April 2020

Not much has happened (indeed) in the air during last month, while the most draconic economic turmoil in aviation history has affected all airlines across the globe without exceptions. Small companies have gone bankrupt, large companies are about to, and the rest have huge problems.

For those who have taken to the sky there has been among them just two engine shut-downs, two cases where turbulence has caused injury, five cases of smoke onboard, two tailstrikes, one runway excursion and quite a few navigational errors where safe altitudes have been compromised. The most spectacular one was in Moscow where an Emirates A380 managed to chase a false glidepath from above with 1600 f/m descent rate, when they were instructed three times by the controller to do something in order not to hit Russia outside an airport. They managed to make a go-around with the closest distance to ground of 395 feet in the manouvre. Some 450 souls on board.

On the brighter side a new gadget has been introduced on A350 to cover the pedestal since it has proven not to be waterproof after all. Coffee recently knocked out several different functions causing a multitude of visual and aural warnings, indicating that pilot errors come in many different shapes.

While everybody is fighting for survival, sense of honor – or the lack of it – becomes evident. One low-cost carrier is making a lot of noice over the refusal of a countrys government to grant economic support, where they for more than a decade has been trying to tilt the playing field in their favor, with tax and social benefit avoidance and other low-cost manouvres, pressing the economy of the regional national carrier into dark red figures. To save anyone from guessing the low-cost carrier is of course Norwegian and the prestigious airline – called by some ‘the pride of Scandinavia’ – with a 70 year old tradition of uncompromising safety is SAS. Surprised?

March 2020

The purpose of this blog is to highlight deficiencies in the industry affecting safety. Such criticism will be put on hold, since focus from anyone who might listen is on survival, more than anything else, for the foreseeable future. Parking space is already in short supply when thousands of aircraft are grounded by airlines all over the world, some of which has a survivability of a couple of months, or even less. When the industry recovers from the hardest blow in history, there is a good chance it will pick up the pieces in a slightly different way, avoiding competition on a race to the bottom. Tickets will most likely be not just as cheap as before the crash, and hopefully people will learn to pay what it takes to fly with unaffected safety. A welcome change, one might think.

Some of what happened in March is listed below. Not much, really, worldwide. Engine failures and smoke on board dominate.

Tail-strike on landing, smoke on board, engine shut-down in flight, engine shut-down in flight, smoke in cockpit, loss of cabin pressure, 747 rejected take-off with all main tyres deflated, nav equipment failure, odour in cabin, bird strike, bird strike, lightning strike, hard landing, bird strike, AoA vane damaged by bird strike, rejected take-off due to loss of directional control, smoke in cockpit, engine shut-down in flight, crack in fuselage, fumes in cockpit, fumes in cockpit, smoke in cockpit, engine shut-down in flight, loss of engine thrust in flight, lightning strike, engine vibration, rejected take-off due to burst tyre, collision hazard on runway, low on fuel, engine shut-down in flight, engine shutdown in flight, smoke in cockpit, loss of cabin pressure, bird strike, engine failure.

A month in the life of aviation

An industry already smarting from high oil prices (albeit on its way down) and other problems, like not getting new planes as planned due to the MAX grounding, are now hit by a virus scare, the impact of which cannot yet be estimated in dollars and cents, quite possibly even fatal for some airlines. People are put on furlough, hiring has stopped, part-time and pay reduction are introduced, planes are grounded – like Lufthansa 50% of the fleet, and from China a passenger drop of a staggering 85,5% is reported. European and US carriers have to cope with the White House master planner, banning all flights into the US from the major part of Europe. Shares are down worldwide for an unforeseeable future.

