Wednesday, July 01, 2009

An accident waiting to happen

The Times is reporting that Airbus is expected to face calls to ground its worldwide fleet of long-range airliners today when French accident investigators issue their first account of what caused Air France Flight 447 to crash off Brazil on 1 June.

It is believed that the accident bureau will report that faulty speed data and electronics were the main problem in the disaster that killed 228 people.

Last weekend, the US National Transportation Safety Board, began looking into two incidents in which Airbus A330s flying from the US suffered critical episodes apparently similar to that of AF447 but, crucially, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) – which is the lead safety authority on this type - is now likely to be asked why it had never taken action to remedy trouble that was well known with the Airbus 330 and 340 series.

"EASA has a legal and moral obligation to get to the bottom of this problem now. If there is a defective system and the aircraft is unsafe then it should be grounded, " says James Healy-Pratt of Stewarts Law in London. The firm, which specialises in aviation, is representing the families of 20 of the victims of flight 447.

Airbus first reported problems with the pitot tubes in 1994, it emerged this week. The company advised remedies, but no mandatory action was taken.

One wonders, of course, whether things might have been different if an Airbus had not been involved, and whether EASA is too close to this European industry. There were, for instance, dark reports in 2005 about EASA suppressing safety concerns about the A-380.

The following year, the House of Commons Transport Committee produced a coruscating report, condemning the EASA, calling it an "accident waiting to happen", and advising the British government not to transfer more power to it.

In the 367-page report, committee chairwoman (the late) Gwyneth Dunwoody said that EASA, which became operational in 2003, had failed to coordinate safety regulation across Europe and threatened air safety in the UK. EASA's "lamentable problems of governance, management and resources," the report adds, "must not be allowed to compromise aviation safety in the UK in any way".

Now the accident has happened, who is going to do an inquiry on EASA?