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)



Blood money again improving flight safety. So far the latest two Boeing accidents have resulted in 78 different safety actions within FAA, Boeing, affected airlines and elsewhere where deemed necessary, all in the effort of blocking every possibility of that particular accident ever happening again. One such action included removing the AoA (angle of attack) repair license for a company in Florida.

Boeings tab for the MAX blunder 9 billion USD, and counting. The low-cost airlines negative impact on the airline industry finances in general has among other things affected fuel reserves (proven by two recent accidents), pilot training (proven over and over, incl. the two MAX accidents) and duty times (numerous fatigue related incidents). It has also reached the factory floor, where Boeings cost-cutting ambitions might set a new world record for a costly misguided savings program.

Not only cell-phones. China keeps competing on an un-level playing field. Not only have both Airbus and Boeing assembly plants in China, where Chinese technicians can learn most of what they need to know. The rest China needs to know, they get by state encouraged high level hacking. Billions of dollars and several years have been saved in developing their own aircraft industry. The C919 is a relatively new narrow-body jet built by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC for short. It might even be good. Time for market entry uncertain.

Bankruptcy. Germania is one of a rapidly growing list of European airlines to fail in the past two years. In 2017, two large European carriers went bankrupt in quick succession: Monarch in the UK, Air Berlin. Alitalia would have been added to that list, had not the Italian government intervened. Last autumn, a number of smaller airlines failed: Latvia-based Primera Air, Cobalt Air of Cyprus, Germany’s Azur Air, Lithuania’s Small Planet Airlines and the Swiss SkyWork. Fuel prices, weak Euro against USD are blamed but the major factor is the increase of the capacity of the low-cost sector (11% last quarter 2018). Ryanair reported its first loss since 2014 (€22M), Norwegian and Wizz are also in trouble.

Maintenance. An other new area also affected by cost-cutting is aircraft overhaul. Airline mechanics say they feel pressured by management to look the other way when they see potential safety problems on airplanes, an eight-month-long CBS News investigation reveals. In some of the cases, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed with those mechanics. ”Accident waiting to happen” They blame it on an economic reality of the airline business: a plane only makes an airline money when it’s flying passengers. Whistleblowers working for Southwest Airline – a hard core low-cost company, also the first one – are allegedly risking their employment status.

Otherwise, things are fine…….

Not so much in general aviation. The number of accidents of accidents during 2017 was 1.316 (one thousand three hundred and sixteen). And that was and improvement – by 19 from previous year. They also managed to kill only 350 compared to 412 in 2016. Since planes seldom fall apart these days, the comparison with the next to zero accidents in the airline industry, the facts says something about the value of pilot training – and testing.


Time for reckoning

It has in a previous article been mentioned that ”heads will roll” in the aftermath of the botched introduction of Boeings latest version of its best selling 737. The MAX. Cost-saving has taken precedence over safety, a drastic shift in Boeings long-standing company culture, where the industry has been provided with aircraft of unsurpassed quality for more than half a century.

The change in the Boeing company culture over time to safeguard profit and shareholders interest has come in conflict with the focus on uncompromising safety, as mentioned by frustrated employees, who has allegedly felt the need to keep quiet to stay employed. Many are responsible for mentioned change, but the buck stops with the leader of the company, who was a strange combination of CEO and Chairman of the board, Mr Dennis A Muilenburg

Last Friday a telephone conference with board members (Muilenburg not invited) decided to strip Muilenburg of his Chairman of the board position. It is a fair guess that this is not the only demotion in the pipeline. Congress members are increasingly interested in what other executives knew – and when.

A whistleblower has reported that he attempted to persuade the company’s management to include a safety feature into the MAX, called synthetic airspeed, like the system found on the B787 Dreamliner. That was reportedly rejected due to ”cost and potential (pilot) training impact”. Boeing wanted to remain competitive, and any additional costly pilot training would ”have a very negative impact on the MAX’s attractiveness to customers”.

It is estimated that Boeing would be a much happier company, had management listened to its employees.