What happens in any four weeks to the industry, apart from the above, is a number of various incidents. In February the list looks like this:

B744 tail-strike on departure.                                                                                                      DH8D nose-gear collapse on landing.                                                                                            A319  overran runway on landing.                                                                                                B763 engine shut down in flight, burst tyre on departure.                                                    B744 rejected take-off due to trash bin on runway.                                                                    CRJ1 nose-gear collapse on landing.                                                                                              Cockpit smoke.                                                                                                                                    A320 engine shutdown in flight.                                                                                                      A320 burning odour on board.                                                                                                        CRJ9 bird strike.                                                                                                                                  B738 overran runway on landing, killing 3.                                                                                  B738 collided with tow truck.                                                                                                          A320 could not retract landing gear.                                                                                            A319 strong chemical odour in cockpit.                                                                                        B735 landed short of runway, gear collapse.                                                                                B752 main gear collapse on landing.                                                                                          B738 flap problem.                                                                                                                            B738 cracked windshield.                                                                                                                B789 tail strike on departure.                                                                                                          A320 nose gear did not retract.                                                                                                        B733 could not retract landing gear.                                                                                              A319 burning odour on board, autopilot failure.                                                                        B738 captain incapacitated.                                                                                                              Air Italy bankrupt.                                                                                                                              A319 strong chemical odour in cockpit.                                                                                        BCS3 uncontained engine failure.                                                                                                B738 bird strike.                                                                                                                                  B777 smoke in cabin.                                                                                                                        A319 smoke in cabin.                                                                                                                        A319 smoke in cockpit.                                                                                                                      A320 smoke in cockpit.                                                                                                                      B752 smoke in cockpit.                                                                                                                      A321 tail strike due to runway incursion.                                                                                    B777 landing gear fire.                                                                                                                      E190 dropped nose wheel on landing.                                                                                          A319 burning odour in cabin and cockpit.                                                                                    A320 fumes in cabin.                                                                                                                          Evacuation after landing with burning tyre.                                                                                A319 dropped main wheel on departure.                                                                                      A20N rejected takeoff due to engine fire.                                                                                      A321 engine shut-down in flight.                                                                                                    A320 could not retract nose gear.                                                                                                    A321 bird strike.                                                                                                                                  B773 fumes in cockpit and cabin.                                                                                                    B733 runway excursion.                                                                                                                  SA227 runway excursion.                                                                                                                B733 runway excursion on backtrack.                                                                                          Co-pilot eye hit by laser.                                                                                                                B734 cockpit smoke.                                                                                                                          B738 cabin smoke.                                                                                                                              B738 ground collision.                                                                                                                        B738 smoke in cabin.                                                                                                                          A321 loss of both nose gear wheels on landing.                                                                          B772 loss of communication.                                                                                                          A320 severe hard landing.                                                                                                                DHC8 engine failure.

If one cares to read through the long list above, one might suspect there are some maintenance and pilot training issues in the industry. Two areas where cost-cutting should be avoided. Cost-cutting, brought on by low-cost carriers, is fighting a battle with the corona virus for first place, in being the greatest threat to aviation, in the spring of 2020.

 

Miscellaneous

The search for the long lost MH370 might be restarted, since new data analysis has established three new areas, based on three different possible scenarios, not previously examined. Final decisions pending.

Quantas is having problems finding an agreement with their pilots union regarding operation of their planned ultra-long flights. Fatigue rules are playing a part. A threat to hire outside help, i.e. non-union pilots is regarded by the union as extremely dangerous to the company image among the flying public. For good reason. If you choose to fly with the company ”that never crashed”, their pilots playing a major part in that achievement, it might be bordering on fraud to have ”rent-a-pilot” cockpit crew, without telling anyone. At least according to the pilot union. Unfortunately Quantas is not the only airline tempted to save money where they should not.

Three of Iran Airs more modern aircraft are banned from EU airspace due to sanctions making necessary updates impossible. 

Contrails contribute to global warming more than previously understood. Efforts are now in progress to minimize that effect by finding altitudes with atmospheric conditions not causing contrails. Another industry effort for less climate impact.

Avoiding turbulence is another effort, mainly for safety and comfort. There is a previous article on turbulence in this blog. Turbulence comes in the form of light, moderate and severe (and extreme according to a separate scale). Normally not dangerous as long as you are wearing your seatbelt, but severe (or extreme) turbulence shall always be avoided. Sudden encounters has caused injuries, mainly to cabin crews working in the cabin. Forecasts have been less than perfect, and avoidance has often been based on pilots reports. Beginning this year IATA has launched a Turbulence Aware tool based on a different type of reports by participating airlines. Turbulence, or energy dissipation rate (EDR) is calculated using six inputs from all participating aircraft: true airspeed, angle of attack, pitch, pitch rate, roll and vertical velocity, measured eight times per second. Data is fed to a central data base and then fed to other aircraft in real time and to forecast centers on ground. Aircraft flying in smooth air is transmitting that pleasant fact each 15 minutes for others to enjoy. When all airlines represented by IATA, there are 292 of them, participate, turbulence avoidance has reached new heights.

