Sunday, March 23, 2014

Did Malaysia 370 Catch On Fire?

There have been numerous explanations for the possible fate of Malaysia 370 over the past few weeks. Ranging from simple to ridiculous, commentators are trying to come up with a plausible explanation for the disappearance of a wide-body airliner carrying over two hundred people without a trace. Part of the rampant speculation is fueled by two impulses.

One is the propensity for people to believe in conspiracy theories or other dei ex machinis. From time immemorial humans have had a disposition to rely on fantastic explanations for things they don't understand . While most members of modern societies no longer believe in supernatural phenomena or warring gods as the cause of unexplained events, it seems anyone who has ever seen an Oliver Stone or Bourne film is ready to attribute things like missing airliners to malefactors such as government skulduggery or terrorist plots.

It's really just the same thing as ancient superstition except instead of an angry Zeus throwing bolts as an explanation for lightning, an Al Qaeda plot or perhaps the CIA has pulled off the perfect caper of "disappearing" an airliner into thin air. Or if some secretive government agency didn't cause the airliner to disappear, they know who did, and why. And they are keeping mum to keep some even darker secret from emerging.

The second impulse fueling the incredulity surrounding this missing plane is a belief in the primacy of man and man-made machines over our environment. It's easy to see why. We drive to an ultra modern airport, step down a covered and conditioned jet bridge on to a marvel of modern technology which will whisk us over mountain and ocean to a place it took our forbears months or years of dangerous travel to reach. We glance up front to see the dimly glowing displays (and the ruggedly good looking yet coolly competent pilot) and then proceed to our reclining seat with it's own air, light, and perhaps display screen.

The entire experience is designed to telegraph both a sense of safety and normalcy. This is everyday stuff to be flung at near sonic speeds over the ocean in the upper atmosphere. And it is. Until it isn't. No technology is perfect and no endeavor is immune from human foibles and passions. It may be hard to accept, but a simple, and mundane, explanation for the missing airliner is probably the case.

The theory of an on-board fire has been posited as one of these simple explanations. We are skeptical of this explanation for several reasons. The theory of a fire having started in the nose wheel well from a hot nose gear tire is entirely implausible. Tires have been known to catch fire in flight but this has been almost exclusively due to hot brakes which may come in contact with some hydraulic fluid.

Another possible explanation for a fire is the lithium batteries which the Malaysian government at first denied and then confirmed were on board. These batteries are known to cause fires due to thermal runaway and have been the cause of aviation accidents in the past. This is plausible but the cockpit would have ample warning of this occurrence through cargo bay fire detection systems.

The first indication of such a fire would be an alarm in the cockpit. Procedures then would be to extend the gear or to deploy cargo compartment fire suppression systems and to land as soon as conditions permit. One of the first commands given by the captain to the first officer following the donning of oxygen masks would be to notify air traffic control.

Virtually no on-board fire would have the capability of instantly rendering all aircraft radios inoperable as there are multiple electrical busses, backups and batteries to power multiple radios for an emergency call. That no call was made due to an on-board fire is highly unlikely. It is a human impulse to want to tell someone when something is wrong.

It is known that the aircraft remained airborne transmitting data handshakes through it's satcom for many hours after losing communications. This meant that at least some electrical power was available. Any fire which was serious enough to make communications instantly unavailable and yet spare the power to the satcom, which is located in the same electronics bay as the radios would have to be a highly selective fire indeed.

Lastly, we have commented previously about airborne fires. Any airborne fire, if not extinguished will likely bring down an aircraft within 20 minutes or less due to either crew incapacitation or the failure of control cables and the structure of the airframe itself. Again, the 777 was transmitting data handshakes for many hours following it's disappearance from radar. For these reasons we believe the explanation of an on-board fire is implausible.

We also believe it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the aircraft will be found. The ocean is truly a large place and surveillance even in this day of modern radar is still mostly limited to visual searches conducted from aircraft. Most of the large structures of the aircraft have likely sunk at this point leaving only flotsam such as seat cushions left which will be very difficult to spot having likely been dispersed by currents. The weather in the South Indian Ocean will also be challenging as the region is entering winter. Reduced visibility and storms make the search that much more laborious. Whitecap waves are difficult to distinguish from floating debris.

That's not to say that the search will or should be given up. The mystery, though, may prove to be a durable one.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Malaysia 370 Smoking Gun?

