Airbus safety comes into the spotlight

A Yemenia airlines Airbus on the tarmac of Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, France. A similar airplane plunged into the sea trying to land at Moroni, the Comoros Islands, last week. More than 150 people were killed. /Reuters

A lot of travellers boarding an Airbus today might be thinking twice. After all, yet another bus is at the bottom of yet another ocean — and another 153 souls have gone west.

Could the European airliners be latter-day versions of the DC-10?

That is, a flawed design, meaning a relatively dangerous way to fly?

For the entire Airbus airliner fleet (more than 5,400 are in service globally), the numbers do not support that conclusion.

In July 2008, Airbus’ bitter rival Boeing released a “Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents” from the dawn of the jet age in 1959 through 2007.

At the time of the study, the A330 still had a flawless record: no fatal accidents in the course of a million departures.

A month ago, Air France 447 changed that record, but the airliner remains very safe statistically. Over the years the Airbus A300 has had three crashes that caused deaths. That equates to a rate of .47 airplanes lost per million departures.

The A320 series has had eight fatal crashes — or .23 hulls per million departures. And the A340 has never had a fatal crash.

The record is not as good for the A310, the model of airplane that plunged into the sea trying to land at Moroni, the capital of the Comoros Islands.

It has crashed and killed people eight times now. That equates to a fatal accident rate of 1.42 airplanes for every million departures.The infamous and much maligned DC-10 crashed with fatalities a dozen times, for a rate of 1.36 fatal crashes per million departures.

It is worth noting that these fatal accident rates have come a long way. The early jet airliners - the 707 and DC-8 - logged fatal accident rates of 4.21 and 4.03 per million departures respectively.

But take a look at the accident reports for the A310 — there are two common threads.

First, they are all attributed to pilot error: Trying to land in a thunderstorm, botched use of thrust reversers on rollout, improper stall recovery, spatial disorientation on a dark, stormy night, a botched missed approach, and the most infamous of all, the captain who allowed his son to take the controls, leading to a stall and spin.

The second is the airlines were all flagged in third world/emerging nations. This is why you are hearing so much talk about the so called blacklist of airlines that are banned from flying to Europe or the US.

So why so many pilot error crashes by crews flying the A310 for third-world airlines?

Is it shoddy training? Is it simply that the A310 is a cheap, widely used aircraft?

Is it the flying environment in the countries where these planes fly, with fewer, less sophisticated navigational aids and less air traffic control coverage and expertise?

Could the highly automated Airbus design be ill-suited for these crews/ airlines/airports? Or has it saved untold lives by preventing accidents? These are hard questions to answer.

Blame it on the weather
“We never had problems with the plane,” Yemenia chairman Abdulkalek Saleh Al-Kadi told Bloomberg. “It was purely weather.” What about the weather?

Here is the weather picture (in pilot parlance, a METAR) for MORONI/Prince Said Ibrahim airport: The wind was coming out of the southwest (210 degrees) at 25 knots (28 mph) gusting to 35 knots (40 mph).

So it was windy and the sky was nearly clear albeit totally dark when the crash occurred just before 2am local time.

With that in mind, let’s try to imagine ourselves on that Yemenia flight deck.

The Moroni airport has one runway that allows planes to land either toward the north (two degrees) or the south (200 degrees). Airplanes nearly always land into the wind, especially when it is blowing as strong as it was that night.

But there is only one precision instrument approach to the airport. So the crew was forced to fly a visual approach to runway 20 on a dark night over water — approaching an island that probably does not have many lights blazing at that hour.

To add to the challenge, runway 20 does not have a Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI).

This is an array of focused light beams that sit beside a runway and give a pilot a visual indication of where his craft is relative to the ideal glide path.
Without the apparatus on that dark night, the crew would have had a hard time judging how close they were to the ground (or the surface of the sea). It is called “spatial disorientation” and it kills a lot of pilots and passengers (including John F. Kennedy, Jr, his wife and sister-in-law).

O’Brien is an airplane owner and freelance journalist who lives in Manhattan, US.

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