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21 November 2010

What has the TSA done for you lately?

The past few weeks has seen the TSA come under tremendous amounts of well deserved public criticism for using an enhanced pat-down procedure along with new full body scanners to help keep explosives and other weapons off of airplanes.

The TSA's misguided efforts with respect to this passenger screening policy, as well as apparent serious shortcomings in TSA hiring procedures have been discussed at length in earlier articles, and in unprecedented ways by the general public online and offline.

It would be easy and even entertaining to highlight multiple aspects of the latest TSA policy disaster, including:
  • Reviewing some of the more interesting of the tens of thousands of TSA-related tweets from the past week (my favorite: "I wonder if TSA scanners can see through 6 feet of dirt to detect Founding Fathers turning in their graves"),

  • Embed one or more hilarious video created in response to the TSA's policy, such as one from Saturday Night Live, and another from NMA TV (the folks who bring you computer simulations of unfaithful celebrities),

  • Discuss the TSA's role in making the phrase "gate rape" an word of the day, or

  • Chronicle desperate scramble by the TSA in the last 72 hours to change their policies in the face of massive pushback (eliminating enhanced pat-downs of children 12 and under, followed by no pat-downs or screenings of airline pilots, and most recently a promise to make the pat-down procedure less invasive)

Instead of kicking TSA when it's down and making it even more likely that current employees will erase their experience from their resumes, the rest of this article will focus on some of the positive things that TSA has done that have actually enhanced security.

Every week, TSA publishes the Transportation Suspicious Incident Report (TSIR), which provides a comprehensive review of suspicious incident reporting related to transportation. The TSIR includes incident reporting, analyses, images, and graphics on specific security related incidents. In addition, selected articles focus on security technologies, terrorism, and the persistent challenges of securing various transportation modes in the US. You can download three of the reports below:

- TSIR for 20 July 2007
- TSIR for 5 August 2010
- TSIR for 15 October 2010

All three of these reports were downloaded from, a site that provides access to corporate and government documents that are usually unavailable to the public. This site also provides a number of documents from the Department of Homeland Security, including an evaluation of the recent cargo bombing attempt from Yemen.

If you have any questions and comments may about the TSIR, you can contact the Transportation Security Administration, Office of Intelligence, Field Production Team at (703) 601-3142.

A note on classification
The document that were retrieved from contains information that the Department of Homeland Security, which includes TSA, typically does not released released to the public or personnel who do not have a valid "need to know." Because these reports were obtained legally from a publicly available web site, unless you are bound by the appropriate regulations of a US government agency, you are free to download them and even distribute them. This is similar to the situation last December when TSA accidentally released a report containing sensitive security information. That report, “Screening Procedures: Standard Operating Procedures,” has been downloaded from nearly 25,000 times in the last 12 months.

Related Resources
WTOP interview on November 16, 2010 with Dr. Todd Curtis about new TSA procedures (5:12)
Dr. Curtis discusses TSA hiring practices on Rudy Maxa's World (10:40)

18 November 2010

What you can do to change the TSA's full body screening and enhanced pat-down policies

In recent days, the TSA's policy of using advanced screening device along with enhanced pat-downs of passengers to help deter bomb attacks has come under increasing opposition by the flying public, with several organizations and individuals taking actions to force the TSA to alter or eliminate some of these new procedures. There are several ways that an individual can take action, and those are described later in this article.

Public opposed for several reasons
There are several reasons why the traveling public and key parts of the airline industry are opposed to the advanced screening technology and security procedures, including the radiation risks from some of the scanners, potential losses of personal privacy, the techniques used in the pat-down procedures, how people are chosen for the new screening, and because TSA personnel may have backgrounds that make them totally unsuitable for these tasks.

Risks from new screening technologies
The new full-body scanners, currently in use in more than 60 US airports, use either x-rays or millimeter-wavelength radio waves to see if a passenger is concealing explosives, weapons, or other dangerous items. While TSA relies on FDA claims that the amount of radiation exposure is low, and that the machines are safe. However, two major airline pilot organizations have come out against it because of potential health effects from multiple exposures.

Advanced imaging systems are an invasion of privacy
Both the millimeter wave and x-ray advanced imagining systems produce images that can reveal weapons and other other contraband, but it also has the potential to reveal medical conditions and other information that the TSA has no need to know and that most passengers would prefer to keep private for personal, professional, or religious reasons.

Pat-down procedures are intrusive and inappropriate
If someone does not want to use the full body scanner, the TSA has mandated that their security officers use an aggressive pat-down procedure that includes extensive touching of the breast, buttocks, and genital areas of passengers. These new procedures were launched without any opportunity for the public to make comments or suggestions about the procedures. The initial public reaction was so negative that TSA quickly changed their policy in one area--children under the age of 13 will still be subject to a full pat-down search, but one that is modified in ways that the TSA has not yet specified.

While extensive pat-down searches, or even body cavity searches, have been used on passengers for decades, it has usually been under two conditions, that there is evidence that a passenger is suspected of hiding prohibited or dangerous items on their person, and that an appropriate and highly trained law enforcement or customs official was conducting the search. TSA transportation security officers may dress like law enforcement officers, but they lack the training, experience, and authority of police officers. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recently released report that pointed out serious deficiencies in the training given to TSA security officers.

Use of the screening and pat-downs is excessive
The advanced imaging technology and enhanced pat-downs are designed to find articles hidden under a person's clothes. Rather than being used on persons who have been identified as being high risk based on their behavior or on specific information provided by security or or law enforcement agencies, passengers and airline crew members are being randomly chosen for advanced screening. While the TSA believes that this process is effective at deterring acts of sabotage or terror, for many the intrusive nature of the scanners and pat-downs is not justified for use on someone has has done nothing to arouse suspicion.

TSA screeners may have inadequate background checks
The process by which TSA personnel were screened is another reason that these procedures may be highly inappropriate. As was described in an earlier article, it is possible that the ranks of TSA's screeners may include people convicted of rape and other serious sexually oriented crimes. It is highly unlikely that the average passenger would consent to a very intimate physical search conducted by a convicted sex offender, and at the very least would want the TSA to state for the record whether such people are currently employed in any capacity at TSA.

Actions you can take to change these policies
If you object to the TSA's advanced screening or enhanced pat-down policies or procedures, or feel that you have been victimized in some way because you have been subjected to these techniques and technologies, there are several things that you can do to help change what the TSA is doing:

Related Resources
WTOP interview on November 16, 2010 with Dr. Todd Curtis about these new TSA procedures (5:12)
Teri Schultz article on European approaches to security

05 November 2010

Plane crash in Cuba kills all 68 on board

4 November 2010; AeroCaribbean; ATR 72-212; CU-T1549; Fllight 883, near Guasimal, Sancti Spiritus Province, Cuba: The aircraft was on a domestic flight from Santiago to Havana, Cuba. The crew reported an emergency situation shortly before the aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain. All seven crew members and 61 passengers were killed.

