Tag Archives: airline industry

9/11: One Family’s Brave Effort to Expose Airline Culpability

An article in Saturday’s  New York Times describes how all the families suffering losses on 9/11 have now taken settlements, receiving some $7 billion from the government and $500 million in private suits–all the families, that is, save one.

The one holdout is the family of Mark Bavis, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to strike the World Trade Center. Ever since the family filed suit in 2002, it has spurned efforts to negotiate, despite settlement attempts and a court mediation session.

They recognize that they could have obtained a quicker resolution by settling; they say the case is not about money. They say they want to prove in a public courtroom what they and their lawyers believe was a case of gross negligence by United and other defendants that allowed the hijackers to board Flight 175 and the attacks to occur.

The Bavis family is seeking damages directly from the airlines. Their suit represents the last real possibility for an independent inquiry into the culpability of these private carriers–not to mention the “regulators” at the Federal Aviation Administration, who appeared intent on serving the airlines rather than the public. It’s a long shot perhaps, but the Bavis suit might achieve some of what the expensive, timid, and inconclusive 9/11 Commission Report could not. 

As the Times article points out, they have identified several areas in which the airlines’ negligence contributed to the events of 9/11 (emphasis added):

Donald A. Migliori, a lawyer with Motley Rice, the firm that represents the Bavises and was involved in more than 50 other cases, said the firm’s investigation had focused on failures at airport security checkpoints, flawed cockpit doors, inadequate training and how the industry ignored confidential government warnings about terrorist threats.“The security breaches that day,” he said, “were absolutely known to these defendants before 9/11, and should have been addressed before this could happen.”

My 2005 book, The 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11, also explores these same areas, and sets out in detail the chain of evidence that demonstrates airline and government negligence leading up to the attacks. A few excerpts, citing factual records, follow. Readers can judge for themselves whether the airlines and government are culpable.

Failures at Airport Security Checkpoints

[In the 1990s], following the Pan Am 103 bombing, the FAA had been directed by Congress to create a “Red Team” to test airport security. A Red Team consists of a handful of people, often drawn from military special operations, to pose as terrorists and attempt to break through airport security–in effect, to stage unannounced mock terrorist attacks, and report on the airlines’ performance in thwarting these attacks…

An October 1998 report by one airline, which was passed around the company offices in the United States, describes a meeting held the previous month with the FAA to discuss security at the San Francisco airport. Among other things, the report noted that the FAA’s Red Team “worked around different areas in SFO airport. They managed to break through different security screenings repeatedly in many different areas. Of 450 times when they were working their way past different security points to get to secure areas they were caught only 4 times.” SFO was one of the airports that had been targeted in the 1993 tests, and cited for a 60 percent failure rate. Five years later, the failure rate was 99.11 percent.

The report stated that the Red Team “managed to get by passenger Xray screening repeatedly (7 times) having on them a gun sealed under their belt-buckle. Also, having an automatic Mac machine gun under their jacket on their back.” The team also easily entered the airlines’ private lounges and put bombs in the passengers’ carry-on luggage, which was not examined before they boarded the plane. Gaining entrance to the ramp area, they entered Skychef catering trucks, and with ease placed whatever they wanted to in the food trolleys. No one questioned them. “Most of the times the catering truck driver was either asleep or reading a book or just looking at the sky or waving a friendly hello,” according to the San Fransisco report. The intruders showed false IDs and then easily drove a van onto the ramp area, although the vehicle had no official plates or security seals. They boarded aircraft at will, and “could easily have placed a bomb on board.”