The saga of the missing Malaysian airliner is growing somewhat more curious. So far we know that the airliner continued to fly after its transponder and Acars communications were shut off. Now the New York Times reports that because the airliner was shown on primary radar to have made a turn to the west and also to appear to fly directly to several established waypoints that it was likely being navigated by the onboard FMS or flight management system. This also means that someone who was knowledgable of 777 aircraft navigation systems was likely in command of the aircraft.

We also know that the door to the cockpit on the 777 aircraft was armored and reinforced as all cockpit doors were after 9/11 so a forced entry into the cockpit is unlikely. While flight attendents do have a code to open the door, there is a delay for the code to work and the pilots can deny entry if the attempted door opening is unannounced so it seems unlikely that access was gained in that fashion.

All these circumstances are leading investigators to an unsettling possibility that it was one or both of the pilots themselves who commandeered the aircraft, switched off the various communications systems, and then flew the aircraft to who knows where and for what purpose.

Investigators have focused on the captain of the plane, Zaharie Ahmad Shah. Captain Shah is a known supporter of Malay opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who that very day had been sentenced to a five year prison sentence for sodomy (GLAD president, Malaysian chapter, please call your office). Captain Shah had also been photographed recently in a T-shirt which had in large letters: "Democracy is Dead" in an apparent protest against the political situation in Malaysia. He had attended Ibrahim's trial the day of flight 370's departure and was likely upset at the result which he may have believed was rigged.

Of somewhat less interest is 29 yr old copilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid. First Officer Hamid had briefly been in trouble back in 2009 for allowing two young female passengers up onto the flight deck which is strictly against regulations. Our opinion is that in this case the young pilot was likely trying to impress two attractive young ladies and exercised poor judgement. We also imagine that probably having been threatened with termination, the young Hamid subsequently confined his interactions with the ladies to places other than work.

Anything beyond what has already been stated now moves into the realm of conjecture. But being writers of an obscure blog and not bound by the restrictions of responsible journalism, it is a place we will willingly go.

Should the aircraft ever be found, which is increasingly unlikely, we believe it will be found that Captain Shah somehow overpowered or incapacitated his first officer, took control of the aircraft and directed it out over the Indian Ocean. We believe the captain spent some time reflecting about his life and then perhaps purposely ditched the aircraft into the ocean or allowed the fuel to run out.

The irony here is that Captain Shah probably believed that in the unjust conviction of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia had proved itself less than a modern democracy.  And while his rash action may have been intended to swing a spotlight of world opinion onto what he thought was a great injustice, it will likely contribute to the notion that in politically immature countries without judicial safeguards and outlets for minority opinion, political passions will manifest themselves in unorthodox manners.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Malaysia 370 Update

There's an article over at Zero Hedge which makes some interesting points about the missing airliner. One of the ones which we've also been thinking is that depending on a third world banana republic to conduct an investigation of this sort is ridiculous.

What seems most imperative to the Malaysians is to not lose face when the world finds out that their security practices are a joke. We've traveled outside the US since 9/11 on foreign airlines and our impression was that for the rest of the world, security is only something that the Americans or American bound airlines need worry about. After all, why would anyone wish harm to an airliner from a Muslim country travelling to a communist one?

Apparently the Acars unit on the aircraft kept sending data bursts even after someone attempted to silence all emitters on the aircraft to thwart tracking attempts. That the Malay authorities summarily rejected the idea of continuing data transmissions when the data is sent directly to the engine manufacturer in England gives away their game. Denying that the sun rises in the east only works when your audience is a dirt poor and illiterate populace.

This suggests that the plane was hijacked for some reason. If it had been a suicidal pilot, why go to the trouble to take over the aircraft and not just fly it into the ocean at that point? Many times suicidal people have some grievance to air and what better way to make your point than to make sure a large hole or field of floating debris is found?

This leaves open the door for the (small) possibility that the aircraft was hijacked and perhaps landed at some unknown destination. We can only hope that this is the case though hiding a 777 would be exceedingly difficult.

There is also the possibility that some intelligence assets were able to somehow track the airliner but are remaining quiet so as to not reveal sources and methods. This we doubt. If the Americans or Chinese knew the direction or disposition of the plane, it would be easy to come up with a cover story to protect sources and methods. This is moving into tin hat territory if there's any truth to it at all.