ATR 42 and ATR 72 Crash HistoryThe ATR 72 and ATR 42 are very similar, with the ATR 72 having more rows of seats. This was the seventh crash of a ATR series aircraft that resulted in the death of at least one airline passenger. The most recent fatal crash was in September of this year when a Conviasa ATR 42 crashed in Venezuela, killed 17 of the 34 on board.

About AeroCaribbean
AeroCaribbean, which is owned by the Cuban governemtn, began flight operations in December 1982, and currently serves several domestic locations as well as regional international destinations. The airline has about 10 active aircraft, including about seven ATR 42 and ATR 72 aircraft. This is the second fatal crash for this airline. In November 1992, an AeroCaribbean Ilyushin 18D flew into high ground near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, killing all six crew members and 24 passengers.

Related articles
Plane crash rates by model
Airliners with lowest crash rates

Photos: Wikipedia, Escambray Newspaper

03 November 2010

Is the TSA allowing convicted rapists to perform pat-down searches?

Last Thursday, without much fanfare, TSA announced that it would start a new screening procedure that would include more pat-down searches nationwide. USA Today reports that in the new procedures, screeners' hands would slide over a passenger's body, requiring screeners to touch passengers' breasts and genitals. In addition to questions over whether this change is necessary or effective, another question that many passengers may have in the backs of their minds is whether the TSA screeners have a criminal background that should preclude them from such sensitive duties.

Possible reasons for the new procedures
There is some debate over whether these procedures are either useful or necessary. There are certainly threats to airliners from bombs that could be carried on a person's body, such as the bomb used in the unsuccessful bombing attempt on a Delta airliner last December. However, it is not at all clear that this new pat-down procedure would have found that explosive device.

The more recent incident involving two bombs sent as cargo from Yemen to the US could indicate renewed efforts to target US airliners. However, there has been no public acknowledgement by the TSA, the US government, or any other government that there is any increased threat to air travel from bombs hidden beneath clothing. Certainly the new pat-down procedure is a very public and very noticeable increase in security, but not one that is directly linked to any immediate threat.

TSA employees with faulty criminal background checks
The TSA serves a very important and vital role in airline security, and all of their employees are required to pass security and background checks. However, those checks in the past have been less than thorough. For example, in 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (which includes TSA) released a report that stated that TSA had allowed some screeners to perform their duties before their criminal background checks were complete, and allowed others to continue working while problems with their background checks were resolved. Even if this problem no longer exists for current applicants and employees, a more serious problem may be that the current system of background checks may have allowed those convicted of rape and other sexually based offenses to join TSA.

Are current TSA background checks too limited?
The 2004 DHS report stated that federal regulations (49 CFR. § 1542.209) specified were 28 kinds of felony convictions that would have disqualified an applicant for a TSA screener position, including rapes or crimes involving aggravated sexual abuse, but only if those convictions had occurred in the previous 10 years. It implies that a person convicted of rape, attempted rape, child molestation, or similar crimes may not be required to report such convictions during their background check and may be allowed to perform pat-down searches on passengers.

It is unclear if TSA has changed its background check requirements since 2004 to exclude any convicted sex offenders from working directly with passengers. However, the fact that in the past it may have been possible that someone with that kind of criminal past may be a TSA screener may concern most passengers.

Are convicted rapists performing pat-down searches?
The full details of the the TSA's process for reviewing current and potential employees is not available to the public. Whatever those procedures are, a reasonable passenger would agree that anyone who has been found guilty of any crime that involves rape or some similar criminal act should not be allowed to search passengers. If the TSA could publicly address the following questions, it may go a long way toward reducing the public's concern over the new pat-down procedures:
  • Are there any current TSA employees who are convicted sex offenders (either for a felony or lesser crime, either as an adult or juvenile), even if the conviction occurred more than 10 years before joining TSA?

  • If the answer to the first question is yes, are any of these employees acting as security screeners who must have direct physical contact with the flying public?

  • If the answer to the first question is no, have all TSA employees, as part of their background check, been asked if they have been convicted of rape or some other sexually based crime, whether it were a felony or lesser crime, either as an adult or as a juvenile, even if the conviction occurred more than 10 years before joining TSA?

  • If the first question can't be answered for a TSA employee because of inadequate information, would this employee be restricted from working in a position that involves direct physical contact with the flying public?

  • Are TSA security screeners who are convicted of rape or another sexually based crime, no matter how minor, immediately removed from any position where they may have physical contact with the traveling public?

Unless the TSA is both willing and able to answer these and similar questions, the average traveler may be very reluctant to submit to invasive searches where TSA security officers have to physically touch them in sensitive areas, making it more difficult for the TSA to accomplish its security mission.

What to do if searched
While searching passengers, including pat down searches of breasts and genital areas, may be necessary for security purposes, it would be considered very intrusive by most passengers. If you are selected for this kind of search, you should insist that it be done in a dignified manner. It should be done in a screened off area so that you can't be viewed by others in the vicinity, and the TSA representative should act in a professional manner.

Dealing with abuses
If you feel that you were not treated with dignity or respect during a pat down search, you should take appropriate actions such as calling attention to anything that you think is unnecessary or having a TSA supervisor or law enforcement official present. You can also file a complaint with the TSA, with the complaint process, or with an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU has noted several types of common abuses:
  • Unnecessary groping of passengers’ breast or genital areas

  • Humiliating experiences including for disabled or transgendered passengers

  • Lack of privacy during pat-downs

  • Lack of respect for religious requirements.

If you feel that you have not been treated in a fair and professional matter, you can contact the ACLU and provide them with details about your experience.

Interviews on Rudy Maxa's World featuring Dr. Todd Curtis (10:40)
DHS report on TSA screener background checks
WTOP interview on November 16, 2010 with Dr. Todd Curtis about new pat-down TSA procedures (5:12)

Photo: Joe Philipson

30 October 2010

TSA screening of air cargo for bombs and explosives

This week's attempted shipment of multiple explosive devices on US airliners was successfully discovered and stopped before the bombs could be triggered. While a potential tragedy was avoided, this latest attempt focused the public's attention on efforts by the airline industry to keep bombs off of airplanes.

Most passenger airliners carry both passenger baggage and air cargo. While all passengers and their baggage are screened for explosives and other prohibited items, it may surprise many passengers to find that some air cargo is not screened for explosives prior to being placed on a passenger aircraft.

Latest bombing attempt
The investigation into the latest bombing attempt is in its very earliest stages, but it appears that at least two explosive devices were shipped from the country of Yemen, and were addressed to synagogues or Jewish community centers in the Chicago area.