All of this activity was videotaped by the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Port Hueneme, California, with the idea of using it as a training film for airport security personnel. But when the FAA saw how bad things were, they deep-sixed the video…

According to Andrew Thomas [in his book Aviation Insecurity], “For years, Logan was known throughout the industry as one of the least secure airports in the nation.” In April 2001, Deborah Sherman of Boston’s Fox News station undertook her own investigation of air security at Logan airport, with the help of former Red Team member Steve Elson. Airing on May 6, 2001, her report showed serious security flaws, including knives smuggled through security and unguarded access to secure areas–making Logan clearly vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The report had been instigated by Brian Sullivan, an FAA New England security agent who had retired earlier in the year and was seeking to blow the whistle on what he had observed on the job. On May 7, the day after the program aired, Sullivan sent a tape, along with a detailed and eloquent letter, to Senator John Kerry: “This report once again demonstrated what every FAA line agent already knows, the airport passenger screening system simply doesn’t work as intended. The FAA would like [rather] continue to promulgate a façade of security, than to honestly assess the system. Management knows how ineffective the current system is, but continues to tell Congress that our airport screening is an effective deterrent.”

Flawed Cockpit Doors

There was ample  evidence of how easily cockpits could be breached. As Andrew Thomas reports in Aviation Insecurity, in the two years prior to September 11, 2001, passengers managed to enter the cockpits of commercial airplanes thirty times. In one 2000 case, a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines flight was suffocated to death—apparently by other passengers—after he made repeated attempts to take over the cockpit. In another case the same year, a deranged passenger entered the cockpit of a British Airways 747, bit the captain’s ear, grabbed the controls, shut off the autopilot, and sent the plane into a 10,000-foot dive before the co-pilot managed to regain control. Lack of cockpit security would, of course, become key to the terrorists’ success in the 9/11 attacks.

Inadequate Training

In 1996, President Clinton appointed a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, headed by Vice President Al Gore, to examine security within the industry–and especially security against possible terrorist attacks…A preliminary report, released in September 1996, elicited a flurry of unhappy responses from airline lobbyists. Gore quickly capitulated to the airline industry, writing a sheepish letter to Carol Hallet, president of the Air Transport Association, the industry trade group: “I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the Commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry,” and suggesting that government and industry could work “in full partnership.” According to a study conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics, during the final weeks of the 1996 election campaign, with Clinton pitted against Bob Dole, the airlines poured $585,000 into the Democratic party coffers.

The Gore Commission did make some 50 recommendations, but many of the most vital proposals were gutted or simply ignored. The Commission recommended criminal background checks for airport security personnel, along with a changed work system that would reward performance, rather than just low costs, for both individual security staff and the security companies used by the airlines. The airlines scoffed that these measures would be too expensive, and the FAA (then under the leadership of Linda Daschle [who later became an airline industry lobbyist]) never pursued them.

One Commission member, Victoria Cummock, widow of a Pan Am 103 victim, wrote to Gore, “I register my dissent with the final report. . . . Sadly, the overall emphasis of the recommendations reflects a clear commitment to the enhancement of aviation at the expense of the Commission’s mandate of enhancing aviation safety and security. I can not sign a report that blatantly allows the American flying public to be regularly placed at unnecessary risk.” Cummock was quoted by CNN as saying, “I don’t know how we could really get a fair commission based on the degree of collusion that I see between the [airline] industry, the FAA, the DOT (Department of Transportation), and Al Gore.”

Industry Ignored Government Warnings About Terrorist Threats

In the six months prior to 9/11, FAA senior officials received 52 intelligence briefings regarding threats from Al Qaeda. “Among the 105 summaries issued between April 1, 2001 and September 10, 2001, almost half mentioned Bin Ladin, Al Qaeda, or both, mostly in regard to overseas threats,” the report said. In addition, the National Security Council’s Counterterrorism Security Group invited the FAA to a “meeting in early July 2001 at the White House to discuss with domestic agency officials heightened security concerns.”

The FAA also sent out informational circulars to warn airports and air carriers about security issues. Seven circulars were sent before 9/11–one on the threat posed by surface to air missiles, five on threats overseas, and one on July 31 mentioning hijacking. Yet while Jane Garvey said “she was aware of the heightened threat during the summer of 2001,” several other top agency officials, as well as senior airline official and veteran pilots, said they were not aware.

