What do effective airline security and successful automotive diagnosis have in common?
Both techniques succeed by recognizing and addressing vital, basic needs. Here's why.
As a reporter and technician, I'm intrigued by anything that fixes vehicles quickly, correctly. I usually log 100,000 air miles per year, so I've also always been interested in airline safety.
I'm in the shop as often as time allows, mostly doing research for the technical training seminars I present. This work includes gathering data from known-good vehicles as well as diagnosing known-bad ones and shooting slides of various components and procedures. Yes, I've been stymied by more than one defiant, problem vehicle.
But years of first-hand experience-not to mention observing countless other techs-has taught me to recognize the basics and apply them well. The better you apply them, the easier the diagnosis. Whenever a problem vehicle is whippin' me, reverting to the basics always gets me back on track to solving an elusive problem.
Like many of you, I was riveted to the TV the morning of last Sept. 11. Watching the tragedy unfold, I realized my worst nightmares about hijackings had come true. The next day, I drove from Buffalo, N.Y., to my next seminar in Elmira, N.Y. During the three-hour drive, every article I'd ever read on airline safety came back in very sharp focus. I also recalled countless conversations with international travelers I'd met over the years.
Tears shed, prayers said, the fact remained that the government and airline industry hadn't recognized and covered basic needs. This was a very avoidable tragedy.
Consider that Israel has an airline called El Al. Read about it or talk to international travelers. Listen to interviews with security experts. You'll learn that no one's successfully hijacked an El Al airplane in nearly 30 years. Many people who have traveled through the Middle East tell me they felt safer on an El Al plane than they did walking around a shopping area in Israel!
To El Al, knowing the basics means securing the airliner's cockpit so the bad guys cannot enter it. And instead of playing politically correct, pseudo-shrink head games with irrational hijackers, El Al pilots land the ship as quickly as humanly possible. Then qualified professionals (commandos) deal with these disgruntled passengers back in coach.
I've nearly given up mentioning El Al tactics because people can't grasp that such simple measures have worked so well. They react by concocting outlandish scenarios and Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theories. They appear desperate to reassure themselves that nothing as simple as El Al's approach could have averted this disaster. But I think the cold facts remain that punks with knives couldn't have put an El Al plane into any building-period!
OK, that said, let's get back to fixing cars quickly and correctly the first time. All too often, I watch technicians get in way over their heads with an alleged problem vehicle. Countless hours and many needless parts replacements later, the frustrated tech steps back and takes a deep breath. Then he or she revisits the vital basics of sound trouble-shooting.
For instance, a simple vacuum gauge test reveals low engine vacuum. This condition is fooling the engine computer into richening the air/fuel mixture far too much. Fixing a simple vacuum leak or correcting a bungled timing belt installation restores normal vacuum and normal air/fuel mixture. ``Checking engine vacuum did it. I can't believe the solution was that easy!'' he exclaims. Believe it, buddy, it was that easy.
What about the tech who wastes a day trying to pinpoint why accessories such as power windows won't work? Turns out that a bad voltage regulator tricked the vehicle's body control computer into ``defaulting.'' Among other things, default mode shuts down the power windows. Several minutes' worth of basic battery/alternator testing would have handily flagged the overcharge condition that upset this computer.
``But Dan, checking the battery and charging system first is too basic, too easy,'' you say. You're right. So summon that Oliver Stone script and appoint a ``homeland diagnostic coordinator.''
You'll feel better right away.
Dan Marinucci is a free-lance automotive service writer and former editor of two automotive service magazines.