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Posts Tagged ‘safety’

I’ve been watching the Southwest Airlines inspections controversy unfold over the past week without much comment (except for one post), trying to make sense of what’s happening. There are some big red flags in the way the FAA has handled this case.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

  • On March 15, 2007, Southwest notified the FAA that it had failed to conduct one routine inspection procedure on forty-six of its older Boeing 737 models (from the “Classic” series). These tests look for cracks in the fuselage and are mandated by the FAA due to the age and particular characteristics of this aircraft.
  • Southwest claims that the FAA approved a plan to inspect the planes while keeping them in operation over the next ten days. The FAA denies this.
  • Southwest continued to fly these planes between March 15 and March 23, when the inspections were completed. Southwest’s inspections revealed that six jets had cracks. They were repaired and returned to service.
  • Southwest considered the matter closed by April 2007.
  • On March 6, 2008, the FAA announced that it had proposed a $10.2M penalty against Southwest for “deliberately” operating the forty-six aircraft between March 15 and March 23.
  • Southwest claimed the FAA had approved its inspection plan, denied that it ever operated unsafe aircraft, and announced an internal investigation.
  • On March 11, Southwest grounded thirty-eight aircraft for inspection and found and repaired cracks on four of them.

Here’s what I make of this: (more…)

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The FAA has filed an action for a $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines on account of operating aircraft without conducting a particular routine inspection on them. Here’s the story: For some unstated reason, Southwest failed to conduct “mandatory inspections for fuselage fatigue cracking” on forty-six Boeing 737 Classic-series aircraft from June 2006 to March 2007. Southwest notified the FAA of its lapse on March 15, 2007, and according to the airline, “The FAA approved our actions and considered the matter closed as of April 2007.” Apparently not. According to the FAA, “after Southwest Airlines discovered that it had failed to accomplish the required repetitive inspections, between March 15, 2007 and March 23, 2007, it continued to operate those same 46 airplanes on an additional 1,451 flights. The amount of the civil penalty reflects the serious nature of those deliberate violations.” Southwest is not denying that it operated these flights, and according to a statement from Boeing, “Southwest Airlines contacted Boeing for verification of its technical opinion that the continued operation of SWA’s Classic 737s, for up to 10 days until the airplanes could be reinspected, did not pose a safety of flight issue.” Boeing did not believe the safety of Southwest’s fleet was ever compromised. So, to recap: Southwest thought that the FAA had approved operating the aircraft between discovering the lack of testing and the conclusion of testing, and the FAA says it never approved such a plan.

At the heart of this issue, as best I can see it, is the phrase “deliberate violations.” What did Southwest think constituted FAA approval? We need to wait and see how Southwest officially responds to the FAA’s action to learn more. I’ve queried Southwest, and if I hear more details, I’ll post them. This is a very serious issue. Some observers (including the usual suspects in Congress) are jumping to conclusions, but I think we need to wait and see what else Southwest has to say.

FAA accuses Southwest of ‘deliberate violations,’ proposes $10.2 million fine [ATW Daily News]
We Take Safety Seriously [Nuts about Southwest]

Photo credit: Flickr user Cubbie_n_Vegas. Used through a Creative Commons license

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As of March 5, according to new International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules, English proficiency is now be the required of all pilots and air traffic controllers. In the past, controllers and pilots could communicate in a local language if both spoke it, even though English was the most common standard. More than anything else, this affects communications at major international airports. A number of air disasters have been attributed to language barriers. A pilot I know was once taxiing to the runway at General Mariano Escobedo International Airport in Monterrey, Mexico, and was instructed — in English, as he flies for a U.S. airline — to proceed to a particular location. Over the radio, he heard the tower, in Spanish, direct an Aeromexico MD-88 to the same location. The U.S. pilot speaks Spanish fluently, so he was able to radio the tower and request clarification. Had he not spoken Spanish, there might have been a collision. The implementation of this rule is a concrete step toward making air travel safer.

English to become compulsory for pilots [Telegraph]

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eugene.gifAir traffic control commercialization can change the incentives in the ATC system, Eugene Hoeven (pictured at right) said during a panel discussion last Wednesday, leading to dramatic improvements in the industry. Hoeven, the director for ICAO affairs of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), the trade association for air naviation service providers (ANSP), spoke at an American Enterprise Institute panel on February 20. (Here are event information and media, and here’s the speech.)

Hoeven said that today’s airline troubles are a result of bad policies, including the failure of lawmakers to recognize ATC as an integral part of the air traffic system. He said that satellite-based technologies would be the long-term operational answer. But “all this costs an awful lot of money.” Hoeven looked at the debates over FAA funding that have consumed the aviation community for the past several years, and he concluded that “the FAA, just like the airlines, is a victim of bad government policy, constant political meddling and bipartisan politics.”

So, he asked, is commercialization the answer? He flatly rejected “privatization,” the selling off of the ATC system — echoing moderator Ron Utt’s statement that privatization would be a no-go — but he said that by focusing on how to fund the FAA, we are only responding to symptoms. Commercialization might have a role in “creating the right institutional environment that will make the U.S. air traffic system more responsive to the needs of the nation.”

He pointed out that the United States is one of only a few major industrialized countries that have not commercialized their ATC systems. In Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, there are autonomous government corporations to handle ATC. In the UK, the ANSP runs ATC through a public-private partnership. NavCanada is a fully privatized, nonprofit corporation. “Where governments have ‘let go’ of ANS provision,” he said, “and granted greater autonomy for the ANSP, there has resulted a greater responsiveness to the needs of the aviation community.” (more…)

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FAA administrator-designate (and current acting administrator) Robert “Bobby” Sturgell faced the Senate Commerce Committee for his confirmation hearing today, fielding harangues and questions from skeptical senators but offering little in the way of changes he would make at the FAA.