Does Air France 447 Reveal the Safety Risks of Plastic Aircraft?

It is conceivable that the materials used to construct parts of the Airbus 330 might have been a factor in the loss of Air France 447. While we may never know for sure whether structural issues contributed to the plane’s plunge into the Atlantic, the crash raises urgent questions that reach beyond even the untimely deaths of 228 people: Composite aircraft parts figure more and more in the future of commercial aviation, with the two biggest manufacturers preparing to roll out high-composite-content jets next year.

plane 787These carbon-fiber composites–basically, a form of plastic–are lighter than the aluminum they replace, which stands to cut down significantly on fuel costs. But any weaknesses in parts built of composite may be impossible to detect during routine ground inspections–at least without costly testing methods that the manufacturers insist are unnecessary. 

If critics of the new high-composite-content aircraft are right about their risks, then we may once again be facing a situation where the corporate profits of the aerospace and airline industries are placed before public safety, while the government declines to intervene.

This is not the stuff of conspiracy theories. Warnings about the possible safety risks of composite materials in aircraft construction have been issued by a number of engineers and experts, and by no less reliable a source than the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (CTSB). A 2007 article in the New Scientist discusses a report by the CTSB that reveals problems with composite materials used in the Airbus, and their role in a 2005 midair crisis. Most troubling is the report’s conclusion that such structural problems often remain undetected using current methods of safety testing.

Standard test used to assess the safety of carbon-fibre composite airliners can be dangerously ineffective, according to air-safety investigators in Canada. In a report published on 22 November, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) says an aircraft can pass the “tap test”, even though its composites actually have small flaws.

Tap tests are part of routine servicing. A ground engineer listens for a change of pitch as they tap a composite surface like a tailplane or rudder. This is supposed to reveal gaps where layers of composite have come apart, but the TSB says small gaps can go undetected and later grow.

These gaps can suddenly grow in size and potentially endanger an aircraft, the board says. It is working with the aviation industry’s global International Maintenance Review Board to review the current maintenance procedures.

This report followed a two year investigation into a 300-series Airbus (Air Transat Airbus A310) that had lost most of its rudder on a flight from Varadero, Cuba, to Quebec City in March 2005. The New Scientist describes the harrowing situation on the flight from Cuba:

Following a loud bang that reverberated through the aircraft, the plane was immediately pitched into a “Dutch roll”, in which it repeatedly rolled its wings up and down while simultaneously swinging its tail side to side. By losing altitude, the pilots managed to bring the roll under control and land safely back in Varadero, with the whole episode only causing a minor back injury to one person.

 The weather conditions during this flight were not unusual, so external forces didn’t appear to have been a factor. In trying to figure out what had happened, CTSB investigators focused on structural problems that might have cause the rudder to break apart–and how they could have been missed during pre-takeoff inspections of the aircraft.

They took already damaged composite specimens–some from other A310 rudders–and placed them in a vacuum chamber. The samples experienced pressure changes simulating changing altitude during many simulated flights.

“The areas of the damage almost doubled instantly,” the report says. “The rapid propagation event was explosively loud and violent.” The explosion even damaged their test chamber. The TSB say this explains the loud bang heard by the crew.

The Airbus A310 was the second version of the Airbus to be produced at Toulouse by the French. There have been 548 fatalities in the life of the plane. Accidents suffered by another model, the A300, include devastating crashes in Indonesia and China in the 1990s, and the 2001 crash of an American Airlines jet shortly after takeoff from JFK Airport on its way to the Dominican Republic, which killed all 260 people on board and five on the ground. That crash happened after the plane’s composite tail broke off–but federal investigators concluded that pilot actions, rather than the plane’s materials, triggered that crash. The A330 had no fatalities until this week, though it’s safety record was not flawless.

