Of near misses and wild hyperbole

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The footage is dramatic. An airliner flutters down its final approach, seconds from touchdown, when a widebodied jet laden with hundreds of passengers suddenly pops out of nowhere and crosses the runway. We see the reaction of the startled pilot of the aircraft on final, goosing the throttles and pulling the nose up to avert certain disaster. Indeed, the HD images are so sharp that we can almost see the whites of the pilot’s eyes as he (or she) wrestles the controls, a bead of sweat rolling down their forehead.

“Jet Disaster Averted in Barcelona Near Miss” proclaimed one news site. Even the normally reserved BBC went with “Planes in Barcelona ‘near miss'”.

It’s important to remember that video alone is rarely proof of anything. This footage was shot with a very long lens; the foreshortening effect is significant and will certainly make the aircraft appear much closer to each other than they really were.

AENA, the airport operator and Air Traffic Control provider at Barcelona, has released a statement saying that separation standards were not compromised and that the arriving aircraft, a Boeing 767-300 of Ukrainian airline UTAir, could have landed safely. Moreover, it stated that neither crew had filed a complaint.

The first inference of this statement is that far from blundering on to an active runway, the Argentinean A340 was in fact cleared across by air traffic control. If so, it’s technically incorrect to describe the incident as a runway ‘incursion’ — which would imply an unauthorised entry.

If it seems unusual that an aircraft would be cleared to cross an active runway with landing traffic on final approach, consider that at London Heathrow arrivals are often spaced no more than 2.5 nautical miles (just under three statute miles) apart. Aircraft routinely cross the runway in these gaps — which would put the next arriving aircraft at the very most 750 feet above the ground and sixty seconds from touchdown at the moment the clearance to cross was issued.

Secondly, whilst UTAir have since issued a statement to the effect that the captain of their Boeing 767 decided to go around because of the crossing A340, up until that point the idea that the two events witnessed on the video — the A340 crossing the runway and the B767 going around — were linked was pure speculation. Go-arounds happen every day for a wide range of reasons, and just because two events that appear to be linked are shown on a video, one should be careful to avoid adding two and two and coming up with five.

Even if the B767 captain did go around because of the crossing traffic, that in itself is no indication that anything dangerous or illegal happened, or that separation was eroded beyond the minimum requirements. All it means is that on that particular day and in those particular circumstances, the UTAir captain saw something he or she personally wasn’t happy with and exercised their right to go around.

AENA have announced that they are investigating the incident and with the benefit of the additional data they will have at their disposal — from radar records, ATC tapes and statements from the controllers and aircrews involved — more facts will undoubtedly be uncovered.

But as far as the coverage this video has received in the media is concerned — “near miss jet crash” seems to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. My personal view is that we’ve got some dramatic HD footage which looks great on the TV — but in the absence of any further facts, no real story. Runway crossings happen every day at airports around the world — at the busier ones, like Barcelona, Heathrow or Gatwick, spacing is tight and a few seconds here or there can make all the difference. Go-arounds, too, are commonplace and the safety-first approach in the event of anything unusual cropping up.

The media has a responsibility to report responsibly: headlines like the Mirror’s “Watch dramatic near-miss as two planes almost collide on runway at Barcelona airport” are inaccurate, over-excitable and unhelpful to anybody.

America for a tenner? No, but this isn’t the Ryanair you think you know

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Enigmatic Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary made headlines this week with the announcement that he intends to start offering cheap long-haul flights. Travel to the USA for under a tenner, he says.

Cue a barrage of articles pointing out that the “£10” ticket price would actually be bumped up by Ryanair’s famous ‘extras’ – checked baggage, food and drink, seat selection, check-in fees and, of course, the ever-present (and ever-punitive) Air Passenger Duty.

Yet this is a misunderstanding, not only of O’Leary’s strategy but of the airline industry as a whole. You see, it’s not the first time he’s proposed the idea.

Here’s the thing. Airlines, and long-haul airlines in particular, don’t make any money out of economy passengers. They’re nice extras, financially, but the real money is in business and first. Indeed, it might only take three or four first-class passengers to cover the entire cost of a flight.

O’Leary is smart enough to recognise this, and that’s why his 2007 proposal — of which this latest news is surely just a reminder — is to launch a new, full-service airline. This would not be the current Ryanair business model of high-density, cheap flights packed with economy passengers. No, O’Leary intends to take on the big boys with a premium product.

