Single pilot operation

In the famous so called race to the bottom in the airline industry, some are looking for a cost reduction race, while others, more concerned with flight safety, are worried for good reason.

The latest masterpiece from airlines and legislators, not from people who know what goes on in the cockpit, is the move for single pilot operation. To cut cost.

Consequently IFALPA (International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Association), ECA (European Cockpit Association) and ALPA (Air Line Pilot Association), representing more than a quarter of a million pilots, finds the proposal waste basket material. For many a good reason.

The reasons are so many and so obvious for anyone who has spent more than one day in front of the cockpit door, and hopefully the above mentioned joint forces can persuade ICAO to not even think about proceeding along this route.

Behind the move is the belief that new technology and support from the ground should enable single pilot operation, but the united opinion from the pilot community is that profit is prioritized over safety. Not the first time, but this time some kind of record.

Rather than listing arguments for and against something that might someday in the future be looked upon as something natural, one can establish that many decades will pass before that future is upon us, and that the worlds biggest disaster, where 582 people lost their lives on the island of Tenerife, could have been averted, had the captain listened to one of his crew members in doubt whether or not they were cleared for take-off. But the captain had a different mindset.


A lawyer would say; I rest my case.

Pilot shortage

In the US a proposal to raise pilot mandatory retirement from 65 to 67 (eat that, France) is aimed at reducing the pilot shortage that today is causing 324 airports to loose 1/3 of its traffic and 14 airports to loose air service altogether, and causing 400 airplanes to be grounded.

5000 pilots are expected to retire within the next two years and this reform would in one move mitigate to pilot shortage, especially among captains.

ALPA (AirLine Pilots Association) opposes the proposal and notes that pilots in question would be limited to US operations, since the rest of the world has a 65 year limit until further.

With rigorous medical checks every half year, included in the proposal (indicating some lack of knowledge regarding medical tests already in place from the age of 40) one believes this is a safer move than reducing the minimum time required for co-pilot duty from 1500 hours to 750, for which a request by Republic Airways was recently denied by the FAA.

Airline ticket – for what?

Passengers come in many categories. For instance, with or without flight anxiety, where the latter is in minority. Then there are some, today probably in majority, from both those categories, looking for the cheapest possible fare, with no concern for flight safety, assuming everything you can fly with is just as safe. That’s a reasonable assumption, considering the fact that there are (almost) never any airline disasters. It’s also reasonable to say that there are almost never an accident, there being 100.000 (pre-pandemic) flights per day, and less than one accident in every 3-month period.

Then there are some, probably, but not only, consisting of those slightly scared of flying. Those who, for various reasons, carefully pick who they want to fly with. The reason can be previous good experiences, loyalties of different kinds – but sometimes a vague feeling that it is somewhat safer to choose a major airline of some kind, often a flag carrier in case there is one. Those passengers are facing a problem.

On the ticket, considered well worth a slightly higher price, is the name of United, Lufthansa, SAS or whatever is prestigious and safe. Will one bord an aircraft from one of those companies. Sometimes – but not always. Many flights are performed in the name of those companies, but with subcontracted smaller companies or sometimes by low-cost companies by their own creation with a totally different economic backbone, simply because budget airlines has pressed the aviation industry into economic hardship.

The sad truth is that flight safety cost money. Less money – less flight safety one might say, most likely exaggerating the problem. But, as one example only, there was an accident a few years back, where a company called Colgan Air was used by Continental on some routes, with Continentals name on the ticket. Colgan Air was a budget operator and none of the pilots were educated enough on how to handle a stall. Consequently they plummeted to the ground, killed everyone on board and one on the ground. It turned out that the co-pilot had very little experience and the Captain on top of that fatigued by a pressed flight schedule. After the accident (always ‘after’) regulations were changed regarding minimum flight experience for new pilots and maximum duty time, where USA now has somewhat stricter rules than many parts of the world, including Europe.

