Airline Safety and Impending Accidents

The most recent incident – as of this writing – on board a Boeing 737 took place on April 1, 2011. Southwest Flight 812 was climbing away from Phoenix en route to Sacramento when passengers heard a loud bang, and saw one of the ceiling tiles fall to the floor; they looked up to find a 6 ft. hole in the upper fuselage of the jet. Another incident, almost identical in nature, had happened two years prior.[1] Oxygen masks were deployed and the planes landed safely in both cases, but they indicate a pattern of age-related incidents aboard the 737. Comparison between this plane and another aviation icon, this one from the Soviet Union, helps explain this pattern, and also raises grim implications about the safety of air travel here in the United States.

 

The Boeing 737’s recent spate of trouble, including both accidents and close-calls, invites comparison with another iconic airliner developed around the same time period that it has since outlasted. Soviet state airline Aeroflot initially flew the Tupolev Tu-154 in February 1972, four years after the 737’s first commercial flight; the two planes both went on to become the standard for civilian transport in their respective hemispheres.[2] Tupolev built the Tu-154 through the Soviet Union’s collapse in the late eighties, at which time the Tu-154 served “…over a sixth of the earth’s landmasses…”[3] The Boeing, similarly, now represents more than one fourth of all the commercial jets worldwide with over 4,500 currently serving in more than 115 countries.[4] Tu-154 production continued until 2006; the jet remains a primary vehicle on Russian domestic routes and with carriers in Africa, China, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East to the present day.[5] Many experts also compare the Tu-154 and the Boeing 737 for less fortunate reasons, such as their similar history of being associated with a great many accidents.[6]

 

Comparison between the aircraft’s histories extends beyond their similar accident patterns, to the age and condition of the jets on which these accidents occur. Initially designed with a service life of 18,000 takeoffs and landings (cycles), upgrades during the Tu-154’s production gave it a top expected service life of 36,000 cycles.[7] Much of the fleet has neared or surpassed that threshold in recent years, which has led to a rise in fatal crashes. Following a Tu-154 crash on December 4, 2010, The Moscow News reported that many of operator Dagestan Airlines’ old Soviet fleet “’…have flown many hours and should be replaced…’”.[8] Another Tu-154 that crashed en route to Moscow on January 1, 2011 had entered service in 1983, changing carriers three times before its accident as Kogalymavia Airlines Flight 348.[9] Iran banned the Tu-154 in February 2011, due to its high crash rate in that country.[10] Much like its Russian counterpart, the majority of recent 737 crashes have involved aircraft with over 36,000 cycles; Merpati Nusantra Airlines Flight 836 crashed on April 13, 2010 after 38,485 cycles and twenty years in service.[11] When Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 crashed on March 7, 2007, the 737 had logged 37,328 cycles since 1992 and served three carriers before being sold to Garuda Indonesia.[12]

 

The majority of accidents for both aircraft not only involved high-cycle specimens, but smaller third-world operators whose lack of resources and oversight led to safety hazards. Kyrgyzstan airline Itek Air, whose 737 crashed in August 2008 after 23 years of service, is listed as banned for safety concerns by the European Union.[13] The previously-mentioned Dagestan airlines came under fire following its accident, with passengers referring to Dagestan’s Tu-154 fleet as deathtraps.[14] A government audit in the wake of the Garuda Indonesia crash found not one of that country’s domestic carriers in compliance with airline safety regulations.[15] The combination of aged planes and poor safety regulation has proven disastrous for users of either aircraft, and both factors have now become prevalent on a far greater scale in the case of the 737.

