#airlinesafety

Boeing 737 MAX-8 piñatas

The loss of life through any accident is tragic. Make no mistake. Yet if aviation authorities (AA) across the world were truly worried about the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX-8 they’d have grounded it after accident #1 when they’d learnt about the faulty AOA sensor issue. They could have issued Boeing with an immediate action to fix it. They didn’t. Just let the FAA do its work and adopted its resolutions. Now it appears they’ve merely followed the followers. It is as if they’ve felt social media pressure to cover their behind so as not be the last AA do so. It’s irrational. Think of it as aviation piñatas. Bashing with a blindfold.

China was the first to ground the plane. The stunt was in part a trade related issue because the FAA airworthiness directive wasn’t just issued inside a cornflakes packet and as the strictest aviation authority should carry weight. The FAA has said the evidence is not broad enough to justify a ban.

Having been a former aerospace analyst, this is the first time in a very long time CM can remember that a virtual global ban was put on any aircraft type. When Qantas flight QF32 (an Airbus A380) had an uncontained engine failure which ruptured the wing tanks and severing hydraulics, the airlines grounded their own planes as a safety measure, not the authorities. Singapore Airlines suspended its A380 flights for one day before resuming operations.

When AA587 crashed in Queens after the tail and engines sheared off, Airbus A300s weren’t summarily grounded. When AF447 crashed into the ocean off Brazil, A330s weren’t grounded as a precaution.

The Boeing 737-400 series had inert fuel tank issues where near empty scenarios could cause the vapor to ignite in the centre tank and lead to a deadly explosion. Several did explode. Some in the air. Some on the tarmac. These planes weren’t grounded. World aviation authorities, like Australia, issued advisories on how to ensure it doesn’t happen. Not knee jerk copy thy neighbor responses.

The list of 787 airworthiness directives (from fire issues, wings, flight controls to landing gear) stands at 52. FIFTY TWO. Sure a 787 has not crashed yet but where have the authorities been trying to ground the type until it has no ailments at all? Do they need a crash to rally into action? Or do they look at the issue on its individual merits? The 737 can fly without this AOA safely, which is why the FAA still allows its operation.

This seems to be follow the pattern of board governance today. Aviation authorities reacting with emotion, not data. Seemingly acting for fear of a twitter backlash rather than applying common sense to a problem and shutting out noise. Are social media trolls experts on aviation matters? Yet another “it’s better to be morally right than factually so” argument it would seem.

Maybe the biggest qualification is whether airlines ground them because passenger refuse to board 737 MAX-8s where they’re allowed to operate. However most passengers don’t look at the “registration plate” affixed to the top of the front left hand door jam as they board to see what type of plane they’re on. They don’t look at the safety placard in the seat pocket. Most certainly don’t pay attention to the cabin attendants during the pre flight safety instruction.

By the way, flight AA293 from Miami to Washington DC is scheduled to land 11 minutes early today. It’s a MAX-8. Passengers in America are prepared to put their faith in the FAA not the whims of social media activism led policy to unnecessarily ban something to appear virtuous.

How cyber (in)secure is civil aviation?

IAI

If you have a spare 15 minutes it is worth looking at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) video presentation on the state of cyber within the civil aerospace industry. It is not all bad but there is a real need to step up investment to guard against ever more sophisticated attacks. Cyber used effectively can thwart attackers but so many systems within airports are connected – passenger data, baggage handling, airport security. Air Traffic Control (ATC) can be hacked with ghost planes by spoofing messages and pretending the hacker is airborne.

IATA predicts that the number of passengers travelling by plane is set to double by 2035. In the IATA 2017 Annual Report it notes,

In 2016 some 3.8 billion passengers safely took to the air and some 54.9 million tonnes of goods were delivered as air cargo… There was one major accident for every 2.56 million flights using jet aircraft in 2016. While this was a slight step back on the five-year average (one accident for every 2.77 million flights), flying remains the safest form of long-distance travel…Aviation’s importance goes far beyond the 63 million jobs and $2.7 trillion in economic activity that it supports. 

There is no question the quality and advancement of hardware technologies in aerospace has been a large factor in improving safety. Whether the use of carbon fibre composites in fuselages and wings or the growth in ceramic matrix composites in engines to allow higher temps in the engine to raise fuel economy and reduce emissions. If we think that getting drugs approved by the FDA is hard, getting hardware approved by the FAA is even more difficult. A drug can cause side effects. A plane can’t afford to have any problems for the life of it, usually 25 years or more.

Software (e.g. TCAS, automated landing) has played no small part in enhancing safety but providing adequate protection to ensure systems function as intended is the weakest link. As the speaker says in this video, “we need to collaborate“.

We can’t afford to wait for the first aircraft to go down by such cyber attack means before we act. Remember post 9/11 that impregnable cockpit doors were made mandatory. The doors also allowed the pilots to prevent activation of the entry code to prevent would be hijackers from entering by taking a stewardess hostage. In March 2015 a Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, activated this function when his pilot took a restroom break  to commit suicide along with 150 passengers. The activation codes used by the pilot did not work. Technology can sometimes have unforeseen consequences.

Slightly off topic, though no less important, alcoholism and flying is also an issue. The FAA sites, a minimum “8 hours from “bottle to throttle.”” Between 2010 and 2015, FAA records show 64 pilots in the US were cited for violating the alcohol and drug provisions, and in 2015, some 1,546 personnel who must ensure airline safety, including 38 pilots, tested positive for one or more of five illegal drugs. In India, between 2011 and 2016, a total of 188 pilots across the country were found to have high blood alcohol levels during checks.