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Conference on airline safety took on added significance

The date was Sept. 11. The venue was Seattle, site of this year's Leaders for Manufacturing alumni conference. The day's main speaker was Professor Arnold Barnett, the man NBC News dubbed the nation's leading air safety expert. And his presentation, which he had prepared before that day's terrorist attacks, was entitled "Airline Safety: End of the Golden Age?"

"The annual LFM alumni conference is always an incomparable opportunity for lifelong learning--but this year, even more so as it facilitated discussions on how to effect positive change in the aftermath of these tragic events," Don Rosenfield, director of the LFM Fellows Program, said afterwards.

The conference, which began Sept. 10, attracted more than 80 LFM alumni, faculty and staff from the United States and Europe. Its theme was "From Aerospace to Cyberspace: Strategic Similarities between the Traditional and New Economies." Speakers on the first day included Dean of Engineering and LFM co-founder Thomas Magnanti, keynote presenter Jeff Bezos (founder, chairman and CEO of, senior executives from Boeing and the CEO of the Port of Seattle. Their talks on leadership, change and global strategy unknowingly set the stage for Barnett's timely presentation.

Barnett spoke as scheduled on Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. PST. Participants had spent the morning together watching network news reports in the main conference room. For security reasons, the conference's morning events--tours to Boeing's 777 manufacturing facility, the Port of Seattle and Cray Computer--were cancelled. However, one of the afternoon's main speakers, United Airlines Capt. Al Haynes, had called off his appearance. He had been slated to speak on how 182 people survived the 1989 crash-landing of United Flight 232 (which he piloted) after a hydraulic failure.

Barnett related an irony from his own experience. "When my bag went through security at Logan airport on Sept. 10, the safety device beeped and the light that says 'search' illuminated, but no one stopped me," he recalled.

Although the recent US record for airline safety has been excellent, there were flaws in the system that could subject us to great risk, said Barnett, who has been working with the FAA and airlines to rectify this. The most pressing concern was domestic terrorism. "In this regard, US domestic aviation security is arguably a mess," he said.

In his opening talk on "Engineering Frontiers and the New Engineering Leader," Magnanti discussed LFM's formation in the late 1980s to address a crisis faced by US industry as a result of increased competition.

"MIT felt it had an obligation to play a role through education to help counter the threat at that time to our economic prosperity," he said. "As we broaden how we think about engineers, engineering and leadership, it's very important to remember that engineering has economic, social and political implications. We need to make sure that the strong tradition of achievement in engineering is used to fuel a future of opportunities."

He later noted, "The events of Sept. 11 present a different type of threat, one that once again poses significant challenges for engineering and the new engineering leader."

Barnett's concluding comments were especially relevant to LFM alumni in leadership positions at Boeing and related corporations. "The golden age of airline safety has ended," he said. "No one feels it will ever be the same. However, we must not despair. If we don't have a golden age in the future, perhaps it will be because we have entered a platinum age."

"For those of us at the conference, as well as probably everyone in America, we will forever remember how we spent the morning of Sept. 11," said LFM alumnus Charlie Hix (SM 1998) of the conference organizing committee. "Like everyone, we were sickened and angered by these atrocities. Yet being in the company of our fellow alumni, faculty and guests not only provided comfort but hardened our resolve as leaders. Pressing on with the conference proved to be the right response and underscored the responsibility we all have as Americans to help our nation pull together and get on with the recovery--both economic and emotional."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 5, 2001.

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