The Cost of Air Travel

Copyright (c) Freefoto.comThis morn­ing, a report into the crash of Helios Airways 522 — a Boeing 737–315 — was pub­lished (or, at least, made avail­able to the press; I can’t find the bloody thing). Over the past few months, I’ve become acquain­ted with some aspects of avi­ation safety dur­ing research for Flashback, and my girl­friend and I were involved in an incid­ent that some­what resembles the events that led to the Helios crash on 14th August last year. I thought it might be worth a post. Be aware that this is not a com­pre­hens­ive review of air safety, and I’m not an expert.

The inform­a­tion avail­able is sketchy, but here’s a sum­mary of what happened on board flight 522. The night before the acci­dent, the air­craft — only eight years old — under­went main­ten­ance. First mis­take: Technicians tested the Pressurization Mode Selector (PMS), which is a sys­tem that per­mits pilots to con­trol cab­in alti­tude (i.e. pres­sure), and left the switch on ‘manu­al’. Normally, this is set to ‘auto­mat­ic’, so that the pres­sur­iz­a­tion sys­tem adapts as the air­craft climbs. Second mis­take: The pilots should have checked this set­ting dur­ing their pre-flight pro­ced­ure, but they did not.

The next day, 522 took off on its route from Larnaca to Prague, with a stop at Athens. As the air­craft climbed over the Mediterranean, the pilots heard the cab­in alert horn. Third mis­take: This horn sounds quite like the horn that indic­ates a takeoff con­fig­ur­a­tion warn­ing (i.e. the com­puter ain’t happy for some reas­on), so the pilots ignored it. Meanwhile, cab­in alti­tude, which is usu­ally held at 8,000 feet (not sea-level) began to increase. The pilots car­ried on regard­less. At 14,000 feet, oxy­gen masks were auto­mat­ic­ally deployed and the mas­ter cau­tion light flashed in the cock­pit. On top of this came anoth­er alarm: a tem­per­at­ure warn­ing for the avion­ics bay.

This kind of con­fu­sion often pre­cedes cata­stroph­ic crashes in mod­ern air­liners. A ‘single’ event — here, the fail­ure to main­tain pres­sur­iz­a­tion — pro­duces a num­ber of alarm cor­rel­ates, and it is up to the pilots to turn detect­ives with a very short dead­line. In this case, the cap­tain was a German and the co-pilot a Cypriot; already suf­fer­ing from hyp­ox­ia, they had dif­fi­culty talk­ing to one anoth­er in English. Fourth mis­take: Having dis­coun­ted the cab­in alti­tude warn­ing alarm as a takeoff con­fig­ur­a­tion error, they did not don their oxy­gen masks and begin an emer­gency des­cent. Instead, they made con­tact with Helios main­ten­ance engin­eers and were told to remove the alarm cir­cuit break­er. The cap­tain left his seat to deal with this and prob­ably became uncon­scious dur­ing his search. A short time after, so did the co-pilot. The air­craft con­tin­ued to climb until its flight man­age­ment com­puter knew it had reached cruis­ing height. The com­puter took the plane into Athens air­space and entered a hold­ing pat­tern.

The rest is fairly grisly. Because the plane did not identi­fy itself, two Greek fight­ers inter­cep­ted the air­craft and estab­lished that the cap­tain was not at the con­trols and the first-officer appeared to be uncon­scious. Some minutes later, a stew­ard, who had just begun fly­ing les­sons, attemp­ted to take con­trol of the plane. Remember that all the flight attend­ants would have donned their oxy­gen masks. Airspeed was increased and the plane banked right. Then it turned left. Having been in the air for three hours, Flight 522 ran out of fuel and crashed north of Athens.

What’s to learn from this flight? First off, I’m not sure wheth­er Helios could be called a ‘budget air­line’, but time and again cata­stroph­ic (and minor) air­craft acci­dents res­ult from improp­er main­ten­ance, which itself is the first to suf­fer from aggress­ive cost-cut­ting that is often a fea­ture of stripped-down fleets. Technician train­ing can be jeop­ard­ised, and lower wages attract staff with less exper­i­ence. Then a mis­take like an incor­rect PMS sys­tem set­ting can be made (though, in this instance, the pilots should have caught the error). An example of how this dir­ectly affects safety is when ground tech­ni­cians are required to read and digest air­craft safety bul­let­ins pos­ted by man­u­fac­tur­ers like Boeing. These are extremely tech­nic­al doc­u­ments, and their details are occa­sion­ally lost, lead­ing to safety com­prom­ises and, when cir­cum­stances con­spire, fatal­ity. When you pay two Euros one-way for a trip handled by a budget air­line, you may not be jeop­ard­ising your­self com­pletely, but it’s worth bear­ing in mind that the pres­sure of fin­an­cial mar­gins does have an impact on safety. An air­line might have the motto ‘Safety first’ but this can­not be true — in real­ity, the air­line will provide you with as much safety as it pos­sib­il­ity can giv­en its fin­an­cial con­straints. ‘Profits first, but you come a close second.’ For your inform­a­tion, Helios is now called Ajet.

