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July 16, 2009

The Latest Survivable Air Mishap Gets No Miracle Treatment

Alohaairlinesdisaster
After 89,090 flight cycles, an Aloha Airlines plane lets go of its top in the 1980s.
Photo: Hawai'i State Archives, Aloha Airlines Disaster

by Barbara S. Peterson

A couple of days ago, a Southwest plane suddenly lost cabin pressure when a hole the size of a basketball ripped open in the ceiling of the fuselage. What followed was a textbook case of quick response:  the pilot descended to below 10,000 feet to stabilize the pressure (passengers had already donned oxygen masks) and swiftly landed the Baltimore-bound jet at the nearest  airport in Charleston, W. Virginia;  all 131 people board got off without injury.

So why is no one calling this one a miracle?

First, no birds were involved. I'm serious: the Hudson River splashdown of US Airways flight 1549, which made a hero of Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, was occasioned by a freak occurrence.  It's hard to fault the airline, the pilots, air traffic control or any other of the usual suspects for a flock of gargantuan geese taking out two engines at once.  This recent one was different and more problematic.

The Southwest plane was an older model 737, having logged some 42,000 cycles (takeoffs and landings). The airline said the craft was checked frequently for cracks, as required.  But it was all too recently that Southwest was dinged for $10.2 million by the FAA  for failing to check some 40-odd planes in its all-737 fleet for wear and tear.  The airline fought that initial penalty and the two sides settled for $7.5 mil.  Southwest insiders have told me they feel they've been unfairly treated because the FAA was trying to overcome cynicism about its coziness with the industry. But the incident raised memories of a truly horrific incident in the late 1980s when part of the ceiling peeled off an Aloha Airlines plane, and a flight attendant was sucked through the hole to her death.

As they age, planes are subject to stress cracks, which are hard to spot when they first appear--that's why airlines are supposed to subject older models to increasingly rigorous scrutiny.

But with more than 5,000 planes in the US commercial airline fleet the feds can't be there for each inspection, so airline maintenance is largely self-regulated.

That gets me to another crash that falls into the "anti-Sully" camp. Last December 20, a Continental Airlines 737-500 slid off a runway in Denver during takeoff, breaking apart and catching fire. All 115 passengers and crew survived, escaping the burning wreckage via emergency chutes,  but 41 were injured, five of them seriously.  The plane itself was totaled.

Tomorrow morning the NTSB is scheduled to release hundreds of pages of evidence collected in its investigation of that crash: interviews with passengers and the pilots (one of whom was also badly hurt), cockpit voice recorder transcripts, and initial reports from investigations, although the NTSB cautioned that there would be no analysis or probable cause identified at this time.  Strong crosswinds on the runway have been mentioned as a possible culprit. Several lawsuits have been filed alleging pilot error or airline negligence.   Suffice it to say there have been no "60 Minutes" segments or multi-milllion book deals coming out of CO Flight 1404. Stay tuned . . .

Further reading:
* So far, a bad year for air accidents
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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