The implications of such findings are far-reaching, since composite materials are slated to make up a greater portion of some big jets. At around the same time the CTSB report was released, Boeing was touting plans–and taking numerous advance orders–for its new 787 Dreamliner, which is made up of about 50 percent composite materials by weight. As of last month, the Dreamliner was being prepared final testing, with an eye toward release in 2010. The Airbus 380, made up of 25 percent composite, is under construction as well.

In 2007, as construction of the Dreamliner got underway, a Boeing aerospace engineer claimed he was fired after he went public with warning that the composite materials rendered the aircraft unsafe. (Boeing’s records gave other reasons for his dismissal.) According to a report in the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

Forty-six-year veteran Vince Weldon contends that in a crash landing that would be survivable in a metal airplane, the new jet’s innovative composite plastic materials will shatter too easily and burn with toxic fumes. He backs up his views with e-mails from engineering colleagues at Boeing and claims the company isn’t doing enough to test the plane’s crashworthiness.

Boeing vigorously denies Weldon’s assertions, saying the questions he raised internally were addressed to the satisfaction of its technical experts….Weldon thinks that without years of further research, Boeing shouldn’t build the Dreamliner and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shouldn’t certify the jet to fly.

 In letters to the Federal Aviation Administration, which Weldon discussed on an interview on Dan Rather’s cable show, he raised several possible risks, including what might happen in a lightening storm. (Lightening is being discussed as one possible reason for the crash of AF 447.) According to the Post-Intelligencer, Weldon warned that:

The conductive metal mesh embedded in the 787’s fuselage surface to conduct away lightning is too light and vulnerable to hail damage, and is little better than a “Band-Aid.” Though aluminum airplanes are safe to fly through lightning storms, Weldon wrote, “I do not have even close to the same level of confidence” for the 787.

 Weldon’s letters to the FAA advocated a more vigorous testing protocol for the 787. Among other things, he urged the government agency to test the plane itself, rather than relying on tests run by Boeing. According to a follow-up piece in the Post-Intelligencer:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rejected suggestions from a former Boeing engineer that it change the testing and certification process proposed to prove the 787 Dreamliner is as safe in a crash landing as current airplanes….

The FAA response said: “We consider it more effective to establish the standards and encourage [Boeing] to develop the most effective method of compliance.”

In addition to demanding testing prior to certification, the FAA could, if it wished, require different kinds of routine ground testing depending on an aircraft’s structural makeup. Reporting on the issue of how composite-built aircraft should be safety-tested, a 2007 piece in the Chicago Tribune discussed the alternatives to “tap test,” which include ultrasounds and other advanced–but costly–technologies. Unsurprisingly, the manufacturers and airlines have resisted instituting these kinds of tests.

There’s growing debate over how aviation maintenance should keep pace with such materials. Federal guidelines for inspecting composites remain vague, in part because high-tech tools for detecting damage are rapidly evolving, and there isn’t yet consensus among researchers or regulators on what should become standard practice, experts say.

Planemakers insist that visual inspections are sufficient for the composites that account for more than 50 percent of the materials, by weight, on Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner and 25 percent of Airbus’ hulking A380 superjumbo jet….

 But while Boeing is “confident that visual inspections will be sufficient for the 787 throughout its lifetime,” the Tribune reports, it is nonetheless “advising its customers to use ultrasounds and other advanced imaging to check for hidden damage when a 787 suffers bumps and bruises typical in airport operations–a wrench dropped on a wing, forexample, or ground equipment nudging a plane’s fuselage.”

In other words, Boeing is confident that their plastic plane is safe for a 5,000-mile flight, even though a wrench dropped on the wing necessitates more sophisticated testing for hidden damage. The apparent backstory here, some critics suggest, is that the better testing methods are also very expensive, and might dissuade some airlines from investing in the Dreamliner and other high-composite-content planes. As the Tribune piece reports:

“Our concern is that competition [between manufacturers] might be driving a more aggressive attitude on operational issues,” said Todd Wissing, an American Airlines pilot who flies Airbus A300-600s, the same model as the plane that crashed shortly after taking off from New York’s Kennedy International Airport in 2001….