Was this a fraud? Next of kin thought so and sued Continental for just that. As a frustrated pilot commented when this matter is brought forward; ”You pay for a Bentley – and get a Lada”. No matter how one sees this, you can today not always be sure of in whose care you have ended up when you sit there at 35.000 feet with a ticket for which you paid a few extra dollars. No goods declaration, and private efforts to find out is hampered by the fact that aircraft rotations may come at short notice. Some companies go to the extent of painting their leased capacity in their own colors, making the operation even more dubious.

In all fairness it has to be mentioned that regular airlines have extra costs not related to flight safety since they feel responsibility for the whole travel package, incl. re-bookings and hotel nights in case of irregularities. Something you have to live without when you go low-cost. On the other hand there is no fraud. If is says LionAir, Asiana, Norwegian or Ryanair on the ticket, it will say so in original also on the side of the aircraft when you board. Is one exposed to any higher risk, one might ask. (The threats when ticket prices does not cover production costs, and where savings are made, has been discussed in almost boring detail in previous articles in this blog.) The easiest way to find out is to wait for next disaster and read the accident report.

Should it happen to any of the above mentioned small companies repainted i big companies nice colors, the discussion of fraud is bound to re-surface.

Full speed ahead

The only time in the history of mankind where progress stopped dead in its tracks, for decades, is when the last Concorde made its last flight 24 Oct. 2003. Until now. The Concorde was never a commercial success, mainly because of extreme fuel consumption, forcing the few airlines using the plane to charge higher and higher ticket prices. The sonic boom was another problem. New design is in the process of addressing those problems. The sonic boom will be reduced and possibly allowing supersonic speed over land.

Boom Supersonic, a Colorado start-up, have advanced plans to build a long and narrow fuel-efficient aircraft, with test flights of a small-scale prototype already by the end of this year, building of a factory next year, and full scale production 2023. Full speed ahead obviously. The company goal ”flying passengers anywhere in the world in less than 4 hours for 100 USD”. United has options for 50 planes, a model named Overture capable of Mach 1,7, for use by 2029. Readers of this blog are expected to wish Boom great success. (The 100 USD might be a reson for concern.)

Boom is of course not alone. Efforts are made in Japan to get a number of major companies, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, IHI and Subaru to name a few, to pool resources for a development of a supersonic aircraft by 2030. And in Europe a 19-passenger Mach 3 Jet is planned by Virgin Galactic in a cooperation with Rolls Royce.

Mankind can stop worrying. Progress is back.

Hotas flygsäkerheten av lågprisbolag?

Wiss Air fick nyligen behov av att omplacera sin flygchef, sedan han ertappats (inspelat) med att
säga att man måste ha en lista på alla piloter som ofta sjukskrev sig eller ställde till annat elände.
Dessa kunde man säga upp eftersom det inte hade någon reglerad anställningsform, till förmån för
piloter från bemanningsbolag, som enligt flygchefen var så mycket lättare att hantera – och så
alldeles väldigt mycket billigare. Det elände flygchefen inte uppskattade var kostnader. En inställd
flygning p.g.a. tekniska fel på planet kostar. Likaså extra bränslereserver vid dåligt väder. En pilot
som ansåg sig vara för uttröttad eller att uppdraget var för svårt var en kandidat för listan.

Ryanairs nya hot/löfte om att flyga en mängd flygningar från Arlanda aktualiserar frågan om man
kan lita på lågprisbolag. Statistiken talar för att man kan det, även om just Ryanair har en historia
där tre plan samma dag hävdat nödläge p.g.a. bränslebrist för att få landa före alla andra, och ett
plan en gång på Landvetter bogserats in från landningsbanan då bränslet tog slut strax efter planet
tog mark. ”Räckte precis”, skulle någon ombord kunna säga, glad över en billig flygbiljett.

