Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bullet Ignitors Cause Airport Explosion What Else?

Photo on N688AA by Marlo Plate on Airliners.Net
Can American Airlines get a break? Not this week. Today at noon, American Airlines Flight 2253 ran off the runway while landing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. No one on board was hurt and the NTSB is investigating.

Trust me, these days, you don't want to be American Airlines. Between this flight,  and American pilot Chris Liu's coming out as the producer and narrator of a You Tube video calling aviation security at San Francisco Airport "a farce", one might think the beleaguered Dallas-based company had its share of bad publicity, but that would fail to mention yesterday's events.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More to Airport Security Than Bitching and Moaning

Don't pity the patriotic pilot, Chris Liu, an American Airlines employee and Federal Flight Deck Officer, who had his government-issue gun and badge taken back by the Transportation Security Administration earlier this month. He's having his 15-minutes of fame.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Airlines Struggle to Cope When Snow Gums Up the Works

Today was the day I was supposed to begin my new class in international relations at University of Connecticut, but there is a pile of snow here in the Nutmeg state, and school is canceled. Trains to New York City are canceled too so here's an otherwise unscheduled blog post written while listening to the wind howling outside my window, a wind that is making an impressive snow drift in front of my garage door.

A fifty mile swath of snow wreaks havoc causing New York area airports to close or cancel flights. No airport is an island and when New York shuts down it is the closing felt 'round the world. (Hello Qantas, Air France, Virgin America, Emirates and El Al)  An estimated four and a half million travelers were to be using JFK, La Guardia, Newark Liberty International and Stewart Airport this holiday season. If this stranded travelers story seems like deja vu to you, my cosmopolitan readers, that's because you remember that in London - the world's busiest aviation hub - winter weather shut down airports last week. The backlog of passengers didn't start clearing out until Christmas Day. 

The passenger bill of rights was conceived following a similarly inclement December in 2006, when a number of American Airlines flights were diverted. After landing, passengers were left sitting in airplanes on the tarmac for hours because no gates were available.The peevish Kate Hanni who had been on one of the flights, started a passenger rights group that really took off with a redux on JetBlue 14 months later. It was a snowy Valentine's Day and the New York-based budget carrier canceled flights and bungled the handling of the ones remaining. Once again people were stuck on airplanes, passenger tempers boiled, Ms. Hanni's army grew.

Let it snow!

Photo by Khryzanto via Flickr

In his column on the events then, The New York Time's columnist Joe Sharkey makes the important point that passenger rights isn't the issue, its the symptom. The larger problem is one of staffing.  In an era of airline cost-cutting, gate agents, ramp workers, customer service representatives became interchangeable. These jobs could be handled by the same person. (View the episode of Undercover Boss featuring Frontier CEO Bryan Bedford for a great example.) Stretching personnel this way may be an easy and effective option on a sunny day. When the snow flakes hit the fan however, well, the flakes hit the fan.

Even in their new profitable state, few airlines are choosing to hire more people, but the blizzard of 2010 is so far noteworthy in that a few carriers have tried to head off another passenger nightmare scenario. Associated Press is reporting that Delta, Continental, United, American and AirTran will let travelers reschedule their flights without change fees. Reducing the number of folks who must check in at the airport to preserve the value of non-refundable, penalty-for-change airfares, will reduce the stress on the system and on airport workers, not to mention travelers and that has to be a good thing.

But clearly its not an end-all. As surely as the snow will fall in winter, there will be havoc and make no mistake, we are in the middle of the latest episode.  Jason Cochran, trying to make his way from New York to London told CNN yesterday that he was stuck on a plane with broken air conditioning and one bathroom out of service. It was pretty tense, he said. "People felt like they (had) no control over the situation."  That's right Jason, weather can do that.

Friday, December 24, 2010


With prayers for safe travels home and sweet times with your loved ones this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Myth and Marketing of the Golden Hour

 Don’t ask me why but when I was a child, growing up in Miami my parents didn't try and get me to believe in Santa Claus.  Nevertheless, I find the “Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus” story particularly appropriate for this post, which is about myths.

One of the most effective marketing tools of medical aviation is the not-even-close-to-being-true concept of the Golden Hour.  This myth is so successful, in fact that I hardly need to define it, but just to be safe, let me say simply that the Golden Hour is that all-important period when the ill or injured must be treated in order to have the best outcome.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Aviation - Germany making the most of wide-bodies and skeletal ones

Its coming up on my birthday and I’m in a cheery mood, so this blog post will contain nothing but what my daughter Marian calls “rainbows and unicorns” news - make that anatomical and zoological news - whatever, grumpy me is under a temporary restraining order. 

In keeping with the holiday season, the folks at Lufthansa  had a media get-together Tuesday night in New York. I assumed the most significant thing they'd say was “bottom’s up”, but make an announcement they did, two in fact.

photo by Patricia Thomas courtesy Lufthansa
Martin Riecken, head of corporate communications for Lufthansa Americas, broke the news that Jens Bischof (left) vice president of the Americas for the German carrier would be moving over to the C-suite, as head of sales and revenue management.  If he's headed back to Germany, he might miss the arrival of his airline’s first A380 service out of JFK.
That was announcement number two.