It is not clear if the packages that contained the devices were screened before being shipped. It is also not clear if the devices were intended to go off during the flight.

Both packages were shipped from Yemen to Dubai. One of the packages was intercepted on a FedEx plane that was in Dubai, and the second was discovered on a UPS aircraft after the aircraft had landed at the East Midlands airport in the UK.

The two devices, which were hidden within printer toner cartridges, used the same kind of explosive material as was used in the device in the unsuccessful Christmas day 2009 attempted bombing of a Delta aircraft.

Air Cargo security and screening basics
While the two airlines involved in this week's attempt fly only cargo and not passengers, passenger airliners also carry a significant fraction of the air cargo the comes in to the US from overseas and cargo that is flown on domestic routes. Since, 9/11, the US government and the airline industry have gone to great lengths to keep explosives and other banned items out of air cargo. A June 2010 report from the General Accountability Office (GAO-10-446) provides both an overview of the air cargo security process and provides answers to the following air cargo security questions.

How much air cargo is shipped in the US each year?

According to the GAO report, over 3.65 million tons of air cargo was shipped in the US on passenger flights in 2008, with 42% of that amount coming to the US from overseas. To get a feel for home much air cargo this represents, imagine the size and weight of a fully loaded Nimitz class aircraft carrier, which at over 1,000 feet long and displacing more than 100,000 tons is the largest ship in the US Navy. If all 10 ships in the Navy's arsenal were lined up end to end, they would stretch out for over two miles, but would still be less than one third of the weight of air cargo shipped last year in the US on passenger flights. The GAO also stated that passenger aircraft only accounted for about one sixth of air cargo shipped, so the total shipped each year on passenger and all cargo aircraft would be equal in weight to about 200 aircraft carriers.

How is cargo shipped?
Depending on the cargo and the aircraft, air cargo is typically shipped in unit load devices (ULD) such as a metal container or a cargo pallet, on wooden skids, or as loose cargo. This variety of shipping methods can make scanning cargo for explosives, drugs, improperly packed hazardous materials, and other dangerous items quite difficult.

Who is involved in the air cargo process?
Key participants in the air cargo shipping process include shippers, for example individuals, retail stores, or manufacturers; freight forwarders who may consolidate and ship cargo from many different shippers; air cargo handling agents who process, load, and unload cargo onto aircraft; and the air carriers that load and transport the cargo. Some shippers may bypass freight forwarders and deliver a shipment directly to an airline or air cargo handling agent.

Who is responsible for air cargo security?
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the primary federal agency responsible for securing the air cargo system. TSA establishes security requirements for domestic and foreign air carriers that transport cargo, and also for domestic freight forwarders. TSA has a staff of inspectors who make sure that air carriers and domestic freight forwarders are in compliance with security requirements. These requirements include measures related to the acceptance, handling, and screening of cargo; training of employees in security and cargo screening procedures; testing for employee proficiency in cargo screening; and access to cargo areas and aircraft.

According to TSA, there are currently about 620 Transportation Security Inspectors dedicated to the oversight of air cargo, with about 120 of these inspectors assigned to canine teams.

Who does the actual screening of cargo?
For US domestic flights or international flights headed to the US, cargo screening may be done by the shipper, by a freight forwarder, the air carrier, or by TSA personnel. Outside the US, additional screening and security checks may be provided by other governments or other organizations.

How is cargo screened?
Screening methods include using various kinds of x-ray detectors to screen for explosives, chemical testing of the exterior surface of cargo to detect explosives, using dogs to detect explosives, and physical inspection of the contents of a package or container.

Is all cargo screened or inspected?
Currently, not all air cargo on US domestic flights or on flights bound to the US from overseas is required to be screened or physically inspected. For example, cargo that is transferred from an inbound international flight to a domestic flight is not required to be screened. There are also some types of domestic cargo that are exempt from TSA screening, though information on exactly what kind of cargo this represents is a sensitive security matter and that information is not released to the general public.

What percentage of cargo is screened?
According to the GAO, as of March 2010 about 68% of all cargo (by weight) on domestic US passenger flights was screened. This was less than TSA's target of having 75% screened by March 2010.

Since October 2008, TSA has ensured that 100% of all cargo on narrow-bodied passenger aircraft has been screened. These flights account for only about 25% of all cargo shipped on domestic passenger flights. This implies that just over 60% of the cargo on wide-bodied passenger aircraft on domestic flights is currently screened.

27 October 2010

British Airways chairman calls for changes to US security procedures

On October 26, 2010, at the annual conference of the U.K. Airport Operators Association. British Airways chairman Martin Broughton called for changes to the security requirements for international flights bound for the US. He claimed that a number of elements in the current security program, including separate checks of laptop computers and forcing people to take off their shoes for screenting are completely redundant and should reviewed. He also pointed out that the requirements for international flights to the US and domestic flights within the US were not consistent.

The following day, I spoke with the BBC radio program Europe Today about Broughton's concerns and why these security differences exist. Also interviewed in the following segment was former British Airways executive Jamie Bowden.

Listen to the interview

Related Articles article on the attempted bombing
Description of four key US terrorist and TSA security databases
US security rules and baggage restrictions

12 October 2010

Share Your Unexpected Airline Change Fee Story

Have you been one of the many thousands of passengers who received an unexpected change fee from your airline? Have you been so upset that you wanted to tell your story to someone? Now you have your chance to tell your story to more than just your family and friends., working with the Kaplan Casting, would like to hear your story.

Kaplan Casting is looking for documented cases of passengers who have been charged unexpected "change fees" by their airline. Kaplan is very interested in business travelers and families, but will consider anyone of any age or background for a television commercial. If you are chosen, you will be paid Screen Actors Guild (SAG) rates for your time on the set.

What to do to be considered
To have your story considered, you have to have some kind of documentation of the airline change fee, and must provide us with basic details about the flight. If you are interested, please fill out the form below and submit it to News. Kaplan Casting or will contact you if we want to talk with you further.

Note: and Kaplan Casting is no longer taking additional reports. Thank you if you have contributed a report earlier.

Photo: Steve Wampler

12 September 2010

CBS Radio Interview about Suspicious Passengers

Dr. Curtis was interviewed by CBS Radio News about the August 2010 detention of two passengers in Amsterdam on suspicion of being involved in some kind of terror related event. The passengers were later released because they had done nothing wrong.

On August 30th, 2010, two men, Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al-Soofi and Hezam al-Murisi, who were both on their way to Yemen from the US, were arrested in Amsterdam after they had arrived on a flight from Chicago. They were arrested because they were suspected to be part of some kind of terror related activity, perhaps a dry run for an attempted bombing of an aircraft.