Om statistiken på intet sätt är alarmerande, så finns ändå en hotbild när högteknologisk verksamhet
drabbas av extrem spariver. Att på ett flygplan för en miljard sälja flygbiljetter, för mindre än vad
en taxiresa till flygplatsen, kostar kräver extrem spariver, inte sällan missriktad. Detta påverkar
verksamheten. Kärnkraften skulle vara fullständigt livsfarlig om den industrin utsattes för samma
sneda konkurrens som flygindustrin, men här sparas det dessbättre inte på ett sätt som påverkar
högsta tänkbara säkerhet. Inom flyget görs just det. Man kan t.o.m. gå så långt att säga att Boeings
enastående bekymmer under två år med sitt nya flygplan berodde på att man mörkade en ny
installation som borde ha krävt extra utbildning av alla piloter. Och varför det. För att flygbolag,
inte bara lågprisbolag, har varit tvungna att spara, och utbildning kostar pengar.

Således påverkar lågprisbolagen ekonomin för alla, och brist på pengar hotar flygsäkerheten.
Viss statistik finns. De senaste årens haverier har visat på en företagskultur hos vissa lågprisbolag
som skiljer sig märkbart från de uttalanden som förkommer om att säkerheten är deras första
prioritet. Bränslereserver har skurits ner, underhåll likaså, pilotutbildningarna har reducerats till ett
absolut minimum och tjänstgöringstiderna ökat. Just bristande utbildning har genomgående varit en
faktor i haverier med dödlig utgång. Reguljära bolag undgår inte kritik i sammanhanget. Air France-olyckan för att antal år sedan tillskrevs också en utbildningsmiss, men inte nödvändigtvis orsakad
av missriktad sparsamhet.

Flygsäkerhet kostar pengar. Alltså är svaret på frågan i rubriken upp till var och en att bedöma.
Allmänheten möjlighet att numera flyga billigt är en utveckling i allas intresse, och att
lågprisbolagen gör vad det kan för att konkurrera får ses som självklart. Det som krävs, och som
justeras lite efter varje haveri, är ett regelverk som lägger strikta gränser för tjänstgöringstider,
utbildning, underhåll och bränslereserver bland annat. En utopi, kan tyckas. Kabinpersonalen, vars
viktigaste uppgift ombord är säkerheten, är givetvis också beroende av vettiga
anställningsförhållanden, framför allt även där vad gäller arbetstidens längd.

När man så sitter där på 10.000 meters höjd i 900 km/h kan man ju fundera över hur biljetten kunde
bli så billig.

New orders for 737

Boeing is struggling somewhat with its comeback, with some electrical problems with the MAX (not in any way related to previous grave problems causing the grounding), some rivet issues with the 777 and some fuselage snags on the 787. Meanwhile FAA has been forced to cancel some delegated manufacturing safety standard supervision granted to Boeing, which should by all means be a good move, provided people at at FAA know what they are talking about, which is not necessary always the case when it comes to government agencies.

In the midst of all this, Boeing can rejoice when looking at new orders. Southwest has ordered 100 737 MAX-7, adding to the previous 249 orders and 115 options through 2021 to 2026, with another 165 options up to 2031. All speculations that Southwest might be panning a shift to Airbus are thus effectively out the window.

More joy. FlyDubai has 237 MAX on order, taking delivery coming months of MAX-8 and MAX-9 already produced, sitting waiting in Seattle.

Ryanair recently raised its order of MAX-8-200 from 135 to 210, calling it a game changer, its CEO thrilled about the efficiency, economy and the 8 extra seats compared the their 737-800NG.

Alaska Air purchases 23 737 MAX-9, increasing orders and options to 120, and a backer of low-cost Flair Airlines has ordered 23 MAX-8.

With the above, Boeing is for the first time in a long period outpacing Airbus, with its Covid-19 losses.

