Language, culture and risk to life: how one airline’s unseen language ambiguity put life, assets & business assurance at risk

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


Picture this:

Pilots of a TUI Airways Boeing 737-800, waiting to depart from Birmingham, UK to Palma de Mallorca, review their loadsheet, which estimates how heavy the plane is, given the number of adult & child passengers, and luggage assumed for each.

This loadsheet guides how much speed the pilots need when taking off.

Get it too wrong and lives are at risk.

In this case, the loadsheet data was wrong – more than 1.6 tonnes wrong.

A good BA enables good IM

While the pilots recognised discrepancies between the loadsheet expectations and the actual reported passengers, they dismissed these as caused by pandemic-related travel disruptions.

Perhaps very luckily, they took off without incident because they employed a slightly higher thrust level than was required by the loadsheet data.

While risk didn’t turn into reality in this case, most of us would prefer not to have such close calls happening when we fly.

What went wrong?

TUI, a British-based airline, had instigated an upgrade of their reservation software during their pandemic flight suspension. Smart move.

They’d hired a company outside the UK to undertake the upgrade. Not unusual, probably a cost-effective solution. Smart move.

TUI did not undertake language definition work before upgrading their software.
Dumb move.

Actually, in TUI’s case, negligent and life-threatening move.

The country in which the upgrade was taking place applied language in the manner that was accurate within their culture. They associated the pronoun Ms to adult women and Miss to children.

You can see the mistake coming.

Everything looked fine in the software, it tested fine, it was released, and as flight restrictions lifted, passengers used the system to book, to check in and to check their luggage.

And it all seemed to work fine, until pilots looked at their loadsheet, which showed that there were 65 children travelling on that flight, when only 29 were expected. It was later found that 38 adult passengers were mis-classified as children.

All because of a difference in how the two cultures involved define Ms and Miss.

What can we learn from this incident?

The importance of conducting language definition work at the start of an upgrade like TUI’s is very clear in this situation. If they’d defined the terms Ms and Miss, the software company could have seen the discrepancy and fixed it, much as they have now that the problem has come to light.

The goal is to “fix” these things before beginning the build, not after (not even during testing!).

But more than just doing definition work, the key here is to ensure the definition work is driven by business staff, not IT staff. It’s business staff who are better positioned to know how language is used by the business.

Had definition work been done purely by IT staff, whose thinking tends to be very platform-focused not business process-focused, a small issue like the use of Ms or Miss may have been overlooked. After all, the faulty system and the corrected system both still list Ms and Miss as options, and as they’re such non-business-specific terms, it may have been easy to discount the need to define them.

But when definition work is conducted by business staff, particularly individuals skilled in identifying terms that require defining, such oversights are less likely.

While we may never know what this incident has cost TUI, we can all learn from their foolish mistake. Language definition work should ALWAYS precede any software upgrade or development; it should ALWAYS be driven by business process (and therefore business staff); and, if businesses are forward-thinking, it should be conducted in the service of a permanent and governed business glossary, for use in future projects.

That’s how you reduce risk, save money and protect your business.

Join the discussion on LinkedIn


Read more about the TUI Airways near miss here.

Mark Atkins, Intraversed

Mark Atkins

Mark is a co-founder & Chief Development Officer at Intraversed, helping organisations establish the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning information management & governance methodology, to achieve reliable information, stable tech spend & greater IT project success.

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