbourne within 15 minutes of the gate opening. Efficient.

  16. Speaking of that incident on the plane, why should passengers panic if one of them gets ill? There’s no danger unless it’s some deadly contagious disease. In contrast, the crew must be yelling in their heads, John Travolta-like, “Don’t f-cking die on my plane!” Because if she does, there’s going to be a scandal and an investigation and some of the crew members might lose their jobs and become unemployable. I imagine “someone died on her shift” is stigma enough.

  17. Speaking of that incident on the plane, why should passengers panic if one of them gets ill?

    Your harsh Russian upbringing is showing, here. 😉

    Most ordinary people really, really don’t like seeing people in distress and (possibly) near to death; they appeal to authority very quickly. It’s a natural reaction and training and conditioning can quickly make you immune to it, but if somebody in a group of ordinary people collapses and nobody is able to do anything, panic ensues.

  18. “Your harsh Russian upbringing is showing, here.”

    The second thing that happened that morning with my Russian colleague, was when the client called to give me a heads up that we would have to explain to them how we were going to excavate and treat contaminated spoil at the interview later in the morning. I asked Boris the question as he had priced the job and he said it was the supplier’s problem and he didn’t see why we have to explain things like this to clients! He also submitted a construction program wrong on Monday for the same tender, which was quickly corrected because he was to embarrassed to ask me what “float” meant.

    Don’t get me wrong he is a great worker I just need to get used to the Russian style and I will be right.

  19. Russian construction contractors are what you’d call “goal driven”, and the process doesn’t matter much. This is a refreshing change from a lot of large Western companies for whom the process is everything and the goal wholly unimportant, but there is some middle ground somewhere. On balance, I liked working with Russians, especially the construction guys.

  20. They are great value for money as well, especially when you consider their higher experience and productivity levels and that we tend to pay them less than Aussie equivalents in exchange for increasing their life spans.

    Boris used to be a wellsite engineer for Schlumberger around Serbia and he also done a stint offshore in the Brent Sea as well, not too shabby an operator and very disciplined.

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