 

The recent incidents aboard Southwest Airlines flights have involved age-related problems aboard heavily-used planes, much like the large and growing number of overseas accidents. The recent accident aboard Flight 812 resulted from age and stress cracking on the fifteen year old jet.[16] The 2009 emergency landing of Southwest Flight 2294, with fuselage cracking that also led to a hole, involved an aircraft of similar age with over 50,000 cycles.[17] This most recent emergency prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to call for inspections of all 737s over 30,000 cycles; Southwest Airlines is the biggest operator of such aircraft in the United States, and found five planes with fatigue-related fuselage cracks similar to those that caused the recent in-flight incidents.[18] More and more aircraft will inevitably pass the 30,000 cycle mark as Southwest, like other American carriers, fights rising costs by upgrading and maintaining its existing aircraft rather than purchasing new ones, and the nation’s civilian fleet gets collectively older. An operator could theoretically extend an aircraft’s service life indefinitely, if it were to diligently follow every maintenance procedure and replace every worn or aged part; experience has shown, however, that such care is economically unfeasible if physically impossible.

 

Established protocol in the wake of an aircraft failure is that the requisite investigation leads to one or more probable causes. In America, the FAA then issues an Airworthiness Directive (AD) that requires owners of the involved model to inspect their planes for said cause and fix or replace the relevant part. The FAA enforces these directives by means of inspections – both planned and surprise – at repair facilities; while this is evidently less than foolproof even within the United States, the task becomes far more complicated when the repair facility in question is overseas. Southwest Airlines, like numerous other American domestic carriers, has begun maintaining its 737 fleet through Aeroman, an El Salvador-based MRO (maintenance, operations, and repair) company in turn owned by the Canadian EOS group.[19] The firm boasts the FAA’s “Corporate Diamond Certificate of Excellence” according to its website, as well as accreditations by the aviation authorities of El Salvador, the European Union, Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.[20] In practice, the Department of Transportation admits that the FAA has difficulty tracking the location, nature, and even number of overseas MROs, and at least one incident involving a 737 was traced to a part that Aeroman mechanics had incorrectly installed.[21] Aeroman and other overseas shops, even the ones that the FAA does visit, do not perform background checks or drug tests on their employees, who make around $4,500 per year as opposed an average $52,000 for American mechanics.[22] By exploiting their local cost advantages and relative freedom from FAA scrutiny, Aeroman and its competitors offer an alternative that American carriers, facing rising operating costs and an obligation to their respective bottom lines, cannot refuse. The inherent consequence of this comes in the growing number of known age-related problems that will inevitably go uncorrected. Since March 2007, the FAA has issued over thirty Airworthiness Directives specifically pertaining to age-related problems onboard the 737; many involving critical components on aircraft all the way through the more recent Next Generation models.[23]

 

The differences between the 737 and the Tu-154 are also useful when comparing the former plane’s future to the latter plane’s demise. The difference in production scale between the two aircraft means that despite seemingly comparable numbers of accidents, the Tupolev airliner statistically has an accident every 431,200 flights, while the more prolific 737 has a fatal accident once every 2.68 million.[24] Whereas large scale production has ended for the Tu-154 and the remaining fleet is slowly being phased out, the 737 boasts almost 2,200 new units on order or in production.[25] This continued production on Boeing’s part means that the aircraft will remain in mainstream commercial service for the foreseeable future, which in turn means its operators’ maintenance systems – such as they are – can remain in place, and the older jets can blend inconspicuously with the newer ones. The mainstream discontinuation of the Tu-154, by contrast, forced many of its users to modernize their fleets.  Aeroflot, the Tu-154’s former primary operator, now boasts that with that plane’s retirement its fleet is one of the world’s newest and most modern, with “…its backbone formed by modern Airbus A320-family, A330 and Boeing 767 airliners.”[26] In 2008 Iran, the same nation that would later ban the Tu-154, signed a deal with Russia to purchase 100 of that plane’s successor, the Tupolev Tu-214.[27] Such modernization only came about due to a widespread, tragic wave of accidents that generated backlash against the Tu-154 and forced it out of service. The 737, following the same arc, seems poised on the edge of a similar wave of accidents. The latter case, however, will be on a much larger scale and take place within this hemisphere rather than across the globe.