The negative economic impact on the industry by low-cost airlines (apart from the fact that people can fly for less than required to maintain an adequate standard) has reached the factory floor. It has become increasingly important for airplane manufacturers to produce  aircraft increasingly fuel efficient and otherwise less costly to operate with a competitive price tag. It’s anybody’s guess why Boeing choose the low weight litium batteries to it’s Dreamliner instead of nickel-cadmium. Light weight ment less fuel to carry and was a perfect economic solution until they caught fire. The Dreamliner was grounded for months.

Boeing has created a safety committee in an effort to change back to what was its trademark with focus safety, no matter what. Boeing lovers can only hope such changes may eventually bring back full confidence in a badly bruised trademark. Quite possibly passengers boarding a Dreamliner remember little or nothing of the grounding many years ago. Possibly the MAX will be just as popular once the extensive overhaul and checks are completed – and some time has passed without any further problems. It will, after all, when the smoke has settled, be the most scrutinized aircraft in history.


Blame shifting

No sane pilot should ever say ”this could never happen to me” with regard to a recent accident. So far. This might change in the future when the supply of well trained pilots will be strained. The demand is staggering. Boeings 2018 Pilots and Technician Outlook says aviation is looking at an ”unprecedented” amount of 790.000 pilots during the next two decades. Airbus has another figure of 540.000. The figures might be viewed with some suspicion since it is dependent on vague forecasts. Nevertheless it is fair to assume that an increasing number of inexperienced and insufficiently trained pilots will be piloting increasingly technologically advanced planes across the world. The assumption is based on the fact that this is already happening.

Even though Boeing made a half-assed technical modification and is being severely punished as a company, the blame is shifting. A New York Times article is stating in no uncertain terms that the two latest accidents, causing the famous global grounding, was caused by inexperienced AND insufficiently trained pilots. The many mistakes made in both cockpits, including asking for help from above – which has so far never helped – caused both accidents, and now some pilots might be correct in saying ”this would not happen to me”. The technical problems with the planes were survivable, and should have been handled according to emergency procedures already in effect. That is the reason it took a while to ground the plane, an action caused by public outcry more than anything else, even though necessary modifications might have been time consuming enough to cause a short grounding.

Boeings greatest mistake was to expect that all pilots – even in low-cost airlines and third world airlines – would be perfectly capable of handling the plane with the possible malfunction of the new modification, while at the same time trying to sell the aircraft to customers under the pretense that no extra pilot training was required. That appealed so much to customers around the world in todays cost-cutting competition, making it the best selling aircraft ever with over 5000 planes sold.

Blood money has been discussed, pilot errors have been discussed, as has the trend in the industry after the introduction of budget carriers to cut every corner possible. Hopefully the latest 346 lives lost has not been in vain. Hopefully pilot training will be brought back to previous standard, where pilots were expected – and trained – to handle every conceivable emergency, including disconnecting all failing automation and fly the aircraft manually. Maybe, even though it’s not easily done, it’s time to more carefully evaluate which airline to entrust with ones life. It’s been said before and it’s worth repeating; ”Sitting at 35.000 ft enjoying a very cheap airline fare, without wondering how it became so cheap, might be just as intelligent as in asking for the cheapest surgeon to perform your next by-pass operation.

Any 4 weeks in the airline industry

During the last four weeks a few things have happened to commercial passenger aircraft. (Any other four random weeks would show basically the same result.) The malfunctions have had various degree of severity, but common to all of them, is the fact that no harm has come to any of the thousands of passengers onboard these aircraft. Let’s look at the list of snags in order to get a better picture.

Smoke onboard – 17 cases                                                                                                              Runway excursions – 10 cases                                                                                                        Engine problems – 8 cases                                                                                                              Loss of cabin pressure – 7 cases                                                                                                Landing gear problems – 7 cases                                                                                              Engine shutdowns – 6 cases                                                                                                            Flat tyre – 5 cases                                                                                                                                Fire onboard – 5 cases                                                                                                                      Cracked windshield – 5 cases                                                                                                        Severe/wake turbulence – 4 cases                                                                                                    Flap problem – 3 cases                                                                                                                        Hydraulic fail – 3 cases                                                                                                                      Lightning strike – 2 cases                                                                                                                  Bird strike – 2 cases                                                                                                                            One case each of autopilot fail, electrical fail, wind shear, brake problem, fuel leak and a navigational system fault.