Al-Soofi had raised suspicion earlier in the day prior to his flight from Birmingham, Alabama to Chicago. After being chosen for additional screening, authorities found that he was carrying $7,000 in cash, and in his checked luggage were a cell phone taped to a small bottle, multiple cell phones and watches taped together, a knife, and a box cutter. Al-Soofi had violated no laws or regulations, so he was allowed to continue.

Later in Chicago, he had changed his flight, and his checked bags ended up going on a different flight. Coincidentally, Hezam al-Murisi, who also changed his flight to to one carrying Al-Soofi, also had his bags going on a different flight. US authorities asked Dutch authorities to detain the men, and they were both arrested after arriving in Amsterdam.

The CBS interview covered several subjects including whether the behavior of these passengers should have aroused suspicions. At the time of the interview, early reports suggested that they were traveling together. In fact, while the two were on the same flight out of Chicago, they did not know each other and were traveling independently, with only Al-Soofi starting his trip in Birmingham.

The Dutch authorities soon released both men, and dropped all charges. In short, although what the two men did during their trip looked unusual or even suspicious, they had done nothing wrong, and had broken no law or violated any regulation. The lesson to take away from this episode is that the US authorities, including TSA and Homeland Security, may be inclined to take all kinds of precautionary actions, including detaining passengers, if they suspect that someone is attempting to bring harm to an airplane flight.

Should passengers change their behavior to keep from being hassled? According to Dr. Curtis, that is a personal decision best left to individual passengers. In his opinion, you're free to act as suspicious as you want, just keep in mind that the price of freedom is an increased chance of being hassled or even detained.

Listen to the interview

Related Articles article on the attempted bombing
Description of four key US terrorist and TSA security databases
BBC interview with's Dr. Todd Curtis

08 September 2010

Russian Airliner Makes Emergency Landing at Abandoned Airport

7 September 2010; Alrosa Mirny Air Enterprise; Tu154M; RA-85684; flight 514, Izhma, Russia: The aircraft was on a scheduled domestic flight from Udachny to Moscow, Russia. While en route at about FL347 near over Usinsk, Russia, the aircraft experienced a complete electrical failure that resulted in a loss of navigational equipment, fuel pumps, and flaps.

Effects of loss of electrical power
The Tupolev Tu154 uses the electric pumps that move the fuel from wing and center section fuel tanks into an engine feed tank. Inoperative fuel pumps left the crew with just the usable fuel in the engine feed tank, which provided about 30 minutes of flying time. Although the flaps are hydraulically driven, the switches that control the flaps are electrically driven, preventing the crew from using flaps during any landing attempt.

Successful emergency landingThe crew chose to land the airplane at an abandoned runway near the town of Izhma. The runway is about 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) long, and the aircraft overran the runway by about 150-200 meters, plowing through trees and other vegetation, and coming to rest in soft ground. According to a report in, one of the passengers described the aircraft as “cutting the tree tops like a lawnmower.” None of the nine crew members or 72 passengers were injured.

News report on emergency landing

Shorter news report on emergency landing

Additional Information
Accident information from Wikipedia
Russian plane crashes

Comic relief and plane crashes
When planes crash and everyone walks away to fly again, the world breaths a sigh of relief. When there is a happy ending like with this Alrosa accident, one of the ways that the average person responds is with a bit of humor. The following cartoon depicting Mother Nature's reaction to the impending emergency landing was published by the TV-Novosti site

03 September 2010

UPS 747 Crash in Dubai Kills Crew

3 September 2010; United Parcel Service (UPS); 747-400F; N571UP; flight 6; Dubai, United Arab Emirates: The aircraft was on an international cargo flight from Dubai, UAE to Colonge, Germany, and crashed shortly after takeoff about 10 km (6.2 mi) north of the airport. The two crew members were killed.

About the Boeing 747
This was the second fatal plane crash involving 747-400 series. The only previous fatal crash of a 747-400 was a 2000 crash of a Singapore Airlines in Taipei, Taiwan. The various models of the 747 have been involved in 28 crashes that have resulted in the death of at least one passenger, and seven fatal crashes of cargo or military versions of the aircraft. The earliest fatal passenger plane crash was a 1974 Lufthansa accident in Nairobi, Kenya, and the most recent passenger crash was a 2005 Saudi Arabian Airlines crash in Sri Lanka. The most recent cargo crash was a 2008 accident in Colombia involving Kalitta Air that killed three people on the ground.

About United Parcel Service
United Parcel Service (UPS) has been offering air cargo services since the early 1980s. The current UPS fleet has well over 200 aircraft, including about a dozen 747s. This is the third UPS crash that destroyed an aircraft, and the first fatal crash for United Parcel Service.

Related resources
UPS plane crashes
747 plane crashes
UPS fleet

Graphic: Gulf News

25 August 2010

Over 40 killed in airliner crash in China

24 August 2010; Henan Airlines ERJ-190; B-3130; flight VD8387; Yichun, China: The aircraft was on a scheduled domestic flight from Harbin to Yichun, China. The aircraft broke up and caught fire after it overran the runway after landing. At the time of the crash, there was fog in the area and limited visibility. The aircraft carried five crew members and 91 passengers, and 43 of the occupants were killed. At least one flight crew member survived.

Embraer 190 Crash History
This was the first crash of an Embraer 190 that resulted in the death of at least one airline passenger. This is also the first fatal airliner crash involving any of the Embraer jet airliner models (ERJ 170/175 and ERJ 19-/195). According to, there are over 650 Embraer jets in service. This was also the first fatal plane crash involving an airline from China since 2004.

About Henan Airlines
Henan Airlines is operated by Shenzhen Airlines, and was formerly known as Kunpeng Airlinesbegan flight operations in October 2007, and prior to the crash had a fleet of about four ERJ-190 aircraft.

Related resources
Plane crashes involving airlines from the People's Republic of China
Follow up story about aviation safety in China from Blue Ocean Network

Photo: AFP
Map Graphic: BBC

24 August 2010

Agni Air crash kills all on board

24 August 2010; Agni Air; 9N-AHE; Dornier 228-200; near Shikharpur, Nepal: The aircraft was on a domestic flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, Nepal. Due to weather conditions at Lukla, the aircraft was returning to Kathmandu, but crashed near Shikharpur, Nepal, about 50 miles (80 km) from Kathmandu. All three crew members and 11 passengers were killed.

Dornier 228 Crash History
This was the 10th crash of a Dornier 228 that resulted in the death of at least one airline passenger. The most recent fatal Dornier 228 plane crash prior to the Agni Air event was the crash of Cabo Verde Airlines Dornier aircraft in August 1999.

About Agni Air
Agni Air began flight operations in March 2006, and prior to the crash had a fleet of about a half dozen Jetstream 41 and Dornier 228 aircraft.