We can see now that in the aftermath of this incident, airlines will modify on board systems on transoceanic airliners to not allow the deactivation of at least some rudimentary position reporting. There will likely be calls by the usual crowd of know-nothing reporters, politicians and talking heads to install some sort of capability to remotely control an aircraft.

Besides being unfeasible and costing millions per airplane, a new vulnerability such as this would be wonderful for terrorists and hackers to attempt to exploit through a remote location. No doubt the "we must fix it regardless of how unlikely it is to happen again nor how much it costs" crowd will be making themselves heard.

In the meantime, the search for the missing airliner goes on while the friends and relatives of the missing passengers and crew continue to suffer not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Malaysia 370

A Malaysian Airlines 777-200 went missing over the South China Sea Saturday night. SAR crews have reported finding oil slicks but no flotsam from the missing airliner so far. Of note are reports of two stolen passports used to board the flight. Also noted is a repair to the wing of the aircraft made after a taxi collision back in 2009.

It appears at this early point that the aircraft may have been a casualty of terrorism or a catastrophic airframe failure perhaps stemming from the wingtip repair.

We're skeptical of the wingtip repair being a primary cause unless there was hidden damage in the structure of the wing which went unrepaired. A Japanese Airlines 747 crashed in 1985 due to structural failure from a previous repair to a pressure bulkhead so this is not unprecedented.

The other search avenue will be terrorism. Even if unauthorized people were on the aircraft, all airliners since 9/11 have been outfitted with armored doors which should be impervious to intruders. Had intruders been able to gain access to the cockpit presumably there would have been a struggle with the crew with the possibility of a distress radio call being made.

The other possibility is that a bomb was smuggled onto the aircraft. This would better explain the sudden disappearance of the aircraft with no distress calls but not necessarily the stolen passports unless the bomb was carried on in personal luggage.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Gang Bangers for Jesus as Inflight Entertainment

On a recent Southwest flight from Seattle to Sacramento, this fellow decided that he needed a little extra attention by being belligerent, profane, threatening, and generally unpleasant.

What is amazing is that this behavior started before takeoff:

The brouhaha began nearly the moment the suspect, identified in the documents as Lemar Sheron Rogers, boarded the plane Tuesday morning in Seattle and claimed he had a first-class ticket. He didn't. Nor did any of the 43 passengers. Attendants had to tell Rogers that the Sacramento-bound flight had no first-class seating. And they asked him three times to stow his luggage, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S District court in Portland. "I do what I want," Rogers replied, the documents show.

And continued in flight:

Rogers started shouting at flight attendants that he had an emergency, telling one he wanted three glasses of wine, the records show. When the attendant said he could only have one glass at a time, the man's behavior escalated. "Get the (expletive) out of my face," he sneered. Then he said, "Jesus loves you," according to documents. Soon, the suspect was swearing at passengers, flashing gang signs and demanding to speak with the pilot, the documents say. A flight attendant became so frightened that she asked another passenger to help her restrain Rogers if he became violent, according to court records. Another attendant boiled a pot of water to use against the suspect if he tried to approach the flight deck, the records show.

The aircraft eventually diverted into Portland where the gentleman was taken into custody and charged with "interfering with flight crew". And of course he has already claimed that he was singled out for poor treatment because of his race. While it appears as if multiple federal felony counts could have been charged, only one relatively minor charge was made. The outcome of this one will be interesting.

Dealing with disruptive passengers is a minefield that most pilots would rather avoid but sometimes can't. In the days since 9/11 we've all been told that if we "See something, say something" in a Stasi-like command that seems unworthy of a supposedly free people. And calling out "suspicious" behavior, whatever that means, can get one sued, especially if the person being called out is a member of a protected class.

There might have been a time in the past when using an appeal to authority by having a pilot go back to the cabin to settle a matter might have been useful. Pilots are now under strict orders to never leave the cockpit, especially when there's a disruption as it might be a ruse to get the cockpit door open.

Even before departure a pilot venturing back to quell a disturbance can just as easily inflame emotions as to ease them. The pilot represents an authority figure and the customer's complaint with a ticket agent or other problem might well get unloaded onto an unsuspecting pilot who is in no way able to address the underlying issue. Plus, if someone is going to take a swing, it'll likely be at the pilot.

So in general it always seems best to leave sticky customer service issues to the professionals...flight attendants or customer service reps if still at the gate.

But on occasion the pilot's hand may be forced. There are a number of triggers which cannot be overlooked by aircrew. The most common one is alcohol. Guidelines from the FAA state that a passenger is unsuitable for boarding if they "appear to be intoxicated".