All in all some 90 emergencies (3/day) that could have caused great harm, had they not been handled by adequately trained crews. (The two most common faults are addressed in previous articles, as is pilot training). The sad thing is that the latest two fatal accidents, causing the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX, were avoidable, had only the crews involved been better trained. You don’t do pilot errors on purpose. You do errors if you are sloppy or complacent. You do errors if you are too fatigued to think straight. And then – the really sad cases – when you do your best, but have not been educated to handle that particularly emergency. Several fatal accidents the last few years (the more spectacular ones Air France over the South Atlantic, Asiana in San Fransisco and now the two Boeing accidents) points in the same direction. Airlines and governing authorities rely on automation, and should automation occasionally fail, that there is a pilot as a last resort, to handle the situation, but they do not provide enough resources for that kind of pilot training.

Pilot training is of course very expensive, and the no-need of such training when transferring pilots to a new aircraft type was one of the sales arguments Boeing used to airline managements, making them log a staggering 5000 orders. Cutting costs is of course imperative in todays pressed economy and some airlines actually call them selves low-cost airlines. That might prove a judgement error, should the flying public start to wonder just where they cut the costs.


The grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX globally is not the first time in aviation history.
It is of course not a normal occurrence, but then again nothing utterly sensational. It has happened before and below are some of those cases.

2013: Boeing 787 Dreamliner – first aircraft in service 2009 – was grounded between January 16, 2013 and April 19 the same year, due to two cases of lithium battery fires.

2000: Concorde – first aircraft in service 1976 – was grounded between August 16, 2000 and November 2001 after a fiery crash in Paris, where fuel tank safety was an issue.

1982: Yakovlev Yak-42 – first aircraft inservice 1980 – was grounded between 1982 and 1984 due to a design fault involving the horizontal stabilizer, causing a crash on June 28, 1982.

1979: McDonnell Douglas DC-10 – first aircraft in service 1971 – was grounded between June 6, 1979 and July 13 the same year, after an AA crash where the engine pylon assembly was substandard.

1954: de Havilland Comet – first aircraft in service 1952 – was grounded in 1954 after two inflight break-ups. The grounding was lifted in 1958.

1947: Douglas DC-6 – first aircraft in service 1947 – was grounded on November 11, 1947 for four months after a number of inflight fires and one fatal accident on October 24, 1947

1946: Lockheed Constellation – first aircraft in service 1945 – was grounded between July 12 and August 23, 1946 after an inflight fire causing a crash on July 11, 1946

What can we learn from this? Not very much really, more than that things happens and are taken care of. And that things will happen and be taken care of. What is still to come is the date when the Boeing MAX grounding is lifted.

Has bad decisions ever been more costly?

4,9 billion USD. That is what Boeing has set aside as compensation for their customers and their loss of revenue. Boeing also states their pre-tax earnings will drop 5,6 billion USD in one quarter alone. Lower output rate will cost additional 1,7 USD.

This is known costs so far. They don’t include money for a number of unsettled lawsuits. They don’t include possible losses due to cancellations of orders or renegotiations for rock-bottom prices. They don’t include uncertainties regarding the re-introduction of the aircraft and they don’t include brand name damage.

The known numbers above are staggering by themselves. Converted to SEK they amount to approx. 114 miljarder SEK. To wrap your brain around a number like that – just imagine you spend 1 million SEK per day – you will have to do that for just over 312 years before you run out of money.

The name of the plane might also have to be changed to yield for public sentiment that the proud MAX addition is not the most popular. All in all it is a tragedy that the worlds leading aircraft manufacturer has ended up in dire straits. The inevitable ”crash investigation” will most likely be cruel. Heads will roll (some have already) both at Boeing and the FAA. There must have been numerous meetings where decisions have been governed by economy rather than max (no pun intended) safety. But how do you blame a whole industry that has let low-cost airlines fooled passengers that safe flights cost peanuts, bringing economy to such a squeeze that plane makers must cut corners -too.