Photo: Wikipedia
Map Graphic: BBC

16 August 2010

Aires Colombia 737 crash kills one passenger

16 August 2010; Aires Colombia; 737-700; HK-4682; San Andres Island, Colombia: The airliner was on a scheduled domestic flight from Bogota to San Andreas Island, Colombia. San Andreas Island lies off the east coast of Nicaragua. The aircraft took off from Bogota just after midnight and was attempting to land just before 2 a.m. local time during a storm.

The aircraft was reportedly struck by lightning just before touchdown. The airplane struck the runway and broke up into three large pieces. One of the 125 passengers was killed, and all six crew members survived.

Fatal Crash History of Aires Colombia
This was the third fatal crash involving Aires Colombia. Their two previous fatal crashes were in 1995 and 1985 and both involved Embraer Bandierante aircraft.

Fatal Plane Crash History of the 737
This was the 70th crash of a 737 that resulted in the death of at least one airline passenger. This is the sixth fatal plane crash involving one of the current production models of the 737 (737-600, 737-700, 737-800, and 737-900). All five previous fatal crashes involved the 737-800 model. The 737-700 had been involved in one previous fatal incident. In December 2005, a Southwest Airlines 737-700 ran off the runway at Midway Airport in Chicago and struck a car on a nearby road, which led to the death of one of the passengers in the car.

12 August 2010

Steven Slater: Why this flight attendant is no hero

This article is a bit of a departure for in that it more full of opinions rather than facts . I do hope that you take the time to read it and I look forward to your feedback. - Todd Curtis

By now the story of Steven Slater's dramatic exit from a JetBlue airplane at JFK airport in New York is well known to most of the traveling public. While only Mr. Slater knows why he allegedly chose to deploy an emergency slide, leave the aircraft, and abandon his duties as a flight attendant, it is quite clear that what he did put ramp workers at risk and cost JetBlue many thousands of dollars.

Normally, these kinds of antics rarely get noticed outside of the aviation press, but as is often the case with the airline business, things that happen in an important media market like New York can get way more than the average amount of attention. Overnight, Steven Slater when from anonymous flight attendant to getting Lady Gaga levels of attention. Some call him a modern working class hero for doing what he did. I however have a much different point of view.

Steven Slater as a modern Johnny Paycheck
Those of you who were around in the late 1970s probably remember the Johnny Paycheck song, 'Take This Job and Shove It,' a huge hit about a working man fed up with his lot in life. The song struck a chord with anyone who had had to deal with a frustrating job situation and dreamed of one day having the courage to stand up and tell the boss what he or she could do with their job.

There is little doubt in most passengers' minds that air travel isn't as much fun as it used to be. The stress for airline employees is probably much higher as well, with prospects for future pay raises, pensions, or decent benefits dimmer than ever. Any employee who gets to the point where he or she would rather quit the job and take a chance on the open market than to continue with their daily routine, has a rare kind of courage that should be applauded, even if they give the boss the finger on the way out the door.

However, Steven Slater alleged acts shouldn't be commended, they should be condemned. Leaving your flight attendant job for the last time by allegedly opening an emergency chute when there is no emergency put ramp workers at risk. The money and resources spent to repack that slide and put the aircraft back in operation have to come from somewhere, most likely from his follow JetBlue employees who may have fewer pay and benefits, or future JetBlue passengers who may have to pay a bit more for their next flight.

The difference between fake heroes and real ones
By coincidence, the same week that some in the media are spending time 'reporting' about how some members of the public consider Mr. Stater to be a hero, there is a group of individuals who are far more deserving of the title of hero who are getting much less media, but who are about to receive some well deserved thanks from the public. In San Antonio, the nonprofit group Alamo Honor Flight, which is part of the Honor Flight Network, provides World War II veterans with trips to Washington, DC, giving these veterans an opportunity to visit many of the area's memorials and also as a way of thanking them for their service. Tomorrow (August 13, 2010), a group of these veterans from the San Antonio area are heading off to Washington on the latest Honor Flight trip.

No doubt, many of them faced stress and frustrations while they did their duty. Some faced enemy fire, while others served their country in spite of not having full rights as citizens. In the decades after the war, they continued to serve their communities and their nation in spite of all the obstacles that life may have thrown at them. I'm fortunate to know one of them very well. You can read more about my father the former Marine at You can also look at the videos below to find out more about the Honor Flight program.

Honor Flight Background

Honor Flight Departure Ceremony in San Antonio

After reading this story and finding out more about the Honor Flight veterans, you may want to ask a question that I asked myself. Knowing what I know about Steven Slater and about these Honor Flight veterans, who would you want in the airplane with you if there was an emergency? Whose judgment would your trust in a tight situation with lives on the line? Even if those veterans were confined to a wheelchair or barely able to walk? Personally, I would choose any one of them over Slater any day of the week. If you had a similar response, then you know why I think Steve Slater is no hero.

Related Resources
Wikipedia entry on Steven Slater incident

11 August 2010

Former US Senator Killed in plane crash that also Injured former NASA head

9 August 2010; de Havilland DHC-3T Otter; near Dillingham, AK: Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was one of five people killed when an turbine engine, float equipped Otter crashed into steep terrain during a flight from nearby Lake Nerka to a fishing lodge in the Dillingham, Alaska area. The pilot and four passengers, including Stevens, were killed, and four other passengers were injured. One of the survivors was former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.

This was not the first fatal plane crash in Alaska involving Senator Stevens. In December 1978, the Senator was one of two survivors of a fatal crash of a Learjet in Anchorage, Alaska. Both pilots and three other passengers, including the Senator's first wife, were killed in the crash.

US Politicians and Plane Crashes
Prior to the crash that killed Senator Stevens, the most well known Alaska plane crash involving US politicians was an October 1972 crash that killed US congressman and house majority leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana, and Alaska Congressman Nick Begich . Congressman Begich was the father of current Alaska Senator Mark Begich and Boggs was the father of author and journalist Cokie Roberts.