FAA – Southwest relations have been to chummy according to whistleblowers and new investigations. FAA has previously been accused of too tight relationships with Boeing. FAA and other regulation authorities around the world face the same problems. One is manning. People who know things about aviation are normally out there working for airlines in one way or another. Authorities have to rely to a large extent on what information they are fed by whom they are set to control. That was normally problem-free, since all involved had one common goal which was flight safety above all else. Friendship developed over time. That situation has been strained by cost-cutting creeping into the system, where good relations has hindered firm standpoints. Another problem facing authorities is the dual demand for creating a healthy economic environment for airlines, based on what new demands for savings the airlines are constantly presenting, and the demand for regulations based on safety alone. Normally not possible to combine.

The number of incidents with unruly passengers necessitating an intermediate landing are on the increase. Drugs are involved, but the major factor is alcohol abuse. The fact that most cases involve taxfree liquor brought and drunk onboard, points at what for half a century has been one of the most daft thing in the industry, second only to dangerous goods. Airline employees has for years wondered why taxfree sales are not moved to arrival halls. Todays environmental concerns alone should prohibit the tons of things you can buy in a departure hall at any airport with self esteem from being sent up in the air for no reason. (Any extra weight cost 4% fuel to carry – per hour. A ton extra cost 400 kg of (wasted) fuel on a ten hour flight).

 

 

Progress?

Airbus is looking for certification for an aircraft able to perform a fully automatic take-off, the only phase of any flight still needing a pilots gentle touch. Could be seen as a giant leap for aviation, apart for the ambition behind it. Automation does not need visibility, and the few flights per year cancelled due to heavy fog would be able to take off as scheduled. That is not the major ambition. Pilots need a few hundred feet visibility to be perfectly happy, and full automation would pave the path for the wet dream of the industry radicals – the pilot-free aircraft.

It must be stated here that anyone not believing in progress – like internet would be a temporary fling – will eventually be proven wrong. Even so, if you are worried about the thought of entering an aircraft without pilots, you can rest assured that it won’t happen in the near future and not with present infrastructure. It is hard to see an aircraft figuring out how to handle an engine failure halfway over the ocean, avoid sudden turbulence, chose a landing site with bad wether all around, deciding on a intermediate landing to offload an unruly passenger, make an emergency landing due to smoke in the cabin etc.

On top of that, service on board would have to be fully automatic, since no cabin crew in their right mind would fly without their pilots. They know facts about flying. Some don’t, including those planning for the change. Even more worrying is the fact that the ambition is not for any industrial improvement, apart from not having to pay pilot salaries. That would be a sales pitch for any aircraft manufacturer, greater than Boeings latest ”no-need-for-simulator-training” för the MAX. Since flying can never be made free of charge, the reasonable principle would be to stop cost-cutting where it doesn’t affect safety. It has progressed past that point long ago, and consequently has to be reversed rather than continued. It is reasonable to believe that at least one big player tends to agree today, after the possibly greatest loss of money for any company in modern history.

Cost-cutting has infected the industry. Budget airlines like Lion Air is allegedly chummy with the Indonesian government enabling safety short-cuts in all areas of management including maintenance and training. The US government is today worried about the already ill-reputed FAA’s too friendly ties with budget Southwest Airlines. In order not to kick somebody already down, one should not blame the latest tragedy in Turkey on Pegasus being a low-cost airline. Time will as always tell, but there are numerous threats imaginable to any such airline, like tired or inadequately trained pilots, low fuel reserves or company pressure to land rather than divert. What a fully automatic aircraft would have done that evening is up to any ones imagination.

The old story (the ideas have unfortunately been around for a long time) went something like; ”Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome onboard this fully automatic aircraft. Sit back and relax, and rest assured that nothing can go wr…nothing can go wr…nothing can go wr…..