Sure, there’ll be some cheap seats available, and I don’t doubt that if you’re getting a €10 fare you can expect to pay for everything from hold baggage to a packet of crisps, but O’Leary’s real interest is in cornering the premium market with big seats, flat beds, limousine transfers and luxury in-flight service. His plan is, effectively, to out-BA BA.

Don’t expect this to come under the Ryanair brand, either. For all intents and purposes, this will be an entirely new airline.

Will it work? Well, the first challenge is to get hold of some aircraft. O’Leary has made no secret of his admiration for the 787 Dreamliner – but he wants to go big, and Boeing’s order books are already stacked up. Competition on the North Atlantic is fierce — but if I were a legacy carrier, I’d be keeping my eye on O’Leary’s plans very carefully indeed. This is a man who plays business hardball, and will use aggressive tactics to bully the competition off the routes he wants.

It’s Ryanair, Jack, but not as we know it.

The Last of the First

Biman Bangladesh McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 on approach

Tonight saw the last ever commercial passenger flight of the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10.

More than a thousand enthusiasts from across the globe turned out at Birmingham International Airport this afternoon in the hope of grabbing one last glimpse of a piece of aviation history. Hot on the heels of the Boeing 747, the DC-10 was the second wide-body to enter service and one of the aircraft that made mass-market air travel possible.

The distinctive tri-jet design was built around a requirement to fly long-range routes from airports with shorter runways than the 747 required. With seating for between 250 and 380 passengers, she was slightly less spacious than the Jumbo, but still significantly larger than anything else on the market in 1970.

Her retirement from passenger service (there are still a number of DC-10s operating as freighters) is another nail in the coffin of the golden age of air travel; an era when airlines sold an experience, not just a ticket from one city to another. And even if you weren’t travelling, it was possible to stand on an airport viewing deck and marvel at aircraft of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Today — well, one enthusiast reacted to news of the retirement with the words “another distinctive shape gone — just more boring twins now”.

Looks aren’t everything, of course. There’s lots to be excited about for the future of aviation — the technology on board types such as the latest generation of Airbus offerings — the upcoming A350 XWB, with its adaptive wings and state-of-the-art avionics, makes even the A380 seem old-fashioned. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, troubled by nagging technical issues at the moment, is nonetheless an extraordinary aircraft, a concept different to anything we’ve ever seen before. Only time will tell, though, as to whether in another forty or fifty years’ time we’re hailing the all-composite construction and lightweight Lithium batteries as game-changers or white elephants.

Like today’s Dreamliner, the DC-10 was plagued by problems in its early years. The main issue was with the cargo doors; designed to allow maximum capacity, they opened outwards, rather than inwards. This meant that it was possible to completely fill the cargo compartment — an inward-opening ‘plug’ type door would take up otherwise usable space — but like the Dreamliner’s batteries, this strength would also turn out to be the DC-10’s greatest weakness.

In order to hold the door shut against against the cabin pressure at altitude, strong locks were needed. Yet a design oversight meant that there was no way of telling from the outside whether the door was properly secured. Indeed, it was possible to for the locking lever to be fully depressed without the mechanism being completely secure. It was a small detail, but it would prove deadly.

Problems with the design first came to light when an American Airlines flight barely made an emergency landing after suffering a cargo door blow-out shortly after take-off from Detroit Metro Airport. Accident investigators recommended a series of modifications to resolve the problem — but the regulator refused to issue an Airworthiness Directive that would have made the fix mandatory. As a result, many airlines simply ignored the advice.

It took less than two years for the problem to rear its head again. A Turkish Airlines DC-10 suffered an almost identical failure during departure from Paris. Unlike the American Airlines incident, however, the crew were unable to save the aircraft. All 346 people on board were killed.

This time the authorities acted. The modifications to the cargo door were made mandatory and there was never another major incident related to the DC-10’s outward-opening cargo door.

Other problems involved the aircraft’s slats — devices which extend from the front of the wing to provide extra lift during take-off and landing. In 1979 American Airlines flight 191 crashed after the left engine separated from the wing, rupturing hydraulic lines. Without hydraulic pressure, the slats on the left wing retracted, causing the aircraft to roll over and impact the ground. The fleet was grounded for a month whilst more modifications were carried out. All this unwelcome publicity led some to label the aircraft a ‘death trap’.