In the last 40 years, over a dozen prominent US politicians have been killed in plane crashes:
  • 26 October 2002; Beech King Air A100; near Eveleth, MN : Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, five other passengers, and two crew members were all killed when their aircraft, crashed just outside the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis. At the time of the crash, light snow and freezing rain was reported in the area. Both the NTSB and the FBI investigated the event. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the flight crew’s failure to maintain adequate airspeed, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover.
    NTSB accident summary
    NTSB accident report

  • 16 October 2000; Cessna 335; near St. Louis, Missouri: The governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan, along with two others were killed in the crash of a small private plane about 25 miles (40 km) south of St. Louis. The aircraft had departed from the St. Louis area about 7 p.m. local time and was transporting the governor to a campaign stop in New Madrid, Missouri. The accident occurred at about 7:30 p.m., shortly after the pilot had reported a problem with one of the aircraft's instruments. The accident occurred at night and there was rain and fog in the area.
    NTSB accident summary
    NTSB accident report
    CNN report of the accident

  • 2 April 1996; U.S. Air Force 737-T43; near Dubrovnik, Croatia: The aircraft struck mountainous terrain while attempting to land at the airport under conditions of reduced visibility. The flight crew was using an unapproved approach. All six crew members and 29 passengers were killed. Among the passengers were a number of U.S. corporate executives and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown. The aircraft is a military version of the 737 that was used to transport military and civilian VIPs.
    737 fatal passenger events

  • 19 April 1993; Mitsubishi MU-2B;near Dubuque, IA: South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson and seven other occupants were en route from Cincinnati, OH to Sioux Falls, SD, when the propeller on one of the engines had a major failure. The crew was attempting to land the aircraft at the Dubuque, IA airport, but the aircraft crashed several miles short of the aiport, killing all on board.
    Accident summary from the Flight Safety Foundation

  • 5 April 1991; Atlantic Southeast Airlines; Embraer Brasila; near Brunswick, GA: Former Senator John Tower, of Texas, was killed along with his daughter, 18 other passengers, and three crew members. Also killed in the crash was NASA astronaut Sonny Carter.

  • 4 April 1991; Piper Aerostar PA-60; Lower Merion Township, PA: Senator John Heinz, of Pennsylvania, was killed when
    his chartered aircraft, which was on a flight from Williamsport, PA to Philadelphia, PA, collided with a Bell 412 helicopter near Philadelphia, PA. The two crew members in Heinz's aircraft and the two crew members on the helicopter were also killed. Wreckage from the collision rained down on an elementary school, killing two children who were on the playground during noon recess.
    NTSB accident report

  • 13 August 1989, Cessna 177RG; near Janice, MS: Representative Larkin Smith of Mississippi and his pilot were killed when their aircraft crashed in the DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi while on a flight from Hattiesburg to Gulfport.
    NTSB Accident Summary

  • 7 August 1989; de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter; near Gambella, Ethiopia: Representative Mickey Leland of Texas was killed when his aircraft struck a mountain during a nonscheduled domestic flight from Addis Ababa, Eithiopia to a refugee camp. Leland, the 12 other passengers, and all three crew members were all killed.
    Wikipedia entry about this event

  • 17 August 1988; Pakistan Air Force Lockheed C130; near Bahawalpur: US ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel was killed when the his aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff. Also on board were the president of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, 15 other passengers, and 13 crew members.

  • 1 September 1983; Korean Air Lines 747-200; near Sakhalin Island, Soviet Union: Representative Larry McDonald of Georgia was killed along with the 29 crew members and the other 239 passengers after the airliner was shot down by one or more missiles fired from military aircraft from the Soviet Union after the 747 had strayed into Soviet airspace.
    Wikipedia entry about this event

  • 3 August 1976; Beech 58, near Chillicothe, MO: Representative Jerry Litton of Missouri was killed along with his wife and two children when his plane crashed shortly after takeoff following a power loss on one engine. Litton had just won a primary election for a Senate seat from Missouri, and was on his way to a victory celebration in Kansas City, MO. The pilot and one other passenger was also killed in the crash.
    NTSB accident summary

  • 14 February 1975; near Beaumont, CA: Congressman Jerry Pettis of California was killed when his single-engine plane crashed into a mountain.
    NTSB accident summary

  • 8 December 1972; United Airlines 737-200; Midway Airport, Chicago: Representative George W. Collins of Illinois, three of the six crew members, and 39 of the 54 other passengers were killed when the aircraft crashed during approach.
    NTSB accident summary

  • 16 October 1972; Alaska - House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana and Representative Nick Begich of Alaska were lost over Alaska. The two congressmen, the pilot, and the aircraft were never found, and they are presumed to be dead.
    NTSB accident summary

Additional aviation related deaths of US state and local politicians are listed at The Political Graveyard.

Photo credit: jkero, Photobucket

09 August 2010

How FAA's downgrade of Mexico's safety rating affects you

Late last month, the FAA downgraded one of their key safety ratings for Mexico. This downgrade puts limits on flights to the US by Mexican air carriers, and also puts limits on what US airlines can do with Mexican airlines. However, if you currently have a reservation to fly to or from Mexico, you will probably not be affected.

FAA and the IASA program
The recent downgrade happened through the FAA's International Aviation Safety Assessments (IASA) program. This program looks at a country's ability to make sure that the airlines in that country meet international standards for airline safety. These are standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is part of the United Nations.

The FAA puts countries into one of two categories. Category 1 is for countries that meet international standards, and Category 2 is for countries that don't meet the standard. Mexico was downgraded from Category 1 to Category 2.

The IASA program is very limited. The program doesn't look at the airlines of a country, it looks at the part of a country's government that oversees civil aviation. It also only looks at that country's ability to oversee international aviation.

How this change affects your travel plans
If you currently have a reservation with an airline from Mexico, this IASA situation will not affect you. Mexican airlines that currently fly to and from US can still do so, they just can't add any additional service. US airlines that currently fly to Mexico are also unaffected.

The FAA ruling doesn't affect international flights between Mexico and other countries, but often other countries follow the FAA's lead, so check with your airline just to be sure.

If you are flying on a domestic flight on a Mexican airline, the FAA ruling doesn't affect your flight at all.

Another effect of the FAA's ruling is that US airlines can't have code share flights with airlines from Mexico. A code share flight is one where you buy a ticket with one airline, but one or more segments of your flight are with another airline. For example, before the ruling, if bought a ticket through Delta, and your flight included a segment on a Mexican airline, your reservation would have shown a Delta flight number for that segment. The new ruling forces Delta to rebook the ticket so it would show the flight number for that Mexican airline. In other words, the paperwork changes but your flight doesn't.

The current Mexicana Airlines situation
Mexicana airlines is currently undergoing labor and financial difficulties that have caused the airline to suspend some of its flights, including flights to and from the US and other international destinations. This situation is separate from the IASA situation, and there are currently no serious safety issues associated with Mexicana.

Mexican airlines with international flights
This is a partial list of Mexican airlines with international flights to US:

04 August 2010

Seven Puppies Die after American Airlines Flight

3 August 2010; Chicago, IL: Seven puppies that had arrived from Tulsa, OK died while they were waiting for a connecting flight from Chicago. American Airlines is investigating why the puppies died, and it is unclear what role weather at Tulsa and Chicago may have played. American Airlines flight 851 left Tulsa Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Chicago at 8:54 a.m. The temperature in Tulsa was about 86 degrees Fahrenheit at 7 a.m. and 87 degrees at 8 a.m. It was cooler in Chicago, with a temperature of about 70 when the flight landed. It did not reach 80 degrees in Chicago until about 1 p.m.

