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March 16, 2005

Airbus A310

Seeing as the Flea has a flight booked with Air Transat I thought it prudent to write and ask them the model aircraft I am currently scheduled to fly. It turns out the Airbus A310 may have a wonky rudder system. Hardly reassuring.

At 35,000 feet above the Caribbean, Air Transat flight 961 was heading home to Quebec with 270 passengers and crew. At 3.45 pm last Sunday, the pilot noticed something very unusual. His Airbus A310's rudder - a structure 28 feet high - had fallen off and tumbled into the sea. In the world of aviation, the shock waves have yet to subside.

Mercifully, the crew was able to turn the plane around, and by steering it with their wing and tail flaps managed to land at their point of departure in Varadero, Cuba, without loss of life. But as Canadian investigators try to discover what caused this near catastrophe, the specialist internet bulletin boards used by pilots, accident investigators and engineers are buzzing.

Here are some rather alarming photos of the missing rudder (the comments are worth reading). It turns out the light-weight composites used in the manufacture of the A300 and A310 (as well as the new super-jumbo) may not be up to the task. Frankly, I will be astonished if Air Transat gives me a straight answer about the aircraft I am currently booked to fly and given the liability involved I could hardly blame them. I also doubt my flight insurance covers sketchy feelings about aircraft safety so my next stop is the Canadian transportation safety board (TSB).

Update: (This was posted after the extended entry which follows.) I just spoke with someone at the Transportation Safety Board and, while I explained I publish a blog, I did say I was not with the press and so will not say too much specific about what I found. What I can say is that I am left profoundly reassured by the inspection and review process that is underway both in Canada and internationally. If these guys are anything like the engineer I spoke with then they are seriously on the ball. I have also written to Air Transat to ask if my flights will be on one of their ten A310s in service and will report on any response they make.


BitsBlog considers the politics behind the week it took for a rather alarming incident to make its way to the MSM and a grotesque distortion reportedly made by the airline to its passengers regarding the choice to return to Cuba rather than land in the United States (via Instapundit).

The FAA says that at this point, the pilot opted to return to Cuba. Now, it should be noted that had the pilot declared an emergency, he could have put down anywhere he wanted to. Thing is, such an emergency was never declared, and the reports I've seen of the radio exchanges, and some reports from Quebec, it was the pilot's choice to return to Cuba. Apparently, what didn't make it to the air controller's tapes was the conversation between the pilot and Air Transat's ownership, wherein, we're told the choice to go back to Cuba was made.

But watch this; What was told the passengers, was that the US had refused to allow an emergency landing. I've seen reports in the frankophone press to this effect several times in the last week since this story came up. The reason given to the passengers and the press of course was the trade Embargo against Cuba.

If this is true it strikes me that Air Transat owes everyone an apology and an explanation. Yet more worrying than this spin is the possible link to American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300 downed in November 2001 due to... wait for it... rudder separation. Note the A300 and A310 have identical rudder systems.* While the American NTSB report blamed pilot error (itself only possible due to a flaw in the rudder control system) some media have reported intense lobbying by Airbus in reaching this determination. Not good.

*Following my conversation with the CTSB I now gather that earlier model A300s used a different rudder system to a later system shared by the A300 and A310. It would take some more poking around to discover if the same system was in place about the American Airlines and Air Transat flights.

Update: More here (again via Instapundit).

Regular readers will remember my brief consideration of "glass" airplanes to replace the Tampico. One of the things that convinced me not to take that path was a conversation with my mechanic. He said there is nothing inherently wrong with glass planes, but that it is very difficult to determine their condition. He told me that the structure of a glass plane can be damaged, but the damage will be invisible and extremely hard to detect visually because the part retains its original shape. In other words, it doesn't dent like metal.

And, to paraphrase a reliable source, we are in an ongoing learning process with these composites. We simply have not had them in service long enough for engineers, airlines and regulators to have the experience that has been built up in, for example, aluminum alloys.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at March 16, 2005 09:57 AM

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I like the painted-on fluffy clouds and sky on the tail-section, chic so faux - it's as though one were really scooting about up in the air...

Posted by: DirtCrashr [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 16, 2005 12:07 PM

I am sure Airbus will check things out rather thoroughly, too. They have surpassed Boeing as the world's number one airliner manufacturer, and they are not stupid enough to toss aside the A300/A310's great record for failing to ensure safety.

I have never flown Transat, as I heard a particularly hilarious horror story about them seven years ago. Friends of the family had flown to Turks & Caicos on vacation, and on the return flight, the plane was delayed at the gate for a few hours. Unfortunately, by the time the plane arrived in Toronto FIR, Pearson was closed to aircraft of that type.

Pearson and many other airports routinely restrict certain classes of aircraft from arriving and departing at certain times of night/early morning, to avoid excessive noise complaints from the citizenry.

So with Pearson off-limits the aircrew was re-directed to Hamilton, which is just a few minutes' flying time away. Upon arrival at Hamilton, the passengers were not permitted to disembark the aircraft. The cabin crew handed out little airline pillows, and the aircrew shut down the engines, and the whole planeload went to sleep until dawn.

At the crack of dawn when Pearson's night noise restrictions are lifted, the crew fired up the engines again and made the short hop back to Pearson, where the pax disembarked.

My friends' experience has kept me off Transat ever since I heard about it, and it will likely keep me off Transat for the rest of my life. Certainly not life-threatening, but more inconvenience than I could safely bear.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 16, 2005 12:30 PM

I must say all of this puts a different spin on a reasonably priced airfare. I am not certain flying British Airways or Air Canada would let me avoid an Airbus product so in the end I am just as happy to fly with folks who have demonstrated their pilots can respond to an emergency. That said, I am curious how Air Transat is going to respond to my request for information and my next course of action will be determined largely on the promptness and transparency of their answer. I have a great deal of faith in engineers - even the Airbus variety (hey, BAE makes the wings...) - but I can only imagine many, many travellers would take one look at those photos and decide to never book Air Transat.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 16, 2005 01:33 PM

I should also add that I have my own separate dispute with Air Transat. One of their agents encouraged me to go ahead and book a flight rather than inform me of a promotion the airline was offering at an event the agent knew I would be attending three days later. We are only talking about fifty bucks here but it still demonstrates a problem with their customer service. It is a much bigger deal to me that the airline I am boarding still has a tail section by the time we land but at this point for me to even consider flying with this carrier again their response had better be detailed and specific.

Non-Canadian Flea-readers may not realize this is not the first time Air Transat has had to make an emergency landing. I can only imagine the negative publicity those photos of this latest catastrophic failure will attract the airline once the mainstream media realizes there is a story here.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 16, 2005 01:45 PM

To be fair to Transat, it's not entirely their fault. Transport Canada has been pretty lackadaisical about ordering ultrasonic checks of A300 flight-control surfaces composed primarily of composites. They and the manufacturer maintain that visual inspection is fine (in most cases) for the A300 series vertical stabilizer/rudder.

But disbonding of the composites, unless it is a seriously advanced case, will not be blatantly evident to the naked eye. Routine ultrasonic checks of A300 vertical stabs are mandatory down south, courtesy of AA587 and the FAA.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 16, 2005 02:03 PM

France's civil aviation regulator has issued an emergency airworthiness directive requiring visual and tap inspection of A300 and A310 rudders. It's a long way from routine ultrasonic inspection, but it's a start.

Via Avweb and InstaPundit.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 22, 2005 01:45 PM