“As the price comes down and the equipment becomes more robust, that’s when aircraft manufacturers will be including [advanced testing] in their specifications for aircraft and recommending [it] for customers,” predicted John Newman, president of Laser Technology Inc., a Pennsylvania company whose technology is used by the U.S. military and NASA to find flaws in composites.

So far, the FAA has declined to heed any calls for new testing procedures to be mandated, and other new safety regulations be put into effect before the composite-heavy planes start flying. As of a month ago today, Boeing  reported that it had 886 orders from 57 customers for the half-plastic 787 Dreamliner.

Final assembly of a 787 Dreamliner, made of 50 percent composite materials. Photo: Boeing

Final assembly of a 787 Dreamliner, made of 50 percent composite materials. Photo: Boeing

Notes: Thanks to chromodynamix, whose comment on myUnsilent Generation blog yesterday alerted me to the New Scientist article and the issue of composite materials in aircraft construction.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, with its eye on local corporate giant Boeing, has long provided some of the most complete reporting on the aerospace industry. Let’s hope the staff layoffs and the demise of the paper’s print edition don’t change that. 

Hero Pilot Faces Mandatory Retirement, Reduced Pension

At age 57, Chesley Sullenberger hardly qualifies as a geezer in my book. But as commercial airline pilots go, the man who is being hailed for his flawless emergency landing of a U.S. Airways jet in the Hudson River is certainly getting up there in years.

The San Francisco Examiner described their local hero’s background:

If a Hollywood producer called central casting in search of an actor to play a pilot in a disaster movie, he would probably wind up with somebody who looked a lot like “Sully” Sullenberger: the silver hair of experience, the trimmed mustache of precision and the kind of twinkly, fatherly eyes that lend confidence when accompanying a friendly “Welcome aboard.”

p1-ao341_plane__d_20090115183356Sullenberger has decades of experience not only flying planes–first F-4’s for the US Air Force and since 1980 all kinds of aircraft for US Airways–but of studying and teaching how to fly them more safely. His resume shows experience flying everything from a glider to a jumbo jet.

After both engines blew, Sullenberger reportedly told his 150 passengers to “brace for impact because we’re going down” before maneuvering over a bridge and between skyscrapers to land the plane safely on the river. He walked the legnth of the sinking jet twice to verify that noone was aboard before exiting himself. The Wall Street Journal described Sullenberger’s handling of what it called “one of the rarest and most technically challenging feats in commercial aviation”:

Although commercial jetliners are equipped with life vests and inflatable slides, there have been few successful attempts at water landings during the jet age. Indeed, even though pilots go through the motions of learning to ditch a plane in water, the generally held belief is that such landings would almost certainly result in fatalities.

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a veteran US Airways pilot, pulled it off while simultaneously coping with numerous other challenges.

Might Sullenberger’s nearly 40 years of experience have something to with that? It’s well worth asking, since until last year, the hero pilot would have been less than three years away from forced retirement. In December 2007, after decades of debate, the federal government finally passed a law raising the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots from 60 to 65. Until 2006, the United States wouldn’t even allow foreign planes with pilots over 60 to land at American airports.

One reason older pilots wanted to keep working was to make up for their decimated pensions. When U.S. Airways went bankrupt (for the first time) in 2002, the company’s underfunding of its pension plan had reached some $2.5 million. The federal government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. agreed to take over the plan, but is covering only a fraction of the losses.

As the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, older pilots who wanted to keep working faced opposition even from some of their own colleagues, who worried that “safety may be compromised since pilots in their 60s may find it tougher to battle fatigue or rebound from jet lag than younger colleagues.” 

These folks might want to ask the passengers on U.S. Airways Flight 1549 if they would have preferred a 30-year-old at the controls today.

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