Meanwhile the industry suffers economic problems, more now than before. To alleviate some pressure you can as a low-cost airline make sure that you have the cheapest pilots available. To do that you can make a list a list of pilots who are sick a lot, take more fuel than absolute minimum, cancel flights for reasons of fatigue or too many technical snags, and such. Too much of that and they are out. All this you can do as long as you don’t tell anyone. If you do, then you are out. Low-cost carrier Wizz Air has replaced its flight operations chief after he was apparently recorded telling his team to draw up a redundancy list of pilots who were often sick or ”caused grief” while sparing cheaper contract crew, which he preferred: ”They’re easy to manage because we can let them go at any time. They only have 24 days of (leave) and they’re incredibly cheap,” the manager says, before concluding: ”Sharpen your pencils and let’s see what you can come up with.”

Of course he had to go, since the airline has safety as priority number one. Fly cheap, and enjoy the thrill.

Worries for Boeing lovers

Just as the crisis surrounding the 737 MAX is about to subside, Boeings wide-body Dreamliner is causing new headache. There are manufacturing glitches dating back years, the litium battery havoc not included, since it was more a choice of system. Areas of concern have been found where the airframe parts are joined together. ”Two distinct manufacturing issues in the join of certain 787 aft body fuselage sections, which, in combination, result in a condition that doesn’t meet our design standards”. Boeing grounded 8 planes for starters. In October tiny marks were found in the inner lining where the carbon-fiber fuselage barrels are fused to form the model’s frame. That made Boeing store another 80 planes, not yet delivered.

A company spokesperson said that the defects in question are spots where the surface of the plane’s fuselage isn’t as smooth as its supposed to be. Those areas can create tiny gaps where fuselage sections are linked together and could lead to premature structural fatigue which would require extensive repairs.

A new area of concern are the cockpit windows, since Boeing learned that their supplier has modified its production process (to save money?). It affects a limited number of planes that are now being tested to ensure the windows still meet the requirements.

All of the above – and the MAX issue – confirms what an informed industry observer stated some time ago, that when Boeing merged with (bought) McDonnell-Douglas, they transferred from a company making the best planes in the world to a company making the best profit. That should go hand in hand in the best of worlds, but when focus is on the latter (and a move to Chicago), the former takes the hit.

What has hit Boeing the last few years is nothing but a tragedy. Why it happened is the key question. One person claims he has the answer, and he is so bright that he has been knighted. Emirates Sir Tim Clark states that the problem stems from Boeing’s board of directors.

”Culpability for the culture, strategy, direction, priority of that company rests with the Boeing board and nobody else. And that’s where the buck should stop. And that’s where they need to get themselves sorted out. Clearly there were process and practices, attitudes – DNA if you like – that needs to be resolved from the top down.” Boeing shuffled its top leadership amid the Max grounding, firing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and installing Dave Calhoun, a board member, as his replacement. Not enough according to Clark: ”It is pointless shuffling the deck. Boeing need to take a good hard look at themselves; I’m sure they have.”

Badly needed consolation for Boeing lovers could be the fact that, last Tuesday, Boeing had for the first time, in an agonizingly long time (14 months), logged more new orders that cancellations!

The MAX fix

When in a fix, fix it. In Boeings annus horribilis (unfortunately not just one) one major problem is about to be solved. The MCAS software, which caused the mayhem, is fixed, and the plane is again flying. For those who wish to channel their fear-of-flying to one specific aircraft, to make all other aircraft seem safer, this information is of no value. For those who wish to feel good about the most scrutinized plane in history, this is in short what has been done to the software that was so utterly half-assed.

Flight control system will now compare inputs from both AOA sensors. If the sensors disagree by 5.5 degrees or more with the flaps retracted, MCAS will not activate. An indicator on the flight deck display will alert the pilots.

If MCAS is activated in non-normal conditions, it will only provide one input for each elevated AOA event. There are no known or envisioned failure conditions where MCAS will provide multiple inputs.

MCAS can never command more stabilizer input than can be counteracted by the flight crew pulling back on the column. The pilots will continue to always have the ability to override MCAS and manually control the airplane.

On top of this there is now simulator training, which previously bean counters thought to be too expensive.