Beginning February 15, Lufthansa will offer twice a week service between New York and Frankfurt.  Emirates and Air France are already operating their behemoth A380s at JFK, so Lufthansa is not the first. Nor is Lufthansa expecting to fill all 526 seats right away.  But Airbus delivered the airplane and an airliner not flying is not doing its job. Putting the positive spin on the less-than-desirable-date to begin offering 5 to 10% more capacity on the route, Martin said, the airline will “probably offer customers some good deals.”

Photo courtesy Lufthansa

Then I said, wait a minute Martin, who’s leaving frigid-New York in February for the just-as-frigid-Frankfurt?

Then he said, seventy percent of those travelers aren’t even staying in Frankfurt, they’re continuing on.

Cape Town, Singapore, Mumbai anyone?  Yeah, that does sound a lot better.

But perhaps what Lufthansa needs to sell more tickets is a little of what Delta’s having, that being passengers who get on the airplane and strip. Look, while I was covering up burka-style, trying to hide the pounds I put on at my Thanksgiving dinner, some Delta Air Lines passenger boarded flight 6562 from Chicago to New York two days after the holiday and promptly bared all.  Did she read my post about how sexy aviation is and just feel the need to contribute?  Search me.

On second thought, don’t search me, I'll opt for the full body scanner. But for those who think U.S. transportation security agents can’t wait to get to work each day for another round of electronic snooping under the skirts of travelers check out this spoof. It’s not new but its circulating on the internet to great comic effect as the TSA's 2011 pin-up calendar.

Well I did some sleuthing and I can reveal that Miss August and her 11 siblings pre-date the controversy over the full body scan. The calendar wasn't even created in the United States, its German.

According to Jack Polke, medical sales director for the Japanese radiological company Eizo, a similar calendar "was created by a marketing company associated with our German group."  That would be Butter, an ad agency in Berlin and Dusseldorf. Did someone recreate Butter's brilliant idea as Mr. Polke suggests? Or are these the very same images, with a different pair of shoes Photo-shopped on our model's metatarsals? You be the judge. Click here to see Misses January through December. But beware, this content leaves little to the imagination.  

“We're sorry for the delay but we're having some problems loading the cheetah.” Talk about unexpected announcements from the flight deck, passengers on Qantas flight 675 from Melbourne heard that Wednesday morning while waiting to push back from the gate. Nah, I don’t think the cat opted for the pat down over the full body scan. The spokeswoman for Qantas assured reporters that the cheetah, headed for her new home at the Adelaide Zoo was safely tucked away a cage. Nevertheless, she still proved to be a handful for airline workers loading her onto the aircraft. As a consequence the flight from Melbourne was half an hour late for takeoff. As excuses go, its a purr-ty good one.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Airbus A380 weighs man and machine on the scale of fallability