This throws a fairly wide net as it seems most airline passengers today are in some state of impairment. Obviously, having had a few cocktails while waiting for a delayed flight won't matter, but what will is if some other behavior coupled with the smell of booze brings undue attention from the crew or airport staff. Another rule of thumb is that any problem on the ground will likely be worse in the air where the flight attendants have fewer resources dealing with belligerence.

What the crew will be trying to do is to determine if there will be trouble later on such as happened on this flight. Even though Mr. Rogers may be facing federal charges, the crew of that aircraft could well come under scrutiny from the feds if they choose to pursue the issue.

Testimony will be taken from the TSA agents at the security checkpoint, the ticket agents, boarding agents, other passengers and crew members as to Mr. Rogers' apparent intoxication. If it is found that the gentleman was exhibiting signs of intoxication before departure, the crew could be potentially sanctioned by the FAA for allowing the customer onto the aircraft.

We as pilots occasionally play a little cat and mouse game with our ground agents. An agent may come on and say something like "we have a gentleman who's had a few cocktails and made a scene, but we've talked to him and think he's OK now". Being in the customer service business we all want to accommodate our customers and there was a time when that customer would be allowed to travel, but that is much less likely to happen today. At least on my airplane. There's very little upside and quite a bit of downside in this situation for the crew, especially in today's retributive atmosphere of very aggressive federal regulation.

My only other personal trigger is if I or my crew are cursed at. There are no specific guidelines for this but the logic behind it is if so little respect is shown to the crew on the ground, even less will be shown in the air where a problem might arise.

Luckily I've only had one incidence of this in 20 plus years of flying. On this particular incident a customer got crosswise with a flight attendant during boarding. This particular flight attendant, a very special snowflake and a generally worthless employee, was a fully empowered union member and refused to do an iota more effort than was required. Apparently a female customer who couldn't reach the overhead bin to stow her bag asked the flight attendant (who's a big guy) for assistance which was summarily refused.

Another male customer assisted the woman and apparently made a comment to the flight attendant which immediately put our snowflake into shriek mode, calling for the male passenger to be removed. I became aware of the kerfuffle as everyone was noisily proceeding forward when at that point the customer let loose a tirade of profanity. Until that moment, I would have been prepared to override the snowflake and let the customer travel but he tied my hands. Don't cuss at the crew!

An unfortunate byproduct of our hyper sensitized society is that everyone is on edge when getting on an airplane. Given a little bit of power, flight attendants become miniature commissars threatening to toss anyone off the flight who might look at them askance. In an equal but opposite reaction, customers who perceive the slightest disrespect, are just as quick to pull whichever grievance card they may happen to carry and cry about some dreadful -ism which is being unfairly applied.

It is of little wonder that the short-haul market for flying, which competes directly with the automobile, is collapsing.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Single pilot?

The text is hard to read but it displays a list of jobs and the probability that there will be losses in those fields due to automation.

This is taken from and in depth study from Oxford entitled the Future of Employment.

FWIW, aviation is showing a 55% probability of job loss from automation. This will occur due to automated "telepresence" systems reducing demand and eventually one person cockpits.

Automation is going to transform our economy in an even greater way than ever before...and the rewards will go to knowledge workers who can't easily be replaced by the technicians who fix the machines. (Trades anyone?)

Calls for minimum wage hikes will only accelerate this trend.

Here's more:

Commercial real estate and retail may not be great buys...

Thursday, March 06, 2014

ALPA and the Pilot Shortage

The Airline Pilots Association, a union representing the pilots of most of the largest airlines save Southwest, recently weighed in with a press release on the pilot shortage. ALPA was commenting specifically on a recent GAO report concerning pilot staffing. 

Unsurprisingly, ALPA's take is that there are plenty of pilots available but the problem is one of low wages:

To put it very simply, currently there is no shortage of qualified pilots. There is, however, a shortage of qualified pilots willing to fly for substandard wages and inadequate benefits. 

In a sense they're right but they are cleverly sidestepping the issue. The people who write these releases at ALPA are not stupid people but they are counting that their readers are. At least as far as Economics 101 is concerned. Specifically, the coming pilot shortage, while somewhat demographically driven, has been exacerbated and its arrival has been accelerated by recently adopted policies which ALPA itself championed in Congress. Returning to the scene of the crime, ALPA lamely cries no one here but us chickens!

