Airplane safety is always a major concern but how can you tell a minor incident from a persistent danger?
Patrick Smith, commercial airline pilot and Ask the Pilot columnist, sits down with Peter to discuss 737s, high-cycle plane safety, and the FAA’s responsibilities.
Peter Greenberg: Patrick, back in April we heard the story of a rupture in the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines 737. I’ve been covering this story since the Aloha Airlines incident in 1988. Where are we now?
Patrick Smith: The 5-foot hole that ruptured in the Southwest 737 was not the near catastrophe that people are making it out to be. I think once the pressure inside the airplane stabilized there was really no danger of the hole propagating and causing any large scale structural failure that would have caused an accident. From the crew’s point of view, it became just a routine depressurization incident.
PG: You can certainly recognize the fact that people were scared out of their pants when they had to put on sunscreen sitting on the plane.
PS: Sure, sure. But is there a crisis? Is there a pathology out there of airplanes waiting to break apart? No.
PG: I agree with you about that. In 1988, the Aloha Airlines incident was the first wake-up call about high-cycle planes needing to be inspected on more frequent intervals in certain locations. From that incident, they realized the effects of metal fatigue and corrosion were a lethal combination. And they mandated more frequent inspections of high-cycle planes.
Each take-off or landing is considered a cycle. A high-cycle plane, like a 737 or an MD-80 or an old DC-9, will probably do six or seven takeoffs or landings in one day. For comparison, a 747 might only do two or three cycles daily. We’re all in favor of inspection, right Patrick?
PS: Absolutely. We’re hearing a lot about old planes. Airplanes are built to last more or less indefinitely, if they’re inspected in accordance with FAA and airline procedures. Occasionally, there’s an undetected crack, an undetected problem, and the Southwest incident occurs. It could have been more serious than it was.
You raise an excellent point with respect to aircraft cycles. Planes are pressurizing and depressurizing with take off and landing sometimes five, six times a day. High-cycle airplanes are more prone to trouble. The FAA, much to its credit, is trying to be proactive and putting out new rules that are going to encourage airlines.
Get more background: Airline Safety Starts With Maintenance
PG: The FAA has at its disposal a number of very useful tools if they’re applied properly. In a situation like this they have three options. They can issue a service bulletin, which is says there’s a problem so the next time you bring it in for service you might want to kick the tires. Or they issue a more serious warning that says here’s the solution to your problem and you have four years to fix it. This always strikes me as absurd. Once you know there’s a problem, why wouldn’t you fix it? Last there’s the most severe directive, which is for emergency use and says that these planes cannot fly until you fix it. Here, Boeing put out a service bulletin basically saying “check your planes.” And the FAA pleasantly surprised me by putting out a real airworthiness directive.
PS: The FAA is being reasonable and proactive about this and acting in pretty much everybody’s interest. Now let’s be careful not to take things too far out of context. Fatigue cracks are actually not that uncommon. Ones that propagate to the point where something like the Southwest incident happens are very uncommon.
PG: Recently, I did an investigative piece on the CBS Evening News about how anytime the FAA catches an airline or charges an airline either with a safety or maintenance violation, they propose some pretty heavy fines. They issued one against Southwest two years ago for not properly inspecting their 737s when they found 46 planes with cracks. And they were fined over $10 million. American Airlines was fined because of improper bundling on their wires on their MD-80s. They were fined $24.5 million. We filed a Freedom of Information Act request at CBS and found out that in over 70 percent of the cases the fines are either never paid in full, or never paid.
Learn more about Peter’s investigative piece on CBS News: FAA Airline Safety Procedures Putting Passengers At Risk?
That’s a big red flag. It’s like if I get pulled over for speeding and given a $100 ticket for going 80 mph in a 50 mph zone, and I say to the police, well would you give me five years to appeal that and then could I just pay $20? And they say OK. What’s the incentive for me to not go out there and drive 80 mph again? And the answer is, there ain’t none. It’s basically the cost of doing business.
PS: There is actually a huge incentive. Think of all an airline stands to lose should there be some sort of a catastrophic accident.
PG: Well that’s the worse case scenario. For day-to-day business, accountants run the airlines and they’re very concerned about their bottom line and their cost. If you’re going to have a fine system in place, people need to know that if they do something wrong they’re going to get slapped. And they’re gong to have to pay the fine in full. And if they already know going in that they aren’t going to have to pay part or all of the fine, these regulations lose their power. You can’t disagree with that.
PS: No, I can’t disagree. The FAA needs to be on the ball and needs to be responsible. The airlines need to be responsible too. Having said that, let’s take a step back and encourage people not to panic and be nervous about things they shouldn’t be nervous about. Air travel remains astonishingly safe. And we are still in the middle of what is effectively the safest streak in the history of commercial aviation.
PG: Knock on wood, we’ve had the most remarkable period of aviation safety in our recent history. But I’d also postulate that the absence of an accident should never presume the presence of safety. When you have airlines performing at the minimal guidelines because of the economy, it’s incumbent upon the FAA to reinvestigate the minimum. It’s like going to a hotel that claims to be eco-friendly because they have flow restrictors in the shower heads, which is just standard municipal code. No one is doing anything over and above what’s required of you.
PS: This great safety streak is not a reason to be lazy and rest on our laurels. The absence of an accident is not an indication, necessarily, that all is well. Despite all the anti-airline resentment and suspicions against the FAA airlines have actually, over the past decade and a half, done an exceptional job when it comes to safety.
PG: Especially in terms of cockpit discipline and having a sterile cockpit.
PS: We’ve had better training, better infrastructure, better equipment on board, and a bit of luck too.
PG: The bottom line is the good news out of the Southwest incident is they’re probably going to increase the frequencies of the inspections, and that should make all of us feel a little better.
By Peter Greenberg for Peter Greenberg Worldwide.
Related Links on PeterGreenberg.com:
The Most Annoying Travelers In The World
Airline Safety Starts With Maintenance
Analysis: Southwest Flew Unsafe Planes, FAA Under Fire
FAA Airline Safety Procedures Putting Passengers At Risk?
FAA Cites United, US Airways With Safety Violations
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