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15 April 2011

FAA controllers sleeping on the job may have many causes

On April 14, 2011, after several very public and very embarrassing incidents involving air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt accepted the resignation of Hank Krakowski, who was the manager of the FAA's air traffic control organization. Babbitt promised to perform a full review of how the air traffic control system was operated, and several political leaders, most notably President Obama, did their best to neutralize the traveling publics concerns by emphasizing their concern about the situation and their determination to ensure that the air traffic control system remains safe.

The recent public concern about sleeping controllers, which started last month after two aircraft had to abort landings because of a sleeping controller at Washington's National Airport, may bring to light some of the underlying reasons why controllers may be falling asleep. One of those reasons may be the FAA's policy for staffing air traffic control positions. One reason may have been the policy that allowed single controllers to staff control towers at major airports during late night shifts when there are few aircraft taking off or landing. The policy was recently changed, but the FAA's policy of rotating the shifts that a controller may work, for example working for several days in a row on a morning shift before rotating to either an earlier or a later shift, may play a role in controller fatigue.

Possible Roles of Fatigue and Obstructive Sleep Apnea
One possible issue, one that the FAA has long recognized, is the role that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in causing degraded pilot performance, including increased sleepiness. This problem isn't limited to pilots, but one that is often associated with obesity. Both the NTSB and the FAA have also been concerned about the role of fatigue in aviation safety, with the NTSB highlighting air traffic controller fatigue as one of its Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements.

Part of FAA's response to those related NTSB safety recommendations was a 2008 FAA symposium on fatigue where the FAA brought together a number of subject matter experts to discuss fatigue’s effects on flight crews, maintenance personnel, and air traffic controller, including the effect of rotating shifts on air traffic controller performance.

Dr. Todd Curtis of discussed these and other issues on the BBC radio program Newshour on April, 14, 2011.

BBC Interview with Dr. Todd Curtis (4:30)
Audio: MP3 | YouTube

Additional Resources
2008 FAA fatigue symposium (index of proceedings)
Obstructive sleep apnea
FAA brochure on obstructive sleep apnea
FAA brochure on the effects of fatigue in aviation

07 April 2011

How old is the aircraft that you are flying?

The recent emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines 737 due to a fuselage rupture has once again brought the issue of aging aircraft to the public attention. The NTSB investigation into the Southwest incident has pointed to unexpected and unseen metal fatigue on some models of the 737 as a potential safety issue, and the FAA, along with Boeing, have developed procedures to address the problem.

When you fly, you may not know in advance how old your aircraft is, but you can get an idea of how old the airline's fleet is. Using data from a number of sources, has upgraded its page Average Fleet Age for Selected Airlines to include links to detailed aircraft aging information for dozens of large airlines around the world. The data, based on research performed by the site, provides the average age of an airline's fleet, as well as the average age for particular aircraft models within that airline's fleet.

For example, for Southwest Airlines, which flies several models of the 737, the average fleet age is 15 years, with their older 737 models (737-300 and 737-500) averaging 19.2 years and the newer models (737-700) averaging 12.6 years.

Below are some average fleet ages in years for selected US airlines:

airTran - 7.3
Alaska Airlines 8.0
American Airlines - 15.0
American Eagle - 9.7
Continental Airlines - 9.5
Delta Airlines - 14.5
JetBlue Airways - 5.4
Southwest Airlines 14.3
United Airlines - 14.3
US Airways - 12.3

Compare those figures with selected airlines from outside the US:

Aeromexico.htm - 7.0
AirAsia - 3.4
Air China - 7.6
Air Canada - 10.5
Air France - 9.1
British Airways - 11.9
Ethiopian Airlines 9.9
Japan Airlines - 10.8
KLM - 10.7
Lufthansa - 13.2
Qantas - 11.9

For a more complete list, including information for different models within those fleets, please visit

06 April 2011

A review of a very eventful week in airline safety

This has been a very eventful week in airline safety, which has been dominated by the fallout from the April 1st fuselage rupture involving a Southwest Airlines 737-300, and an announcement by the French government wreckage from Air France flight 447 had been located at the bottom of the Atlantic. The A330 crashed into the ocean in June 2009, While the Southwest event has dominated the media, two other dramatic events have been occurring in the world of airline safety, including a deadly crash of a United Nations aircraft in Africa and an emergency evacuation of a United Airlines A320 in New Orleans .