ALPA was instrumental in getting the new minimum hours and rest rules recently enacted which are being credited with making the pilot shortage worse. ALPA of course denies this:

Although some within the airline industry blame the legislation and resulting FAA airline pilot
qualifications and training rules for a pilot shortage, the airline industry actually helped craft those rules and supported their passage. We believe that they did so, just as ALPA did, because of a genuine concern for aviation safety. Several accidents over a number of years, arguably the most troubling and recent of which was the Colgan Airways accident in Buffalo, NY in 2009, caused a justifiable groundswell of support for the new and safer increase in the minimum qualifications for pilots to be hired at our airlines, the scope of which goes well beyond the number of hours that a first officer must have in order to enter the Part 121 industry.

Sorry. This is just laughable. As we've pointed out before,  neither of the so-called fixes recently enacted by Congress in response to the Colgan 3407 accident which are currently upending the industry and worsening the pilot shortage, would have changed anything. Both of the pilots on that flight had the minimum number of hours and required rest under the new rules. What ALPA is now doing is using a crisis they helped manufacture to call for higher wages.

The American commercial transport system has been and continues to be simply the safest in the world. This latest round of rulemaking just makes it more expensive and less economically viable.

The joke however, is on ALPA. Wages will of course rise either with or without ALPA's agitation. This is simple supply and demand Econ 101. What may also likely happen is that some of the entry level jobs which are where the pilot shortage is manifesting itself will simply disappear. If operating margins for mainline airlines are thin, the margins at the commuter or regional airlines are even thinner. These airlines will simply reduce or cease operations to their least profitable locations resulting in fewer jobs. It's amazing how this capitalism thing works.

ALPA next makes an emotional appeal to fairness:

There is a quantifiable shortage of pay and benefits for pilots in the regional airline industry, not a shortage of pilots who are capable and certified to fly the airlines’ equipment. According to ALPA’s figures, which vary from GAO’s just slightly, the average starting salary for new first officers in the regional airline industry is only $22,400, which compares very poorly with the starting salaries of other fields for which university aviation program graduates are qualified to enter, which include: test engineer ($52,500); operations manager ($55,000); and, second lieutenant in the Air Force, the entry level for most military pilots ($53,616 in salary and allowances). It is worth noting that the average starting salary for elementary school teachers ($35,529)—which is widely believed to be an underpaid profession—is substantially more than that of regional airline first officers. 

Well they are a union we suppose, and appealing to emotion does pay dividends (See Party, Democrat) with the low information products of most American public schools. But that still doesn't make it anywhere near a valid argument. The reason a first time new-hire pilot would agree to a job paying just $22K is because he wants to. For a new-hire regional pilot, his compensation is not just money: it's also flight hours.

Back to Econ 101 (sigh).

Unlike all the other professions listed which have higher starting salaries, the airline piloting profession can top out at pay of over $200k with a three day work week. It's a nice gig even though it will probably take about thirty years with a major airline to get there. And to get a job at a major airline you need flight hours. Lots of them. The only place to get them is either by working for a regional airline or in the military. The regional airlines know that most of the pilots working there are simply gaining flight time so they can move on to a major airline. For this reason they pay low wages. They don't have to pay higher wages to attract pilots, so they don't. The rest of the compensation is flight hours.

This is analogous to the reason medical residents or partner track lawyers endure harsh hours for low pay. It's a condition of entry into a well paying career field. You'll also notice that very few former military pilots are flying for the regional airlines. That's because they already have the requisite number of hours to apply for a major airline job.

Now if you look at starting salaries of most major airlines, you'll find numbers in the $40-50K range. United Airlines just recently nearly doubled their starting salary. Why? Because they know there will be a great demand for qualified pilots coming out of the regionals as replacements for retiring baby boomers. See, this whole economics thing really does work!