Beep.

Tragedies

A deranged pilot flying a plane straight into a mountain. A trigger happy nervous officer firing a missile into an airliner. Neither has anything to do with flight safety in the context and purpose of this blog. Tragedies like that will most likely not happen again, and if they do, there is not much you can do to avoid them. Screen pilots better and stay away from war zones, one might suggest, but there is still no 100% safety. The almost 100% safety achieved in the nuclear plant industry is possible mainly because it is not subject to the fierce competition airlines and aircraft manufacturers have to contend with. If something is found to increase safety even further in a nuclear plant, funds are available.

Since the deregulation several decades ago and the dawn of budget carriers, money not only talks in the airline industry. It screams, rather, and cost-cutting follows. The consequences has been the bulk of many previous articles. The Boeing debacle can quite simply be traced to the need for faster and cheaper production. This has also been discussed in previous articles, and the necessary remedy will be costly beyond belief in both money, prestige and job positions. To add insult to injury, FAA, who has totally neglected its general supervising duty, is now planning a multimillion dollar fine for Boeings malpractice is some other area than the MCAS.

The aircraft shot down west of Teheran did of course not have a chance. It is believed that a similar missile was used that brought down the Malaysian Boeing over Ukraine.    It is supposed to target the nose of the plane, explode outside and send shrapnel through the skin of the fuselage and kill people inside instantly. The voice recorder will tell a horrid tale. Total silence from the pilots is likely.

Again, a lot of other things can be done to increase safety in the air and on the ground.    And again over again, flying has never been safer. Should someone still worry, it might help to put things into perspective. The people lost on average during one whole year worldwide in fatal airline crashes equals people killed on the roads worldwide during  – 1,5 hours.

Late Christmas gift

In a previous article a wish for a certain kind of airline rating was presented, and so at the very start of the new year – there suddenly was one.

The rankings don’t bother with cosmetics like legroom, taste of inflight snacks, crew courteousness and punctuality, but take into account safety factors including audits from aviation bodies and governments, crash and serious incident records, fleet age, financial position, pilot training and culture.

According to AirlineRatings.com the top 20 airlines are:

1: Qantas
2: Air New Zealand
3: EVA Air
4: Etihad Airways
5: Qatar Airways
6: Singapore Airlines
7: Emirates
8: Alaska Airlines
9: Cathay Pacific
10: Virgin Australia
11: Hawaiian Airlines
12: Virgin Atlantic
13: TAP Air Portugal
14: SAS
15: Royal Jordanian
16: Swiss
17: Finnair
18: Lufthansa
19: Aer Lingus
20: KLM

The fact that no low-cost airlines made the list, does not mean they are unsafe. An educated guess is that they might be weaker in some of the aforementioned criteria, such as accidents, pilot training and – culture. Freedom of choice is a gift all year around.

Fatalities in Kazakstan

To speculate why an accident just happened is best left to self-appointed ”aviation experts”. Soon enough there will be professional evaluations. What can be said in general when an airliner goes down in the take-off face, is that there is normally something wrong with the plane. Pilot error has been a cause i very few cases, with disorientation a factor in some. Then again, an aircraft has to be prepared in many ways for take-off, where correct actions from the crew are sometimes crucial. De-icing of the wings would be a pilot error of sorts, if omitted when conditions would warrant it. Incorrect entry of valid take-off data would be another possible cause, not likely in the latest accident with a plane old enough to be operated with limited use of computers. And so on.

The main threats to flight safety, often mentioned in this blog – overworked and under-trained crews, under-maintained aircraft and fuel shortage – are probably not a factor in this case. Lack of fuel reserves can be ruled out with certainty. (!) Now, this turned out to be speculations of sorts after all, in spite of good intentions. While at it, de-icing – or the lack of it – is as good a guess as any a culprit. And we would be back to fatigued or badly trained crews. Soon we will know better.

Happy New Year?