On top of that, FAA has been shaken in line with penalties and lay-offs, Boeing likewise, and the industry is better off, realizing again, under the axe, that the cheapest route is never safe. But, as always, not without some blood money spent.

A fan blade is all it takes

The fact that the host aircraft was a Boeing 777, may cause ignorant observers to believe that Boeing again has a safety issue. The engine blow-up for Uniteds flight from Denver To Honolulu has been presented in vivid visual on social media. Informed observers realize that American engine manufacturer Pratt&Whitney has a trademark stain. Then again, when a fan-blade fails it has other implications. The focus of this blog has for some time centered on the relationship between money and flight safety. The grounding of some hundred aircraft equipped with similar P&W engines tells a story; inspections required. If you inspect fan-blades every day they won’t cause trouble, if you never inspect them they will. Good judgement decides with what interval they should be inspected, and if that good judgement is clouded by economic concerns, things might go (will go) wrong. But again, the industry has become safer, by a mishap now addressed.

Bloomberg has observed a bulletin issued by Boeing to its customers, related to the latest accident involving a B737. Again, ignorant observers, eager to blame Boeing for anything these days, may be derailed. The bulletin states what is valid for anyone flying anything from a Cessna to an An-225. It reads like this: ”Continual crew awareness of airplane attitude, airspeed, flight control position and thrust settings is fundamental for airplane upset prevention and can reduce the effect of startle or surprise caused by rapid unexpected changes.” Anyone producing an airplane should include this in the first pages of their instruction manual.

An issue affecting B787 concerns the cargo compartments, where panels have become damaged or dislodged. The safety issue here is that in case of a cargo fire, the extinguishing agent may be less concentrated through leakage. Now being controlled and rectified. Nothing sensational.

Breaking news: Another similar case with an uncontained engine failure just happened, this time in the Netherlands. A 747F strew souvenirs over a village near Maastricht/Aachen airport after take-off. May-day, fuel-dump and landing in Liège, Belgium (longer runway). Pratt & Whitney again. Time to step up inspections.

Deadly plunge (cont’d)

The accident mentioned in latest article, the Sriwijaya Air plane that crashed last month killing 62 people, has been explained in a preliminary report. To any regular airline pilot the explanation should be confusing. The auto-throttle systen has allegedly reduced power on the left engine while keeping normal thrust on the right. After climbing another some 3000 ft (from 8.150 to 10.900) with the autopilot engaged, it disengaged. It had obviously co-operated long enough, trimming away the unbalance until it could take no more. When disengaging, it caused – not surprisingly – a bank to the left; ”the plane rolled to the left more than 45 degrees and started its dive.”

Unless there is more to report, the available info is nothing but sensational. Asymmetric thrust (read engine failure) is by far the most common practice in simulators around the world in normal pilot training. There simply has to be more to this story, which makes it prudent to refrain from any judgement on the airline and its pilots at this stage.

Not really related, but in a way similar, and where the pilots did nothing wrong except falling asleep, an incident from long ago is worth mentioning. A 747 was plowing along in the night over the USA at 35.000 ft, when one engine stopped for an unknown reason, possibly fuel starvation since everybody was asleep. The autopilot did what it could to keep things straight and level for as long as it could. All available trim adjustments made and with the speed dropping, it finally gave up fighting, flipping the aircraft on its back and sending it into a vertical dive. With a 5G pull-up the crew (they were now awake) managed to stop the descent as 7.000 ft, loosing some airfoil surfaces, especially in the tail section, with all main gears torn from their up-latches crashing out through the landing gear doors, but remaining attached to the aircraft, and limped, badly bruised, into LAX, realizing again that the 747 was the sturdiest aircraft ever built.

Some more Boeing-lover news; Boeing delivered 26 aircraft in January, boosted by the clearing of the 737 MAX jet to fly again after a 20-month ban as it also won four new orders for its 747-8 freighters. The 747 is obviously still hanging in there.