So what is the real reason for the pilot shortage? We believe there's a multiplicity of reasons:

  • For starters, it is really expensive to learn how to fly. At perhaps $60K just to get the basic ratings for a job, the new government requirements may just be the additional straw to break the camel's back. 
  • There are also opportunity costs. If someone is contemplating spending that kind of money on school, many other careers promise a faster payback. It takes a really long time to reach the top rungs of a flying career where the money is. 
  • Along the way there is no shortage of career disruption. We know plenty of pilots with closets full of uniforms from bankrupt carriers where they were laid off. 9/11 put many thousands of pilots on the street for literally years.
  • Demographics. A huge bulge in the manpower snake, the Viet Nam era baby boomers, are getting ready to retire in huge numbers. They will need to be replaced.
  • Overseas airlines. Most countries do not have a robust general aviation sector, regional airlines or military "farm leagues" to draw on for pilots as does the US. This is especially true of places like China and India who must use expat Americans to staff their cockpits. This demand is growing fast.
  • The military is doing a much better job hanging onto its pilots. The Air Force Academy can't even fill all it's available pilot training slots partly due to a required 10 year commitment for training.
  • Finally, there's no guarantee the payback will be there after a career spent chasing the gold ring. The piloting career is changing and is at risk to have it's very nature changed by automation.
That said, if you've got the scratch, and the fortitude, now is a really good time to get into the career field.

Some Background

There was certainly a time in this country when labor unions served a valuable and needed service, that of labor advocate. Workplaces were often dangerous and unhealthy places and should a worker become injured on the job, he would be summarily fired with no recourse or income. Unions provided support for injured or disabled workers and advocated to make workplaces safer, in addition to their traditional role of agitating for higher wages through strikes and collective bargaining.

The reason that private sector labor unions are in decline is not because these needs have diminished, it is because these functions of unions have been largely supplanted by government. Workplace safety, disability insurance, healthcare, pensions, and job discrimination are all functions now handled by the government through a myriad of agencies such as OSHA, NLRB and PBGC to name just three. This loss of writ has left unions with their remaining function of negotiating wages through collective bargaining.

Large monolithic manufacturers were ideal for union organization as only several contracts across a few corporations could set a standard wage which would cover many thousands of workers. Workers in smaller but similar corporations could use the higher wages of the larger corporations to agitate for "industry standard" wages or threaten walkouts.

This worked well in the post-war era as there was essentially no competition for American manufacturing. As offshoring and foreign competition increased however, inefficiencies caused by union forced work rules and overreach took their toll. Many old line businesses found themselves fighting for survival with nimbler overseas or upstart non-union competitors.

Even as workplaces became ever safer, unions recognized that invoking safety was still a very useful tactic for improving work conditions. This continues today. While care must be taken to not throw out the baby of real safety improvement with the bathwater of agitation for easier work rules, this latest round of ALPA inspired rule-making does little for actual safety while further handicapping an already low margin business.

And we say this as a union pilot who operates under this system.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Progress...of a Sort

The FAA, if not the rest of the airline industry, is grudgingly coming to the conclusion that having pilots just sitting in a cockpit watching a machine do the flying is not the best possible deployment of automation technology. Humans have many strengths, but being a monitor of automated machines is not one of them. Humans, when not directly engaged in a task will quickly become disengaged and complacent, even when their own welfare or lives are on the line.

In the news today, the FAA has announced that it will be seeking to mandate changes to some of Boeing's 737 model aircraft in the wake of a 2009 (better late than never?) crash of a Turkish Airlines 737. From the WSJ (subscription needed):

Such problems with low airspeed—often prompted by confusion about the status of automated throttles—have been identified as major factors in some of the most infamous airliner crashes in recent years. They include last summer's crash of an Asiana Airlines  Boeing 777 into a sea wall while trying to land at San Francisco International Airport. The pilots failed to notice their approach speed dropping.

The FAA acknowledges that should the automation fail, the aircraft is likely at risk:

In its proposal, the FAA said "loss of automatic speed control" can result "in loss of control of the airplane." The agency is proposing a three-year compliance deadline, once the directive becomes final. 

We are not familiar with the exact details of the proposed fix, but it likely has to pertain to the radio altimeter which erroneously indicated a landing altitude while the aircraft was still on approach. The erroneous indication caused the autothrottle system to pull the throttles to idle in anticipation of landing but the crew did not adequately respond nor disengage the system. The airspeed subsequently decayed and efforts to add power came too late to prevent a stall and short landing.

The important point here is that the crew eventually recognized the failure but not in enough time to save the approach (or their lives). This crew was flying a fully automatic approach into very low visibility conditions and most likely were concentrating on reaching the decision altitude where they would have to choose to either land or go around. Believing that the auto throttles "had their back" concerning airspeed control, they dropped the airspeed out of their crosscheck.