There were 14 puppies of an unknown breed on the flight, and a spokesperson for American Airlines stated that the puppies were alive when the flight arrived, and were taken to an American facility at O'Hare while they waited for their connecting flight.

Previous Incidents
Since May 2005, the US Department of Transportation has required airlines to report deaths of animals during transport. From May 2005 to May 2010, 122 dogs have died in flight or while in the airline's control on the ground. Of these 122 dogs, 16 were of mixed or unknown breeds.

Temperature Limits for Animals
Airlines can't accept dogs and cats for shipment if the airline cannot prevent exposure of the animal to temperatures less than 45 degrees F (7.2 C) or more than 85 degrees F (29.5 C) for more than 45 minutes when the animal is transferred between the terminal and the plane, or for more than four hours when the animal is in a holding facility. It is unclear of the high temperature limits were exceeded either in Tulsa or Chicago.

Additional Information provides extensive advice for traveling by air with your pet, including guidelines on what pets are allowed in the passenger cabin, rules on service animals in the cabin, and common airline restrictions for transporting animals in the cabin or in the cargo compartment.

Photo credit: jmatthew3

Note: The pugs in the photo were not the puppies on the flight, but short-snouted breeds like pugs represented about half the purebred dogs in the DOT list of dogs that died in the airline's custody.

28 July 2010

Airblue A321 crash kills all 152 on board

28 July 2010; Airblue; A321-231; flight 202; near Islamabad, Pakistan: The aircraft (AP-BJB) was on a scheduled domestic flight from Karachi to Islamabad, Pakistan when it crashed during approach in a hilly area near the airport. The aircraft was completely destroyed in the crash, and all 146 passengers and six crew members were killed. The crash occurred at 9:45 am local time, and early reports indicate that there was rain in the area at the time of the crash.

Previous Airbus A320 Series Crashes
This is the ninth crash involving airline passenger deaths on an aircraft from the Airbus A320 family. The first was a June 1988 air show crash of an Air France A320, and the most recent was a May 2008 TACA Airlines A320 crash in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

About Airblue Airlines
Airblue is a private airline based in Pakistan. It began operations in 2004 and has an active fleet of about five A320 series aircraft. This was their first major crash.

Additional Resources
Wikipedia page about the crash
Wikipedia page about AirBlue
Fatal A320 plane crashes
Fatal airliner crash rates by model

Photo Credits: Wikipedia, Getty Images

24 July 2010

CF-18 Crashes in Canada and Pilot Ejects in Time

23 July 2010, Lethbridge, Alberts, Canada: A CF-18 fighter jet crashed during an an airshow practice flight at the Lethbridge County airport in Alberta, Canada, and the pilot was able to eject shortly before the crash.

The pilot, Capt. Brian Bews of the Canadian Forces was practicing Alberta International AirShow when the aircraft apparently began to lose control close to the ground. The ejection sequence began about 30 meters (roughly 100 feet) off the ground. After ejecting, the pilot was dragged some distance on the ground before coming to rest. His was taken to a local hospital with unspecified non-life threatening injuries.

According the the Canadian Department of National Defence, the pilot, who is originally from Eatonia, Saskatoon, has logged more than 1,400 flight hours since his military career began in 1999, with about 1,200 of those hours in the CF-18 Hornet. He earned a private pilot's license in 1995.

Photo and video Credits: Global TV, Ian Martens, Miranda Turuk

Other plane crash videos

21 July 2010

Turbulence on United Flight Sends at Least 20 to Hospitals

20 July 2010; United Airlines 777; flight 967; over Kansas: United Airlines Flight 967, a 777 en route from Washington's Dulles Airport (IAD) to Los Angeles (LAX), diverted to Denver, CO (DIA) after apparently experiencing significant turbulence while flying at 34,000 feet over Kansas.

According to United, the aircraft had 255 passengers and 10 crew members. FAA spokesman Ian Gregor in Los Angeles said 26 passengers and four crew members were injured, and that one person was critically hurt, though no additional details were provided about the most seriously injured person. Local media reported that 21 people were transported to Denver area hospitals.

Fox News reported that United had two other significant turbulence events earlier this year. The first was a February incident where about 20 people were injured when a United flight experienced turbulence on a trip from Washington, DC, to Tokyo. That flight was a Boeing 747 with 263 people on board.

The second incident was in May when 10 people suffered injuries, including broken bones, on a United 777 flight that hit severe turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean on its way from London to Los Angeles. That flight was diverted to Montreal.

Last month, a United Express crash in Ottawa, Canada injured three people, including both pilots and one passenger.

While this most recent event is suspected to be due to turbulence, the investigation into this incident is ongoing could reveal another cause or causes. For example, in October 2008, a Qantas A330 was involved in what was first thought to be a turbulence event, but the Australian authorities found that it was not the case.

Plane Crashes and Significant Events for United Airlines
Plane Crashes and Significant Events for the 777
Fatal Turbulence Events Since 1980
Turbulence Resources for Passengers

01 July 2010

Maggots Raining on Passengers Forces US Airways Flight Back to Gate

Some airline incidents are quite stranger than fiction, and that was the case on June 28, 2010 in Atlanta. US Airways flight 1537, which was scheduled to go from Atlanta, GA to Charlotte, NC, was taxiing prior to takeoff when passengers began noticing maggots falling from on overhead bin. The flight crew announced that they were returning to the gate because of a "minor emergency on board."

The source of the maggots was from a container of spoiled meat that was in the carry-on baggage of one of the passengers. The plane returned to the gate, where a ground crew cleaned out the aircraft before it was allowed to continue to Charlotte. The passenger who caused this situation was also allowed to continue, but on another flight. Only after the flight arrived at Charlotte did the airline fumigate the aircraft.

Comments from one of the passengers on this flight show just how disturbing this event was to them:
  • I heard the word ‘maggot' and that kind of got everybody creeped out...All of a sudden, I felt somebody flick the back of my hair and on the front of me came a maggot, which I flicked off me

  • I felt like they were crawling all over me because it only takes one maggot to upset your world

  • And as they're telling us to stay calm and seated, I see a maggot looking back at me and I'm thinking, ‘These are anaerobic, flesh-eating larvae that the flight attendants don't have to sit with
How Can Maggots Get on an Airplane?
In the US, the federal government restricts what kinds of animals or other live creatures are allowed on an aircraft, and what kinds of animals can be imported into the US. However, for domestic airline flights it is up to the airline to set rules for animals, and those rules typically deal with flying with pets and service animals. Also, while the TSA has many rules about what items are permitted and prohibited from checked or carry-on baggage, there are no specific restrictions on bringing either spoiled meat or insects through security. contacted US Airways directly, and a representative indicated that dogs, cats, and birds were allowed on flights, but not bees or other insects. Presumably this means that maggots would not have been allowed on the aircraft if the airline had been made aware of their presence. It is not clear whether the passenger who brought the maggots on board either received permission from the airline or was even aware that there were maggots in their baggage.