Of course, had the Federal Aviation Administration taken action in 1972 following the American cargo door failure, it is likely that the Turkish Airlines crash which gained the DC-10 such notoriety would never have happened. Likewise, the loss of American Airlines flight 191 was later attributed to poor maintenance procedures which damaged the engine mount. Had the correct procedures been carried out, the engine should never have come off in the first place. With a total of 386 DC-10s manufactured, the overall incident rate compares favourably to other types.

There is a certain romance about the jetliners of the sixties and seventies. Noisy, thirsty and uneconomical by today’s standards they may have been, but they literally changed the world. Aircraft like the DC-10 made air travel affordable — they broke down barriers to trade, revolutionised the tourism industry and enabled the global movement of people on a scale never seen before in human history. And they did it with style.

Aircraft like the DC-10, and the men and women who flew her, were the pioneers of air travel. They were the first to fly further, faster, higher — cheaper — than ever before. They paved the way for the computer-fashioned twin-jets of today, and the ability to globe-trot that we all take for granted in the modern world. And that’s why it’s rather sad that the last of this first generation are slowly slipping in to retirement.

“If this magnificent machine was alive, it would be crying tonight”

Concorde in flight

Tomorrow, October 24th, will mark the tenth anniversary of Concorde’s last ever commercial flight, the BA002 service from New York to London Heathrow.

She was the aircraft that everybody recognised. The world’s most successful supersonic airliner (she was neither the first nor the only — the Tupolev Tu-144 flew two months before the first Concorde), she was one of the few links back to aviation’s golden era.

Growing up in north-east London, Concorde was an occasional, if infrequent, sight; mainly operating transatlantic services, she tended to arrive and depart to the south and west of the city. But I can very clearly remember attending an athletics competition at Mile End Stadium as a ten-year-old St John’s Ambulance cadet. Standing on the grass in the centre of the running track, a pink summer dusk approaching, the distinctive sound of four Olympus turbojets split the air. I looked up, and there she was; the unmistakeable arrow-like profile, heeled over in a turn, curving towards the City and her final approach to Heathrow.

It was an awesome, spine-tingling, inspiring sight. It is, I think, the closest thing I can imagine to the stories of children in wartime who could identify an aircraft overhead simply by its engine note.

There is no doubt that the Concorde concept faced an uphill struggle almost from the moment of its inception. The rising cost of fuel, coupled with the efficiency of new wide-bodied aircraft like the Boeing 747 — almost three times more economical in terms of passenger miles per gallon — and public concerns over the environmental and noise impact of supersonic flight, prevented the type from ever gaining widespread airline use. In fact, you could say that Concorde’s biggest commercial downfall was that she was simply too fast. As any business owner will tell you, in a commercial world the answer to the question ‘how much do we need?’ is ‘just enough’. For the average airline passenger, seven hours from London to New York was — and remains — ‘fast enough’, and the extra cost involved in getting there any faster outweighed, for most, the benefits.

By the time of her retirement, she was an anachronism — noisy, thirsty, a tiny cramped cabin, the only aircraft in British Airways’ fleet that still carried a Flight Engineer, and even the world’s fastest airliner was too slow to compete with the speed of e-mail and video conferencing. But those lucky enough to fly on her recall the magical experience of the trip. The pilots who flew her speak consistently of how well she handled and the thrill of engaging the reheats at the start of the take-off roll.

She was an incredible piece of machinery, an engineering miracle. The first fly-by-wire aircraft, built in an age before modern computers and electronics. An aircraft which grew by almost a foot in the cruise as her skin became hot enough to boil water. An aircraft capable of transporting a hundred people more than three thousand miles, on the edge of space at twice the speed of sound.

On her last departure from London Heathrow, ten years ago, with thousands of spectators crammed in to a specially-erected grandstand, her commander, Captain Adrian Thompson, gave an emotional farewell.

“I would like to thank you all, ATC, all the fans at the end of the runway on their airband radios, and to some of the media who have supported this aeroplane over the years, I would like to dedicate this last 001 take-off. But I can say that if this magnificent machine was alive it would be crying tonight.”

A wonderful choice of words, and a fitting end to the career of an aircraft the like of which we are unlikely ever to see again.