Sturgell is a former naval aviator (and Top Gun instructor), commercial airline pilot, aviation lawyer, and National Transportation Safety Board adviser. Prior to being named acting administrator in 2007, he served for four years as Marion Blakey’s deputy administrator. In his opening statement, Sturgell praised the FAA’s safety record as the best in the world, touted his financial management of the agency, discussed his plan to recruit new air traffic controllers, and implement the NextGen ATC modernization program. At the hearing, chaired by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the senators queried him on a variety of topics, which I’ll break down one by one after the jump. (more…)

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What’s new in Congress?

Here are some coming attractions: the House aviation subcommittee will be holding two hearings in coming weeks which I hope to report on. On February 7, they’ll discuss the president’s 2009 budget requests for the FAA, which will appear after the State of the Union address. Expect to see a user fee proposal similar to last year’s. Subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello blames the Senate for not acting on the FAA funding bill sent over by the House.

The subcommittee will also look on February 13 at runway safety, a pressing issue given the recent high-profile near-miss at Newark. The hearing will likely address how the FAA is handling runway safety since adopting the more stringent ICAO definition of a runway incursion in October 2007.

As I mentioned earlier, I am looking forward to the great show of merger-related hearings in both chambers.

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Have you been curious about what Congress is doing on aviation? Yeah, me too, and the answer is: a whole lot of not much. Remember when I wrote about those five-year FAA reauthorization bills this summer (House, Senate)? The House passed its bill by a solid margin. That battle royale I predicted in conference? Well, the Senate never got around to passing its own version or considering the House’s. In lieu of actually doing their jobs, on September 26 Congress passed a stopgap funding measure for the entire government pending passage of appropriations bills.

But there has been some action on a measure contained in both FAA bills and brought up on its own by Congressmen Jim Oberstar, Jerry Costello, Robin Hayes, and John Mica: raising the mandatory pilot retirement age from sixty to sixty-five. The Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act (HR 4343) is hardly unexpected; age sixty-five is an international standard and the FAA was already moving in that direction. With the support of labor and no objection from industry, the bill sailed through unanimously.

What will the new retirement age mean for airlines and pilots? Here are a few issues: (more…)

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It’s a broken wingtip, not a broken wing

When I saw the Daily Mail item about the passengers who refused to fly on a plane whose wing tip had been broken off, I thought it was not really worth my blogging attention. Then I got emails about it, and replied that it really wasn’t a big deal. But with the blogosphere’s attention to the incident, I thought I’d throw in my two cents. This is what I emailed one of my correspondents:

Wingtips primarily function to increase range and fuel efficiency. They may be “blended” into the wing, but they’re not part of the actual wing structure. I suppose if the pilots thought the airplane was airworthy, it would be OK. They generally don’t have death wishes and will not hesitate to scratch a flight if the aircraft is unsafe.

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In a post about Northwest Airlines’s new Airbus A330s, Ben Mutzabaugh reminds us that Northwest’s workhorse aircraft, the DC-9, is still in use with no planned replacement. NWA has 134 DC-9s, which seat 90-130 depending on configuration, and it has 130 of its other domestic workhorse type, the A319/A320 family, which seat between 125 and 150, meaning that the narrowbody Airbus jets are not a direct replacement. Northwest’s smaller-jet contractors are operating (at the high end) 76-seat Embraer E-175s and CRJ-900s, the max allowed under union rules. The business angle is that NWA needs a replacement for the DC-9. Will it be the 90-110-seater the E-190/E-195? Something else? It’s interesting to look at.

But this blog is about policy, and I wanted to point to the discussion in the comments about the safety of NWA’s old DC-9s. There’s a lot of claptrap about how unsafe the old birds are (as usual, people use “Internet grammar and spelling”):

  • “One accident with a Northwest DC-9 will ground the entire fleet. Their playing the numbers game.”
  • “How is that the FAA can regulate the maximum age for pilot but not the planes?”
  • “35 years old? No wonder I am afraid its going to be my last flight everytime I get on one, those planes are older than me!”

Fortunately, there are some common-sense commenters too, driving home the fact that old planes are not necessarily any less safe than new planes. So there’s really no reason for the FAA to “regulate the maximum age” of planes. Every aircraft in commercial service has to have a Standard Airworthiness Certificate. If the plane passes, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Wright Flyer; it’s considered satisfactorily safe.

NWA’s international fleet gets younger, but DC-9s still flying [Today in the Sky]

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The House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation held a major hearing on airline delays and consumer issues, and your humble blogger was there to pass on the highlights. The hearing came at the heels of “the worst summer for airline delays” since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began keeping records thirteen years ago. Only 72.2 percent of flights were on time. Why? Weather, crowded skies, airline issues, scheduling problems, congestion, everything else that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with. The first panel of the hearing featured government officials, including the acting FAA chief, and the second featured aviation stakeholders.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the background of the current aviation “crisis.” For those who need more, a background paper is here. The hearing was held against the backdrop of the House’s FAA reauthorization bill, which rejected the airlines’ preferred user fees approach to funding air traffic control, instead pumping more money into the agency and continuing to rely on fuel taxes.

I’m not going to summarize what each person said or go over each exchange. Instead, here’s the highlights reel: (more…)

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