I’m not one who likes to col­lect first-hand research (just ask my old PhD super­visor), but, in early August of this year, my girl­friend and I were on board a plane that was forced to return to its ori­gin­at­ing air­port because an issue that is prob­ably main­ten­ance-related. Just after take off from Rijeka air­port, Croatia, our pilot lev­elled off at a very low alti­tude. Over the pub­lic address, he told us pas­sen­gers that there had been a tech­nic­al prob­lem ser­i­ous enough for him to aban­don the flight. No men­tion was made of what the prob­lem might be. We made a fairly sharp turn and headed back to Rijeka. The most pan­icky bit came a few seconds later, when the air­craft appeared to make a severe, uncom­manded bank to the right. I thought, Hmm, either the pilot needs to avoid a immin­ent col­li­sion or the tech­nic­al prob­lem relates to the con­trol sur­faces, and we’re about die. I knew from my research that a tech­nic­al prob­lem — how­ever minor — can be related to ser­i­ous under­ly­ing prob­lems that might threaten the integ­rity of plane. As the cap­tain told us later, some­what wist­fully, these mod­ern air­craft are essen­tially com­puters with wings. And do these com­puters have buggy soft­ware? You bet they do. (Though, to be fair, acci­dents caused by com­puter errors tend to be mis­un­der­stand­ings between the pilot and the com­puter.)

Anyway, the prob­lem turned out to be that com­puter repor­ted the for­ward door was not ‘armed’ (i.e. shut and veri­fi­ably shut). I’ve not heard any­thing about this flight on air safety for­ums, but I’d be will­ing to bet that this was caused by faulty main­ten­ance of the door; i.e. some part of it had failed because it had not been checked or replaced with­in its engin­eered life cycle. Lots of oth­er things might have caused the ‘armed’ error, like soft­ware bugs or wir­ing mal­func­tions, but I prefer not to think of those. For your inform­a­tion, our car­ri­er was budget air­line EasyJet — who have been in the news recently for char­ging cus­tom­ers an arm and a leg (so to speak) when they try to com­plain about a poor stand­ard of ser­vice.

Well, that’s my two cents. Will I end on the mes­sage ‘fly­ing is the safest form of travel’? No. Though this is true. I’ll end by repeat­ing some of the advice on last week’s BBC Horizon pro­gramme about sur­viv­ing an air crash: (1) Remember that an air­craft lap belt opens with a pull, not a push like a car belt; (2) Don’t try to find your friends first when asked to evac­u­ate a plane by the cab­in crew — go imme­di­ately to the exit; (3) Sit your­self with­in sev­en rows of a work­ing exit, pre­fer­rably one that’s in front of you; (4) Count the num­ber of rows between your seat and the exits ahead and behind so that you can exit if the cab­in is filled with smoke; (5) Keep your shoes on.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

One thought on “The Cost of Air Travel”

  1. I guess most people don’t want to give up fly­ing, but I have! I exper­i­enced THREE incid­ents and after the last one I decided not to test my luck any longer. First time, our air­craft sheared off the tires of the land­ing gear on run­way lights. We had to dump fuel over the Pacific for an hour before return­ing to the ori­gin­at­ing air­port and a field lined with ambu­lances and fire engines. Second time, the ‘plane got ‘stuck’ on auto­pi­lot and wobbled about in the sky like a child pre­tend­ing to be an air­plane — left wing up, right down, right wing up, left down — for a very long time. Third incid­ent, fly­ing into Chicago’s OHare air­port — at the time billed as the busiest air­port in the world — I was listen­ing in on the pilot’s com­mu­nic­a­tion with traffic con­trol. Traffic con­trol said “O.K., (cutesy name for the type of plane), you can des­cend to five thou­sand feet now..” Our pilot: “Uh…, con­trol? We’re already at five thou­sand feet…”

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