On a positive note, who remembers the Volkswagen scandal some years ago? Boeing will, as the industry has always done when something has gone terribly wrong, bring all its considerable talent, minus what has been rooted out, to bear on re-introducing the quite possibly safest aircraft ever, and most likely, a few years from now, not many people will remember this, unless they think about it, which nobody likes to do anyway. Especially not when you board a plane.

This might have been one injection out of many the industry needed. Sadly only after loss of life. Money talks but lack of money talks louder.

Concorde 2.0

As mentioned in a previous article, the only halt in mankind’s ability to constantly develop just about anything – the abrupt end to supersonic passenger flight – may soon be a just a memory. It was of course inevitable that creative brains couldn’t stay away from trying to find a solution to the frustrating fact that things did not move ahead. If it’s worth betting any money on what has so far turned up is yet to be seen, but many actors are active in the supersonic race.

One company, with the befitting name Boom technology, has stated boldly that they will have a plane called Overture ready for launch as soon as 2025-2027, with test flights already next year. According to the company spokesman safety is governing the final timetable for market introduction, where lessons learned from the latest Boeing disasters are used as additional guidelines. Test pilots will be involved throughout the development of the aircraft.

The main point stated by the company is, that as compared to the original Concorde that never became an economical success, a flight on an Overture airplane would cost just about as much as a business ticket on a regular airline, thus giving the venture a good chance for economical survival. Things would be back to ‘normal’, should this come true.

Blood money

There are two kinds of  blood money. The money you have to spend after an accident to make sure it is not repeated, and the money you think you save by not acting on a threat to safety. The latter is of course converted to the former after that specific threat inevitably caused an accident. It is said that ”todays flight safety is written with passenger blood”. That’s a bit of an overstatement. Every conceivable threat could not be anticipated and a lot of money was spent increasing overall safety. But the fact remains that people were killed were stricter regulations regarding manufacturing of airplanes, airport systems and operational procedures could have prevented sad turn of events.

Over the more than half a century of commercial passenger flying, safety has increased dramatically, to the extent that in 2017 not one single passenger was killed in what is considered regular commercial passenger flying. That’ a remarkable feat. All blood money has been well spent, including investments in all safety improving area where no accident so far has happened. But things change and not always in the right direction. New threats appear in the wake of weaker economy in the industry, followed by the deregulation and the dawn of low-cost carriers. When money is scarce you have to cut corners wherever you can, and savings in operational costs affect maintenance, fuel reserves, pilot training and excessive duty hours among other things.

The economic pressure on airlines affect manufacturers as well. Cost-cutting among airplane makers, including all kinds of outsourcing and hiring of low-cost labour forces, started in earnest at the turn of the century, where lower unit price, fuel and operational economy and minimum pilot training were main sales arguments between the two major competitors. It was only natural to choose light-weight litium batteries for a new aircraft type, even with their history of causing fires. They did of course do just that, causing worldwide grounding of the entire fleet. Fortunately no blood money had to be paid out for that savings program. Unfortunately that is not valid for the next world-wide grounding of an entire fleet. The ambition to sell a plane as cheap as possible hit back with yet unknown, but surely catastrophic repercussions. The only consolation is that safety will be improved even further.

But we still have to contend with old threats not yet fully corrected. We still have crossing runways, runways not long enough, not perfect radar and communication coverage everywhere, flights in the middle of the airway, non-precision approaches still not outlawed, local languages in lieu of aviation english, dangerous goods onboard etc etc etc. The wallet of blood money will have to be opened again. Airlines are adopting to reduced safety margins approved by authorities, believing they are doing the industry favors. Investing in preventing exactly everything seems kind of unnecessary when everything is running so well, doesn’t it? A lot of areas have in fact been constantly improved. Statistic speaks clearly. 100.000 flights every day of the year and literally no accidents. So all is well…….