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How safe our skies?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaDon’t let sniffy aircraft tilt their nose up at you. No matter it’s the B737 MAX or the A320Neo. Here’s why that tilt is driving frequent flyers – and the FAA – nuts.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Now the A320Neo has a nose pitch-up issue - but its safe to fly

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has suggested temporary changes to stabilise the centre of gravity on the A320Neo

AS THE ill-starred Boeing 737MAX-8 struggles to make a comeback with the US Federal Aviation Administration following  “a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline”, passengers have ample time to debate whether they will return to fly on this sleek but flawed aircraft.

Eschewing outsourced self-certification, a deeply embarrassed clenched-jaw FAA is going over the aircraft with a fine-tooth comb as Boeing scurries to make amends after some appalling PR gaffes that greatly dented a company, which once inspired the cheerful slogan, “If it’s not Boeing I’m not going.”

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Yet, at the end of the day, when the all clear is sounded, there still remains an elephant in the room – it is the extended architecture of the plane, at the very limits of design endurance, that is at the root of the problem even though the MCAS anti-stall system responsible for the fatal nose-downs was identified as the villain for both Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airways Flight 302.

{there remains an elephant in the room – the extended fuselage, at the very limits of design endurance, is at the root of the problem...

The stretched fuselage and oversize engines that altered the flight handling and weight balance are what necessitated a software fix – the MCAS (manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system) – to assert control in the event of a threatened stall due to the nose pitching up unduly. No matter how perfect, or subservient to pilot command, the MCAS may be in future iterations, it remains a glaring indictment of a major design flaw.

American Airlines hopes to have its B737 MAX-8 fleet up in the air by end 2019 while Southwest has pushed things back to 2020, with a similarly delayed timeline for Asian airlines. In India, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) plans to conduct its own airworthiness tests following FAA clearance, with additional simulator training for all MAX8 pilots.

If not the MAX, then what aircraft? Frequent flyers hotly debate whether the Airbus A320Neo – a rival single aisle jet – is safer. To be sure, both Boeing and Airbus have their aficionados but the MCAS scare has many looking closely at performance and safety statistics.

It was not all reassuring news then when Airbus disclosed that scrutiny of its new generation aircraft revealed it had a nose-up issue that required attention. While satisfied with the airworthiness of the A320Neo, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has suggested temporary changes to stabilise the centre of gravity on these aircraft while the manufacturer works on a software patch.

Airlines have responded by lightening loads in the tail section. British Airways, which initially crammed in an extra row of seats using a ‘space flex’ configuration with a scrunched rear toilet, is now unable to monetise these seats. Eager passengers will not be able to move to the empty last row once in-flight nor will crew be allowed to rest there. Lufthansa has done the same to help with the plane’s ‘angle of attack’ to help bring the nose down.

Erring on the side of caution, India’s IndiGo and GoAir (with fewer seat rows) have opted to leave the fifth cargo hold nearest the tail section empty.

While marvelling at the design ingenuity and innovation seen in new generation planes it is a sad commentary that profits drive business entirely and not marginal concerns like passenger comfort or, sometimes, safety, which has been whittled away as aircraft manufacturers flirt with the far end of the permissible envelope.

First came the mysterious demise of exits. US regulations hold that a plane must be capable of evacuation within 90 seconds. In actual practice this is well-nigh impossible, even in orderly drills. Passengers panic, cart their luggage out blocking the aisles, and suffer disorientation. Pan Am’s original B747 Jumbos started with 11 exits in 1970. The FAA had them test the 90-second rule with just five exits open, based on the assumption some would be damaged in a crash landing.

Slowly but surely these exits have disappeared. This has happened across most aircraft types.

Airbus suggests a ‘cabin save’ design option for the upper deck of its soon-to-be-retired A380 behemoths. This ‘deactivates’ a set of exit doors. As Airbus puts it, ‘Compared with current A380 layouts, A380 Cabin-Flex can bring up to 11 more premium economy seats or seven business class seats.’ Staid and safe Qantas was the surprise launch customer for this modification.

Korean Air’s B747-8i has just eight exits on the lower main deck compared with 10 on a typical British Airways or THAI Airways B747-400. From the traveller’s point of view, the 8i (or Intercontinental) is a stretch version with 18.3 extra feet and around 51 more seats than a conventional B747. If you read ‘more seats and fewer exits’, you are right. This is no shock horror revelation. It’s all within the bounds of safety but the principle is being stretched, along with the aircraft.

Aircraft manufacturers are loathe to change assembly line operations and will squeeze as many iterations out of one plant as possible. The B737 MAX8 is a case in point. The new extra-large GE engines really needed a new, larger, high-slung, body. They were eventually fitted on the old frame in a forward position, upsetting the flying equilibrium. Roughly the same thing happened to the Airbus NEO with varying compensations.

When the B747 got started, its six-storey tail necessitated the creation of an entirely new factory (at Everett near Seattle). This is why brand new aircraft are rare. There is no guarantee they will go on to be winners like the B747 (with multiple variants) and deliver returns on the enormous start-up and R&D costs.

With advances in technology the three-man cockpit (captain, first officer or co-pilot, and flight engineer) has shrunk to a two-man affair; and twin-engine flights across vast expanses of water have become commonplace where four-engine aircraft were once the safety norm. The lowly navigator has disappeared. Computers are in charge. Stand-up ‘Skyrider’ seats could be next.

Maybe one day we’ll dispense with pilots, toilets, and exits entirely. With the demise of the ghoulish but riveting AmIGoingDown.com that once predicted your chances of arriving in one piece on various routes, you’ll need to toss a coin.

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