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April 9, 2021updated 13 Apr 2021 12:33pm

Airliner took off a tonne heavy after software decided only children are called “Miss”

By Lewis Page

Apparently there is a nation somewhere in the world where software is often written and the title “Miss” is used only by children.

We know this because of a report released on Thursday by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB). The report covers various incidents in which airliners operated by British airline TUI took off using incorrect power settings and speeds, because the pilots had been given incorrect estimates for the weight of the passengers they were carrying. This had happened because TUI’s check-in software assumed that all passengers titled “Miss” were children, even though many were not.

In one case this resulted in a Boeing 737 taking off from Birmingham on 21 July 2020 bound for Palma some 1.2 metric tonnes heavier than its load sheet indicated. However the cautious captain of the aircraft decided to assume a tailwind despite the fact that conditions were calm, and the end result was that takeoff power was set at a level slightly above the minimum required by regulations.

“This meant that the safe operation of the aircraft was not compromised,” stated the AAIB, though it did classify the incident as “serious.”

An interesting cultural note is raised regarding the check-in software, which has since been fixed. The report notes:

The incident occurred due to a simple flaw in the programming of the IT system, which was due to the meaning of the title ‘Miss’ being interpreted by the system as a child and not an adult female. This was because in the country where the system was programmed, Miss is a child and Ms is an adult female …

An upgrade of the system producing load sheets was carried out to prevent reoccurrence.

TUI isn’t saying where the original programming was done, though the report says it wasn’t in the UK. This makes sense, as the use of the title “Miss” in the UK can indicate many different things – often, for instance, that one is a schoolchild addressing any female teacher regardless of weight, age or marital status.

According to one writer at the Guardian, some British women feel that the title “Ms” has “lesbian undertones” and is “inextricably linked to bra-burning.” These women would presumably use the title “Miss” as adults, often changing to “Mrs” if and when married. Others would argue that “Ms” is the correct title for all girls and women regardless of age, and still others prefer the non-gendered “Mx”.

Opinion is similarly divided in other English-speaking nations, with the debate in America made still more complex by the common use of the spoken “ma’am”.

It’s possible to suspect that the unnamed country where the position is much more firmly settled doesn’t really exist as described, and the firm national convention linking the choice of “Miss” and “Ms” to adult status is actually established only in the minds of some programmers working there.

Airlines often have data handling problems, but to date these have mostly involved them losing customer information rather than misinterpreting it.