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When Tech Fails
Leaders Step Up

On August 28th, 2023, global news outlets reported an event that sent ripples through the airline industry. NATS, the body that controls UK airspace, experienced a system failure that led to over 1,600 flights being cancelled and many more delayed. According to the airline industry body IATA, the chaos could result in a loss of £100 million for airlines.


If ever there was a crucible for evaluating the interplay of technology and leadership, this is it.


The Unthinkable Happens - Tech Failure in a Tech-Dependent World


On a Monday that will be long remembered, NATS (National Air Traffic Services) automatic flight planning system encountered what it called "an unusual piece of data" and, as designed, halted operations to prevent the spread of incorrect information. While the system's design prioritised safety—preventing "incorrect information [from impacting] the rest of the air traffic system," according to Nats’ Chief Executive Martin Rolfe—the result was a staggering disruption. Safety protocols that were put in place to protect, ended up triggering a massive, unintended failure.


Leadership in the Face of Tech Failure


In the aftermath, we saw contrasting styles of leadership. Willie Walsh, the director-general of IATA, was vocal about the need for NATS to share in the financial fallout, describing the situation as "very unfair." On the other hand, Martin Rolfe focused on explaining the system’s designed safety features, leaving some to wonder if this reactive stance was enough. In a crisis, there's often no playbook, and leaders must improvise based on their experience and judgment. Here, we see a divergence in approaches—while one calls for accountability, the other leans into clarification and assurance.


The Double-Edged Sword of Tech Dependence


The incident unveils the problematic double-edged sword of over-reliance on technology. According to the Guardian article, airlines are not expected to pay additional delay compensation, given that the circumstances were deemed "outside their control." Here, a question looms large: when tech-dependent systems fail, who holds the reins and takes control? Military technology often incorporates layers of fail-safes and human oversight to ensure that a single point of failure doesn’t result in systemic collapse. These lessons could be crucial for industries that rely heavily on automated systems.


Human Decision-Making in a Crisis


NATS failure saw airlines scrambling to manage the crisis, with EasyJet starting additional repatriation flights and passengers having to arrange last-minute accommodations. Here, human decision-making came to the forefront. As operations return to near-normalcy, it’s apparent that no matter how advanced or reliable technology gets, human expertise and decision-making will always be essential, especially in crisis scenarios. Whether it's a military officer taking charge when communications break down or a CEO steering a company through a PR disaster, the ability to think on your feet is invaluable.

"Effective leadership isn't just about harnessing technology but knowing how to lead when that technology fails"


Finding the Balance – Lessons for the Future


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour's shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, both emphasised the importance of airlines honouring their obligations to passengers, hinting at a larger issue: regulatory and oversight mechanisms need strengthening. This incident serves as a stark reminder that companies should invest in both technology and robust crisis-management protocols led by experienced humans. Effective leadership isn't just about harnessing technology but knowing how to lead when that technology fails.


As the airline industry contemplates measures to forestall future debacles, the broader lesson remains universally applicable. Systems may bend or break, but the essence of leadership and human ingenuity is unyielding. In times of duress, it is not just technology that is tested, but the mettle of those who command it.

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