Thursday, June 18, 2009

Big problems with the latest Qantas airbuses

It's getting bad when business passengers refuse to fly on them. I said from the beginning that I would never fly on one. I think my prophecy that they will become a second De Havilland Comet is becoming ever more likely. Reliance on computerization has been problematic enough on earlier airbuses and the computerization on the new planes is bound to be even more complex and hence more bug-susceptible

Disgruntled passengers on the new Qantas A380 luxury superjumbos have started calling it the A3-Lately or the A-180 (as in degrees), because of delays as long as eight hours. And, according to one Qantas insider, premium business passengers are demanding to be on the old Boeing 747, saying there is "absolutely no way" they are travelling on the Airbus A380 because of the unreliable departures.

The A-180 nickname stuck after one plane, bound for Los Angeles last month, came out of the hangar, loaded up with passengers, had technical problems, unloaded and went back to the hangar - a 180-degree turn. According to one business class passenger, that QF 11 flight took off eight hours late. After several attempts to rectify technical problems, the pilot told passengers he was not happy and unloaded them onto another A380 that took off just before 9pm.

A week later, QF 12 from Los Angeles to Sydney was three hours late due to what the pilot told passengers was an electrical fault with the A380 air-conditioning. Another passenger reported an A380 flying to LA earlier last month had a faulty fuel gauge which showed a full tank halfway into the flight.

There appear to be issues with plane layout as well. According to one flight attendant, when Russell Crowe was travelling in first class in the A380 recently, he complained about the noise from people walking up and down a set of stairs next to the first class suites. (The actor did not return a call yesterday.) The A380 is so quiet first class passengers could hear any clatter nearby. A barrier has since been erected to stop business class passengers using the stairs to access first class toilets.

And while pilots who fly the A380 say they are confident in the planes, the Air France A330 crash last month and other recent incidents involving high tech Airbuses have sparked concerns about over-reliance on technology which has essentially "pilot-proofed" aircraft. Around the world, aviation experts and pilots are debating whether planes are becoming too automated for pilots to control in emergencies, in which computers override pilots.

Essentially pilots are flying a computer in the sky. "And sometimes things go wrong with your computer," says the A380 captain Barry Jackson, president of the Australian and International Pilots Association. "It's pretty hard to reset something in the air." But he says he is "confident going to work" on the A380, that the aircraft is safe, and he will be flying one to Singapore on Sunday. He stressed that the A380 is different from the Air France A330, and in particular that the speed sensor system that appears to have been one of the causes of the Air France crash is not the same. But he agreed airbuses "haven't been having a good run lately".

The problem with the A380 fuel gauge was a design problem that Qantas engineers have since developed a maintenance procedure to prevent. "Technically the A380 has had its teething problems," he said yesterday. But he says 747s had similar teething problems when they were introduced by Boeing.

Investigators of the Air France Airbus A330-200 flight 447 from Rio to Paris which disappeared on May 31 with 228 people, have been looking at technological malfunctions, beginning with the plane's speed sensors, combined with stormy weather, as the cause of the crash. The A330 is typical of the fly-by-wire aircraft that use electronic systems to control the plane rather than hydraulic or mechanical devices.

According to The Sunday Times the pilot's instruments were giving "inconsistent" readings of the plane's speed. And an internal Air France report, quoted by the British newspaper, said "the reliability of these [fly-by-wire] aircraft has the consequence of reducing the pilots' appreciation of risk".

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has also been investigating recent incidents caused by computer glitches on high tech planes. There was the Qantas Airbus A330-303 "in-flight upset" on October 7 last year when the plane surged up and down over Western Australia, before pilots were able to wrest control from the computer and bring it down safely. The aircraft, en route from Singapore to Perth, "abruptly pitched nose-down twice while in normal cruise flight". A flight attendant and 11 passengers were seriously injured. The bureau found the autopilot had disconnected after the aircraft's computer systems started receiving "erroneous data" from the so-called air data inertial reference units (ADIRUs). The bureau also reported "other occurrences" involving similar anomalous ADIRU behaviour" in September 2006 and December 2008. "But in neither case was there an in-flight upset."

In March the bureau investigated another computer glitch which led to a tail strike involving a United Arab Emirates Airbus A340-500 during take-off at Melbourne Airport. The investigation found "an incorrect weight had been inadvertently entered into the laptop when completing the take-off performance calculation prior to departure based on a take-off weight that was 100 tonnes below the actual take-off weight of the aircraft". The result was the plane did not produce enough power to take off and although the pilots managed to override the computer and apply maximum thrust, the plane's tail hit the runway.

Then there was the Air New Zealand A320 Airbus that crashed off southern France on November 28 after what French investigators described as a power surge which made it fly sharply upwards, stall and crash as it was landing in Perpignan.

Jackson says the concern is the prospect that, as planes become more automated, financially strapped airlines will devalue pilot skills. Just this January, flight engineers were phased out of Qantas flight decks because their functions had been automated.

After 22 years with Qantas, Jackson says experience in flying light planes or in the air force is superior to simulator training. "Those skills are still needed no matter how automated planes are." Yet cheaper pilots, with fewer "real world" flying hours are replacing experienced pilots around the world, he says. The importance of pilot skill was clear in the emergency landing of a US Airways plane on New York's Hudson River in January. In this high-tech age we can't forget that the most important safety equipment is a well-trained pilot.