 

Joseph Powers Bowman, Los Angeles, email [email protected]  


[1] Wikipedia Contributors, “Southwest Airlines Flight 812,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southwest_Airlines_Flight_812 (accessed May 09, 2011).

[2] Wikipedia Contributors, “Tupolev Tu-154,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupolev_Tu-154 (accessed April 05, 2011).

[3] Wikipedia, “Tupolev Tu-154”.

[4] Wikipedia Contributors, “Boeing 737,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_737 (accessed April 05, 2011).

[5] Susanna Ray and Maria Ermakova, “Tupolev Plane in Iran Crash Trails 737 Safety Record (Update 1)” Bloomberg, July 16 2009 (accessed April 05, 2011), http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=afwX0a3ATjSM.

[6] Fred Weir, “Polish President Plane Crash: Why So Many Tu-154 Crashes,” Christian Science Monitor, April 11 2010 (accessed March 29 2011), http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2010/0411/Polish-president-plane-crash-Why-so-many-Tu-154-crashes.

[7] Wikipedia, “Tupolev Tu-154”.

[8] Tom Washington, Oleg Nikishenkov, and Anna Sulimina, “Airline Under Fire in Tu-154 Crash,” the Moscow News, December 06 2010 (accessed April 06 2011), http://www.themoscownews.com/russia/20101206/188259480.html.

[9] Wikipedia Contributors, “Kogalymavia Flight 348,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kogalymavia_Flight_348 (accessed April 05, 2011).

[10] Wikipedia, “Tupolev Tu-154”.

[11] Wikipedia Contributors, “Merpati Nusantra Airlines Flight 836,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merpati_Nusantara_Airlines_Flight_836 (accessed April 20, 2011).

[12] Wikipedia Contributors, “Garuda Indonesia Flight 200,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garuda_Indonesia_Flight_200 (accessed April 05, 2011).

[13] Wikipedia Contributors, “Iran Aseman Flight 6895,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Aseman_Airlines_Flight_6895 (accessed 25 April 2010).

[14] The Moscow News, December 06 2010.

[15] “Indonesia Clears Major Airlines,” Al Jazeera English, last modified June 16, 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Aseman_Airlines_Flight_6895.

[16] “Accident Description,” Aviation Safety Network, last modified April 17, 2011, http://aviation-safety.net/satabase/record.php?id=20110401-0.

[17] Eric Torbenson, “’Fatigue’ Crack Blamed for Hole on Southwest Jet in 2009,” The Dallas Morning News, August 19 2010. accessed April 05 2011.

[18] Bob Christie and Joan Lowy, “FAA to Require New Safety Inspections on 737s,” msnbc.com, accessed April 05 2011, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42402550.

[19] “Central America: An Emerging Market” – Lee Ann Tegtmeier, 05 April 2011. (http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_generic.jsp?channel=om&id=news/om/2011/04/01/OM_04_01_2011_p33-297952.xml)

[20] “Certifications” Aeroman website, accessed 07 May 2011, http://www.elsalvadorpymes.com/en-company.jsp?idCat=2.

[21] Daniel Zwerldling, “To Cut Costs, Airlines Send Repairs Abroad,” NPR, October 19 2009, (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113877784&ps=rs).

[22] Geri Smith, “Flying In for a Tune-Up Overseas”, April 21 2008. BusinessWeek. (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_16/b4080026210713.htm?chan=magazine+channel_news).

[23] “Boeing 737 Airworthiness Directives” The Boeing 737 Technical Site, accessed May 08 2011, http://www.b737.org.uk/ads.htm.

[24] Susanna Ray, July 16 2009.

[25] Wikipedia, “Boeing 737”.

[26] “Company Profile” Aeroflot, accessed 06 May 2011 (http://www.aeroflot.ru/cms/en/about/company_profile).

[27] Susanna Ray, July 16 2009.

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