Thursday, April 7, 2011

What Happened to an "Ounce of Prevention ..." ?

Here we go again?

In the late 1990s, Captain David Cronin was aboard United Airlines Flight 811.  He was 59 years old.  It was his second to last scheduled flight, a 747 enroute from Honolulu, Hawaii to Auckland, New Zealand.  Seventeen minutes after takeoff, a forward cargo door blew open.  Nine passengers were ejected and a huge hole was punctured in the side of the airplane.  Two of the airplane’s four engines failed.  Captain Cronin should have descended the airplane, reduced speed, and dropped the landing gear, according to emergency operating procedures.  But, he did not follow procedure.  Drawing on 38 years of experience, Captain Cronin feared that in its circumstance Flight 811 would lose too much altitude if emergency operating procedures were followed.  He was right.  He manually piloted the crippled jumbo jet to a successful (albeit faster than normal) landing.  That all but nine of the 345 passengers survived the emergency was amazing.  (See In re Air Disaster Near Honolulu, Hawaii on Feb. 24, 1989, 792 F. Supp. 1541 (N.D. Cal. 1990).)


Today, in the news again, are stories of structural problems with commercial airplanes.

Dominating the news cycle is the April 1 emergency diversion landing of a Phoenix-to-Sacramento Southwest Airlines flight to Yuma, Arizona, after the Boeing 737-300 developed a three-foot-wide hole in the top of its fuselage.  The airline has since removed 79 additional aircraft from service, finding that five of those aircraft had cracks in the "lap joints."  Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued an Airworthiness Directive ("AD"), the airplane manufacturer, Boeing, is expected to issue a service bulletin, and the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") is investigating the event:

Not to be lost in this news is the FAA's recent proposal to levy a $550,000 civil penalty against Executive Airlines (a related entity to American Airlines) for flying two twin turboprop airplanes 35 times without completing "required periodic, time-specific inspections of the aileron control systems."  In other words, the airline allegedly went too many hours without a re-inspection of the parts of the airplane designed for turning.

Industry experts generally say that airplanes can fly indefinitely if properly inspected and maintained.  A good example of this is the fact that classic airplanes like the DC-3 or vintage World War II airplanes fly safely today.  Whether the events above are a matter of chance or some defects in inspection and maintenance for which a regulation or legal process is warranted is unknown, however, and that is scant assurance for the flying public.

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