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Denied safety

Posted by Richard Friday, February 25, 2005

For those readers who have been hardy (or reckless) enough to venture onto Commissioner Wallström's Blog, they may have come across her most recent (still) post, in which she waxes lyrical about the commission's "denied boarding" directive.

This is the fatuous piece of legislation that requires airlines to pay fixed compensation amounts to airline travellers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.

Instigated by the commission, driven by its usual obsession for "consumer protection", one small dissenting voice on Wallström’s comment section, by the name of "Lotaar", wrote that he/she was "kind of worried about the airline compensation law," adding, "Doesn't this encourage airlines to cut corners where safety is concerned?"

"I bet you fly many times a year in the course of your busy Euro agenda," the comment went on. "Wouldn't you prefer a pilot to be 100 percent sure of the safety of his/her aircraft without having to be worried about the prospect of paying compensation if the flight is delayed?"

As it turns out, this comment was unusually prescient, witness the piece in The Times today, headlined: "Flying faulty jumbo across Atlantic saves BA £100,000".

According to this report, a BA 747 Jumbo Jet, outbound from Los Angeles en route to London suffered a complete failure in one engine, very shortly after take-off when the aircraft was only 100 ft off the ground. Had the pilot elected to return to LA, however, his company would have had to pay over £100,000 in passenger compensation, so he decided to complete the 5,000-mile journey on three engines.

This incident apparently happened three days after the "denied boarding" directive came into force and Balpa, the British Air Line Pilots’ Association, has now warned that the legislation could result in pilots being pressured into taking greater risks for commercial reasons.

As to the details of the flight, the aircraft departed at 8.45pm on Saturday and the airline admitted that the delay would have been well over five hours if it had returned to Los Angeles. BA initially claimed that the engine had failed an hour into the flight. But the airline admitted yesterday that the problem had occurred a few seconds after take-off when the Boeing 747 was only 100ft above the ground.

Air traffic controllers at Los Angeles spotted streams of sparks shooting from the engine and immediately radioed the pilot. He attempted to throttle the engine back but was forced to shut it down after it continued to overheat. The plane then began circling over the Pacific while the pilot contacted BA’s control centre in London to discuss what to do. They decided the flight should continue to London even though it would burn more fuel on just three engines.

The Boeing 747 was unable to climb to its cruising altitude of 36,000ft and had to cross the Atlantic at 29,000ft, where the engines perform less efficiently and the tailwinds are less favourable. The unbalanced thrust also meant the pilot had to apply more rudder, causing extra drag.

The pilot realised as he flew over the Atlantic that he was running out of fuel and would not make it to Heathrow. He requested an emergency landing at Manchester and was met by four fire engines and thirty firefighters on the runway.

Nevertheless, BA are denying that financial concerns had played any part in the decision. Captain Doug Brown, the senior manager of BA's 747 fleet, says the only consideration had been "what was best for passengers". The Times report continues:

The plane is as safe on three engines as on four and it can fly on two. It was really a customer service issue, not a safety issue. The options would have been limited for passengers [if the plane had returned to Los Angeles]." He said the pilot would have had to dump more than 100 tonnes of fuel before landing at Los Angeles. "The authorities would have had words to say about that."
This statement is what is technically known as "crap". The aviation industry is wedded to the discipline of "fail-safe" and while the 747 can fly safely on three engine, this erodes safety margins in the event of another failure. Continuing on three also cut dangerously into fuel reserves, which means that passenger safety was definitely prejudiced - evidenced by the fact that the pilot had to divert to Manchester as a result of fuel shortage.

My guess is that this report may well cause some ructions in the industry, but there could well be some closing of the ranks. On the basis of what we know, however, the commission, despite its obsession for "consumer protection" should perhaps have named its new directive: "denied safety".