Video Report of the Maggot Event

Advice from
Most airlines have very detailed rules on what kinds of live animals or biological specimens you can bring on an aircraft. If you are thinking about bringing any kind of animal or insect on board the aircraft, contact the airline ahead of time to see if your animal will even be allowed. If you are traveling internationally, make sure you are following all appropriate import and export rules. If you see something that may be a problem, for example someone sneaking an animal onto the aircraft, or a carry-on or checked baggage item that may be a health hazard, contact an airline representative immediately.

28 June 2010

Advice for Air Travelers with Diabetes recently added a page with advice for diabetic travelers. Most of the advice is based on information provided US government organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, and encourages travelers to plan ahead to make sure to sure that they have medications and other necessary supplies.

TSA and Medical Exceptions
While medical professionals recommend that travelers with diabetes carry food and snack items on long trips, this may cause problems at the airport as the TSA normally does not allow most liquids and gels in the cabin. As has pointed out in some detail, the TSA allows most medical items in carry-on baggage.

Send Your Suggestions

Please take the time to review the new page for travelers with diabetes and if you see something that we missed, or have stories you'd like to share about problems diabetics have with air travel, please send them in.

19 June 2010

Mapping the intersection of mind and computer in the cockpit

The following is based on the article Mapping the intersection of mind and computer from guest writer Christine Negroni

Well my inbox is filling up again with emails, as it did last month when I reported the following story for The New York Times on pilot complacency and cockpit automation.

Prompting the latest flurry of comments is a June 15, 2010 article by Andy Pasztor and Daniel Michaels in the Wall Street Journal about the crash in May 2010 crash of an Afriqiyah Airways A330. Only one of the 104 people on the Airbus A330 from Johannesburg to Tripoli survived the accident.

According to Pasztor and Michaels the landing accident is being seen as one in “which confused pilots got out of sync with the plane's computerized controls and ended up flying an apparently functioning commercial jet into the ground.”

This is no one-off event. A number of studies over the past 15 years indicate pilots fail to adequately monitor what the airplane is doing in one-half to three-quarters of all accidents. So in the wake of the Afriqiyah Airways disaster, what’s the big idea being proposed? More automation. That’s right, Airbus is said to be working to “devise foolproof automated ground-collision avoidance systems” that in cases of emergency transfer control from the pilots to the airplane.

“This is very disturbing”, wrote Hugh Schoelzel, a retired captain who worked as director of safety for TWA. “The more automation we add, the more training and pilot qualification issues arise. I believe in automation, but as an adjunct to basic pilot skills, not as an ‘end-all’.”

While automation may be causing a decrease in piloting skills as Mr. Schoelzel suggests, Professor Missy Cummings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says there is another reason to be concerned about cockpit automation; boredom.

Dr. Cummings a former Navy pilot, is director of the humans and automation laboratory at MIT’s department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Not surprisingly she is a proponent of automation and envisions a future that will include at least some pilotless commercial flights. But first some extremely troublesome problems have to be wrestled to the ground, problems demonstrated by one of Dr. Cummings students, Master’s degree candidate First Lt. Christin S. Hart, who has found that too much automation can prove counter-productive.

“Increased automation can lower an operator’s workload too much, leading to mental underload, which can cause a decrement in vigilance, or sustained alertness, and lead to boredom. It has been shown that boredom produces negative effects on morale, performance, and quality of work,” she wrote in her paper, Assessing the Impact of Low Workload in Supervisory Control of Networked Unmanned Vehicles.

These findings do not surprise Dr. Cummings “The human mind craves stimulation”, she explained to me last week during a visit to her office in Cambridge. Failing to find that stimulation in the task at hand, the mind will wander.

This cuts to the heart of a number of events outlined by industry researchers but takes us at warp speed to the episode last October in which two Northwest Airlines pilots overflew their destination - the Minneapolis airport. The Northwest pilots were doing personal work on their laptops which is not allowed.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with automation,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told me. “Any opportunity for distraction doesn’t have any business in the cockpit. Your focus should be on flying the airplane.”

But if I’m reading Lt. Hart’s study properly, the automation itself is an opportunity for distraction, even as it assists pilots by reducing workload and increasing the precision of calculations and navigation.

This is a conundrum. In today’s cockpit, two highly complex systems – the mind and the computer – come together, even though the contours of that intersection are still being mapped. It is not only unwise to race to a fix that fails appreciate these systems in balance, but it is unlikely to result in success.

Related Content
NTSB opens public docket on Northwest overflight

17 June 2010

United Express Flight Crash in Ottawa Injures Three

16 June 2010; United Express; Embraer E145; flight 8050; Ottawa, Canada: United Express 8050, a nonstop flight from Washington's Dulles airport to Ottawa's Macdonald-Cartier airport, landed on runway 7, was unable to stop on the runway, coming to rest about 150 meters off the end of the runway. It was raining at the time of the accident.

One witness claimed that the aircraft was hydroplaning on the runway, and a second witness who was monitoring air traffic control communications reported that the pilot told the control tower he had no traction on the wet runway.

The nose landing gear appears to have collapsed, although the rest of the aircraft appears intact. There was no post crash fire. Both pilots and one passenger were injured. The other 32 passengers and the flight attendant were not injured.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is conducting an accident investigation, with the assistance of the NTSB.

About the ERJ-145
The Embraer ERJ-145, along with the similarly designed ERJ-135 and ERJ-170, were involved in three previous crashes during passenger flights, and none have resulted in any fatalities. In 2006, an ERJ-135 operating as an executive aircraft was involved in a midair collision with a Gol Linhas Aereas 737-800 over the Amazon in Brazil. The ERJ-135 was able to land and none of the occupants were injured. However, the 737 crashed and all six crew members and 148 passengers were killed.

About United Express
There have been three crashes involving United Express aircraft that have killed passengers, with the most recent being in 1996. None of them involved an aircraft operated by Trans States. The NTSB database also lists about 35 previous incidents and accidents involving United Express.

About Trans States
Trans States airlines, which has been operating under its current certificate since 1988, currently has a fleet of about 28 Embraer 145 aircraft. Prior to this accident, the NTSB lists four previous serious incidents involving Trans States. In the past, it has operated as a regional affiliate of a number of larger airlines including Delta (Delta Connection>, Northwest Airlines (Northwest Ailink), TWA (Trans World Express), United (United Express), and US Airways (US Airways Express).