Photo courtesy Airbus
What does a nightmare look like to airline pilots flying 465 people on the world’s largest and newest airliner? Well it must look something like what the five, count ‘em five, pilots on Qantas flight 32 saw after takeoff from Changi airport in Singapore last month.
With the exception of the night and day differences in technology, it might also have looked like what the pilots of United flight 232 saw before that plane made an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa 21 years ago. 
Last week, while working on the story for The New York Times about the new report on Qantas flight 32 by the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau, I decided to call Denny Fitch. I was sure Denny would have some interesting things to say about what it’s like to be on a flight deteriorating so badly, the plane has to be flown in ways never taught in flight school.
Denny isn’t like the handsome Capt. Richard de Crespigny, the Australian pilot in command of Qantas Flight 32, (and the one the journalists down under are calling Capt. Marvel.) Oh Denny’s cute enough, don’t get me wrong. His story and de Crespigny’s differ because on United flight 232, Denny was not flying the plane. The DC-10 instructor pilot for United was a passenger on the flight, enjoying a comfy seat in first class on his way home to Chicago from Denver on a sunny day in July 1989.
The plane was at cruise altitude, more than an hour into the flight with 284 passengers aboard when the tail mounted General Electric CF 6 engine came apart - sending shards through the plane’s hydraulic lines at a point where all three systems converged. The engine was lost, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Lost also was the pilots’ ability to manipulate the flight control surfaces.
In the three-heads-are-better-than-one department, Capt. Al Haynes, first officer William Records and flight engineer Dudley Dvorak figured out a way to establish rough control of the airplane by adjusting the thrust on the wing engines. That’s what Denny found them doing when he went up to the flight deck and volunteered his services.
 “Obviously the normal complement for the DC-10 is three,” he told me during a phone interview from his home on Friday. “To have a training check airman or an instructor pilot be able to come up and do multiple things, well that’s a benefit,” he said. “Eventually it became my assignment to control the airplane through that method. Handling the throttles, that was my job.” 
More hands on the controls, more brains processing the constantly evolving situation; these are the factors that link the pilots then with the pilots now.
So now imagine, the aforementioned de Crespigny, his first officer Matt Hicks, second officer Mark Johnson, staring at cockpit displays illuminated like the proverbial Christmas tree and error messages scrolling by like a Karaoke machine gone haywire and conclude how very pleased they must have been to have A380 captains David Evans and Harry Wubbin also in the cockpit when their date with near-disaster arrived.  
Capt. de Crespigny, by the way, has spent two years interviewing folks at Airbus, Rolls Royce, (even Boeing) for a book he is writing about the world’s largest passenger jet. “The captain is a technically-minded guy,” said Richard Woodward, a Qantas pilot and a safety executive with IFALPA. “His technical knowledge of the airplane is very deep.” But academically-minded aviators notwithstanding, the ATSB report shows all of the men have some pretty impressive log books, both in total flight hours and hours on type.
Flight crew member
Total experience (hours)
Total A380 (hours)
         I did the math so you don’t have to.Combined, the five had nearly 76,000 flight hours 5,000 of them on the A380. Keep in mind, this is an airplane which has been in commercial service for only three years.   
     Their experience was called into action during Flight 32’s nearly three hour ordeal as the crew received more than seventeen notifications of malfunctions, most of which, if occurring solely, would be considered a major event. From losing one engine and having two others in degraded mode, to partial loss of flight controls and warnings about the weight and balance of the airplane, few in-flight emergencies with this many airplane malfunctions have landed without a single loss of life or injury, Mr. Woodward told me. 
     “Engine failure is a big ticket problem, the loss of hydraulics is a big ticket problem, the loss of control authority and electrical capability, any one of them is fairly substantial,” he said. 
     I’m guessing the ATSB shares Mr. Woodward’s opinion. “The aircraft would not have arrived safely in Singapore without the focused and effective action of the flight crew,” the chief commissioner Martin Dolan said to reporters at a news conference the day the report was issued. 
     This kind of statement has to be a balm for airline pilots today. They’ve been through some public relations – how shall we say - challenges lately. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board held a symposium on the issue in May and I’ve written about a few of the more peculiar ones on my blog
     Pilotless airplanes are already being dispatched on military missions. I regularly hear from folks who promise cargo flights will be next.  This “progress” requires that we buy into the premise that the human weighs heavier than the machine on the scale of fallibility. I know a few folks who don’t buy that, starting with Denny Fitch. 
      “You cannot have all the experience in your life to equal 76 thousand hours of experience. These airplanes are piece of machinery and it will occasionally break down though in one of a million different forms. At the end of the day it is the human factor that counts.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

A380 operators with Rolls Royce engines feeling like clowns in the circus

There's a treasure trove of fascinating facts in the preliminary report issued by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau Friday morning and I promise I'll get to all of it. But not in one blog, there's just too much here.

Today let me just address the news. The ATSB has issued another safety recommendation and Qantas has let’s see, one, two…now! to comply.

After discovering what might be a manufacturing flaw in an oil feeder pipe in the engine that went bust on Qantas Flight 32 November 4, the folks at the ATSB and Rolls Royce are thinking perhaps a misalignment might have caused thinning in one wall of the pipe - leading to fatigue, leading to cracks, leading to oil leaks, leading to the engine fire, leading to the unfortunate and highly dramatic failure of the A380’s number 2 engine.

All photographs courtesy of ATSB
To the right, is the photo the ATSB released to illustrate the damage. Frankly, I’m not enough of a gear head to see it exactly. Is thinned metal in a tube really photograph-able?  I’m not so sure. ATSB Chief Commissioner, Martin Dolan told reporters this morning the inspection is highly specialized, involving borescopes and stuff.  So the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has directed Qantas to look for any “abnormal or eccentric counter-boring of the tubes” within two flight cycles, in other words right away. If this manufacturing defect is anything more than a one-off, inspections by Qantas Lufthansa and Singapore, the other two airlines flying with Trent 900s on their A380s, it should show up pretty quick.  

The engines are also going to get a software update, a little high-tech Mr. No so that if an engine starts to over speed, which is preliminary to its busting out the sides of its housing, the electronics that are so crucial to aviation in the 21st century will put a quick halt to that by shutting down the engine. 

And just in case you want further illustration of why runaway engines need to be held in check, take a look at this graphic from the same ATSB report showing the trajectory of Flight 32’s bad boy when its engine parts were “liberated” - flying through the engine cowling and causing plenty of thumps, hisses and OMGs among the 469 people on board.

Is this not a picture worth a couple of hundred words? Holy s… being the first two? What do you think the passengers with seats on the upper deck left side are thinking today? 

While a lot of ground has been covered by investigators so far, I suspect round about now, the three airlines flying Trent 900 engines, may feel a little bit like circus clowns ad libbing their way through each new day and wondering when the next cream pie will smack them in the face.