This is the pernicious nature of automation. It is designed to be "automatic", meaning little or no human input is needed. And as it rarely if ever fails, humans being human, will come to rely on it. Yet should it fail, the humans ultimately in charge are not well suited to instantly take over in a critical phase of flight to recover the aircraft as happened here. As former flight instructors, we always found it easier to fly an approach ourselves than to monitor one flown by a student and to then take and recover the aircraft should the student go off course. Automation is like the perfect student except it gives no warning of failure. At least students were known to be consistently weak or good.

So while the FAA and industry are recognizing that there are significant drawbacks in over-reliance on automation, this mandate from the FAA serves to in effect fix a potential automation defect, not a reassessment of the underlying philosophy. We expect that the next decade will consist of a type of "whack-a-mole" wherein defects in automation will make themselves apparent through various incidents and accidents, and efforts will continue to build a better mousetrap. At some point automatic flight systems will become robust enough to obviate the "stick and rudder" skill set in the people who will man tomorrow's cockpits, but we have a way to go yet.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Why Is That Baby Crying?

One of the hazards of modern air travel is the infant. Along with the toddler, the infant presents a very real and present danger to one's survival on a modern airliner. Being anywhere within audible distance of either of these two noise emitters can turn any normally tedious exercise in being crammed into a 28 inch pitch coach seat into a Chinese water torture-like experience. Luckily, there are measures that can be taken to mitigate this common assault on your sanity.

Flying first class is a proven strategy to avoid very young flyers but this has its own drawback of being a little spendy. And of course there can be upscale flyers who might bring junior along with them to also fly in first class defeating the technique entirely. In fact since the well heeled typically don't discipline their children at all, a toddler in first class will be particularly insufferable. As little Jared kicks your $1500 seat for hours on end you might hear mom say "stop kicking that nice man's seat" perhaps once during the flight. And if kicking your seat occupies Jared's attention so mommy can enjoy her cabernet, well then that's it. And don't even think about asking a flight attendant to intervene as they'd rather break up a wild dingo fight than counsel a mother on child rearing techniques.

Another good toddler or infant mitigation strategy is the use of noise cancelling headphones. Modern headphones are quite good at removing almost all ambient cabin sound to include screaming infants. This is especially true if one is also listening to an iPod recording of death metal or klezmer music. Just remember to carry enough batteries with you to keep your electronic defenses powered up for the duration of the flight. The noise cancelling headset will not help though in the case of toddler seat kick or that of an infant offering you a taste of a soggy animal cracker over her mother's shoulder. For that you need to practice a pre-emptive strategy of defensive seat selection.

For many airlines, seat selection is made when booking the flight on the internet. If the flight isn't very full and you have the available seating chart, selecting a seat in front of a vacant row might mean you won't have anyone directly behind you though honestly, airlines are so full these days that this isn't very realistic. In this case, one must be proactive and immediately request to be reseated should a toddler wind up behind you. Claiming something like a needed proximity to the lav due to irritable bowel syndrome could be a viable game plan. Flight attendants generally recoil at any possibility of bodily fluid release so that helps.

If you find yourself flying on an airline that doesn't assign seats such as Southwest (our favorite airline), be sure to choose a row of seats either very near the front or the overwing where children are prohibited if any are available. Family boarding is generally after the first group and travelling families will be looking for an unoccupied row. At that stage of boarding, this will be just behind the over wing exit. Avoid this area. If you must sit in this area, choose a row which already has someone in the row just behind. It also helps to choose a row with at least one other person already seated thereby foreclosing the possibility of a single mom with infant joining you.

Should the worst happen and a toddler takes up residence behind you, do not panic. Without making eye contact with the family, simply get up and move to a different seat expeditiously. You need not even move your bag from the overhead if you've placed it there. Move aft and grab a middle seat if you must knowing that a middle seat sans kicking will always trump screaming and/or kicking or projectile animal crackers.

Oh by the way, the reason babies tend to cry on descent? They can't clear their ears as the cabin pressure increases from about 8000 ft pressure altitude while at cruise down to airport elevation. Air is trying to enter into their inner ears and sinuses but can't easily do so without help. This causes pain, but the crying actually helps their ears clear. The reason it mostly happens on descent and not during climb is because air escapes easily from ears and sinuses on climb with little help needed. It's the same reason flying with a cold may hurt. Now you know.

Lastly, if you happen to be the person travelling with an infant or toddler we have but one word of advice: Benadryl. They sleep and are clear. Win-win.

Happy Travels!