Sunday, July 25, 2010


The risks raised by the ash cloud that swamped Europe in April/May 2010 could be thought of in terms of a set of actants (things, people, institutions anything entity really that has the ability to act upon and be acted upon by other entities). Relations between these actants are not fixed but change as the interactions between the actants change. Some relations and actants are harder to change, more entrenched, than others but all are capable of change even if this change is more painful to some than to others.

Figure 1 illustrates the main actants involved in the ash cloud story. The actants are presented as simple boxes but this hides a great deal of differentiation within each box. All airlines, for example, are not the same and or, initially anyway, were they response to the ash clod. Some airlines complained bitterly after a few days of grounding, others took the air in uninstrumented flights to ‘prove’ the safety of the airspace. Likewise, the government is likely to have had different factions pushing for grounding and for letting flights take place. All the actants relations end up focusing on airspace, the theatre in which the drama is played out.

Figure 1 Main actants in ash cloud drama

Importantly, none of the boxes is isolated; many of the boxes are intricately interlinked. Some of the links are relatively straight-forward. The Met Office and CAA, for example, are linked in a very formal manner. The CAA have set criteria for dust concentrations deemed safe. The Met Office provided that information based on computer modelling and data from instrumented flights. The Met Office may also provide the CAA with information on hazardous weather conditions but again the link is formal and highly structured. The link between the met Office and government is more of an economic link, the government paying for an impartial service, whilst the CAA has a regulatory link to the government in setting the legal parameters of responsibility for the airlines. Links need not be singular in nature. The airlines pay tax to the government (economic link), but also lobby on environmental issues and apply pressure when they interests are threatened.

The whole network trundles along, changing and developing as the actants interact, each trying to make the whole network function for their benefit. Each actant has a role in the network. The Met Office has a ‘scientific’ role of monitoring, the CAA a regulatory role, the airlines an economic role. This does not mean to say that each actant will not press into service different aspects of their character in pursuit of their goals, in their attempts to align the network and how it operate to their benefit. The Met Office tries to monitor the ash concentrations, measure and characterize the ash partilces and transmit this information effectively to all actants. The resultant grounding of flights, based on the CAA interpretation this information, meant the network wasn’t functioning in a manner that matched the desires of the airlines. The airlines tried to usurp the role of the Met Office by undertaking their own ‘tests’, flying unistrumented planes into the ash cloud and then transmitted this information through the network and beyond. The airlines tried to take on a role where they collected and transmitted information about the ash to parts of the network where that information could be understood in a way that benefited them. The general public could understand a plane going through an ash cloud and coming out the other side – could they understand complicated mathematically models that predicted ash concentrations? The airlines played to the general public, part of a wider network, to influence the government and CAA, part of the immediate network focused on the UK airspace.

Expanding the network out, it is relatively easy to include other actants (Figure 2). The CAA insisted that they were setting limits based on advice from VAAC and engine manufacturers. It didn’t take long before the economic relation between engine manufacturers and airlines resulted in the release of new information from the engine manufacturers as to the limits of operation in ash. Similarly, the wheel network could be expanded out to include the general public. There is however a danger with this type of analysis. You must always be aware that drawing a box around group doesn’t mean that that group is real or that that group is static. Entities evolve and are differentiated. Airlines are not all the same nor they necessarily behave in the same way to each hazard that they encounter. Likewise, the general public will not necessarily act as a mindless mass if given certain information. What this type of analysis does do is to help to clarify what entities are involved, how they are related and how they use these relationships to try to align the whole network to their benefit.

Figure 2 Expanding the network: VAAC and engine manufacturers

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