The old year is coming to a close and another airline rating managed to make it in time to be dated 2019. No need here to mention any details of the rankings, since the questions asked were of absolutely no significance to what really matters – and the purpose of this blog. Cabin environment, leg room, boarding process, customer service, food, drinks, punctuality are of importance as long as you take for granted that the flight is – safe. On the other hand passengers can only judge what they see and experience.

The new year would do well starting with another rating concerning things that should matter a little bit more; how is the plane maintained, how good is pilot training, how is the pilot and cabin crew integrity versus management abuse, how are people employed, what with fuel reserves, are duty times causing fatigue. With that rating in hand passengers would finally be able to vote with their feet – and steer away from airlines who are dead set on simply being – cheap. Hopefully food will be ok. And all else.

Worrying trends

The negative impact by low-cost airlines on industry economy in general has been discussed in previous articles. The penny-saving ambitions has reached into every corner of aviation.

The FAA -and other regulators – has failed to employ enough competent inspectors. One reason is lack of funds, (and the other that most people that know anything about aviation are out there – flying). One negative result is that FAA was more or less forced to let aircraft manufacturers and airlines check on themselves. That in itself should not be a cause for concern, since all parties are serious operators and do not normally take undue advantage of this situation. And more money to FAA would not necessarily have altered the course that led to Boeings unfortunate predicament.

The fact that airlines are hard pressed for cash forces airplane manufacturers to make things economically attractive wherever they can. Lightweight lithium batteries made for better fuel economy. Nobody could see the grounding coming after some battery fires. The sales pitch that a new plane didn’t warrant extra pilot training was one of the reasons the plane sold so well. That some pilots in low-cost and third world airlines didn’t know how to handle oncoming malfunctions was a sad surprise to everyone. In all fairness better trained pilots never had the opportunity more than a few times to show they could handled it better, before the grounding hit hard.

The blood money syndrom is there to make sure this will be the safest plane ever when it takes to the skies (though nothing is 100% safe). The pilot training might be enhanced for a while, but the way pilots are employed in many non-regular airlines does not guarantee anything. Pilot training will continue to be expensive, and consequently one of the areas tempting some managements with savings efforts. The recent flow of industry information tells a story. Pilots suffer runway excursions, hard landings are more and more frequent (!),

Skärmavbild 2019-09-19 kl. 16.33.58

and not staying airborne in planes with survivable malfunctions, exposed in frightening detail by AF447 and followed by a number of accidents, is becoming a cause for concern, to say the least. Even so, things are as safe as ever. 2019 is coming to a close with just one major fatal accident and a few mishaps like in Russia, where both engines were knocked out by birds and the pilots got a chance to perform a ”miracle in a corn field”. Even so again, the fact remains that the level of pilot skills are decreasing and will continue to do so, unless funds (passenger fees) are increased, or (utopia) a worldwide standard is set – and checked – that no creative management can circumvent.

Fixing a plane – and having it stay fixed – has been the pride of maintenance departments in most airlines. American mechanics have lately become more and more frustrated that overhaul, also by regular airlines, are moved to low-cost countries, where quality is not only harder to verify, but downright not good enough according to the mechanics union. The maintenance of LionAir’s 737 prior to the crash was obviously not good enough, but then again LionAir is as low-cost as they come. In this, and many cases, managements are pressing mechanics to sign off on work not done or not completed properly. The news flow tells again a story of maintenance issues, such as engine flame outs, and the ever present (a couple per week) smoke in the cabin, from engines leaking oil into pressurized bleed air (previous article).

Finally – to end the worries for now – the system ment to keep everything organized and separated, Air Traffic Control, are also affected by lack of funds and in some places understaffed and overworked. Whistleblowers tell stories of being harassed or fired when addressing dysfunctional situations, where fatigue is playing an increasing part.

Next fatal accident will be traceable to anyone, or a few combined, of the above, or some other cost-saving issues, like pilot fatigue or inadequate fuel reserves. Some might say ”We didn’t see it coming” which is reasonable, if you keep a blind eye to anything but your bottom line. Who to fly with, one might ask. Passengers cannot vote with their feet, not knowing much about anything. One way would be a check whether your pilots (there are always two – so far) are backed by a pilots union. Most regular airlines have them. You make better safety decisions, when your employment status is not jeopardized. (Previous article)