Southwest Airlines fuselage rupture
There have been a number of unexpected surprises and regulatory actions since the NTSB started its investigation into the Southwest Airlines fuselage rupture on April 1st. This is a fast moving story with many parts, but the quick summary of the status of the investigation and the actions taken to deal with early findings is as follows:

- The rupture happened because of undetected metal fatigue in the fuselage

- A visual inspection, the only type required at the time, would not have detected the problem

- A previous Southwest 737 fuselage rupture in 2009 was in a completely different area of the fuselage

- The manufacturer (Boeing) had redesigned that area of the 737 fuselage in the 1990s and did not expect fatigue problems in this area of the aircraft (The lap joints that run the length of the fuselage) before about 60,000 flight cycles

- The incident aircraft had 39,781 flight cycles

- Southwest airlines grounded 79 similar aircraft (737-300s) and found five with similar problems

- On April 4th, Boeing came out with a service bulletin that detailed a more advanced inspection procedure that could detect the problem on affected Boeing 737-300, -400, and -500 series airplanes

- The FAA came out with an Airworthiness Directive (AD 2011-08-51) that required these advanced inspections be performed on all the affected aircraft within 20 days, and within five days of the aircraft has more than 35,000 cycles

- Aircraft that have accumulated more than 30,000 flight cycles must have this inspection procedure repeated at intervals not to exceed 500 flight cycles

- If cracks are detected, they must be repaired by an approved method before the aircraft can fly again

- Southwest has already complied with this Airworthiness directive. will provide updates on this investigation as they become available. Dr. Todd Curtis of was also interviewed by the BBC about this event.

United A320 has emergency landing in New Orleans
4 April 2011; United Airlines A320-200 (N409UA); flight 497: Shortly after departing New Orleans on a nonstop flight to San Francisco, while climbing through 4,000 feet, the crew received multiple automated warnings and detected smoke in the cockpit. The crew also reported a loss of primary instrumentation and turned back to New Orleans. Air traffic controllers had to provide navigational assistance. The aircraft lost of anti-skid braking and nose-wheel steering upon landing and exited the runway approximately 2000 feet from the departure end of the runway. There were no injuries among the 119 passengers and crew.

Crash of a UN plane in Africa kills all but one on board
4 April 2011; Georgian Airways Canadair CRJ-100; 4L-GAE; flight 834; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC): The aircraft was on a domestic unscheduled flight from Kisangani to N'Djili airport in Kinshasa, and was attempting an instrument approach to runway 24 around 14:00L during heavy rain and under low visibility conditions. The aircraft missed the runway, broke up, and caught fire. , and crashed into a forest while en route to its destination. There was one survivor among the four crew members and 29 passengers.

At the time of the crash, the airplane operated on behalf of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Because this was not a regular airline flight, this crash was not counted as a fatal event as defined by This was also one of those rare airliner crashes with a sole survivor and the sixth fatal crash involving a CRJ.

05 April 2011

Wreckage found from 2009 Air France A330 Crash

Air France flight 447, an A330-200 (F-GZCP) on a scheduled international flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France, departed Rio late on 31 May 2009, and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of 1 June 2009. While some wreckage and the bodies of about 50 of the 228 passengers and crew were found floating on the surface of the ocean in the weeks after the crash, most of the aircraft and aircraft occupants remained lost.

On April 4th, the French Bureau d'Enquetes et Analyses (BEA), which is leading the accident investigation, announced that significant portions of the aircraft, including an engine, a landing gear assembly, and a large part of the fuselage, were found on the ocean floor about 4,000 meters (about 13,000 feet) below the surface. Some passenger remains were also spotted (BEA presentation).

This fourth search was concentrated in an area of about 10,000 sq km (about 3,900 sq mi) about 75 km (46.6 mi) from the last known position of the aircraft. So far, the black boxes (cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder) have not been located, but the French government plans to continue searching for additional wreckage and to begin an effort to raise some of it to the surface.

Photos of wreckage on the sea floor

Related and articles

Initial Reports on This Event (4:10)
Audio: MP3 | VideoiPod/MP4 | WMV | YouTube

Additional Resources Flight 447 page
Synopsis of second BEA interim report (English)
Complete second BEA interim report (English)
Complete second BEA interim report (French)
First BEA Interim Report (English)
First BEA interim report (French)
Other Air France Plane Crashes
Other Airbus A330 Plane Crashes
BEA Flight 447 page
Wikipedia Flight 447 page

Previous Articles
Initial article 3 June 2009
Air France Flight 447 Update 9 June 2009
Air France Flight 447 Update 10 June 2009
Air France Flight 447 Update 15 June 2009
Air France Flight 447 Update 19 June 2009
Air France Flight 447 Update 26 June 2009
Todd Curtis BBC Interview about Air France Flight 447 - 9 July 2009
FAA orders A330 pitot tube replacements - 3 September 2009
Article on Second Interim Report from the BEA - 18 December 2009

04 April 2011

BBC interview about Southwest 737 fuselage rupture

On April 1, 2011, Southwest Airlines flight 812, a 737-300 on a scheduled flight from Phoenix, AZ to Sacramento, CA, experienced a rapid loss of cabin pressure after a rupture developed in the upper fuselage about 18 minutes after takeoff when the aircraft was climbing through 34,000 feet. After the loss of cabin pressure, the crew was able to divert to Yuma, AZ without further incident. There were no serious injuries among the 118 passengers and crew members on board. The rupture was about five feet long and about a foot wide. (BBC interview - 4:03)

In the first few days of the investigation, the NTSB and Southwest found that the rupture The BBC program The World Today interviewed Dr. Todd Curtis about some of the issues surrounding the April 1, 2011 incident where a Southwest Airlines 737-300 experienced a rupture in the upper fuselage that led to a loss of cabin pressure and an emergency landing. The early findings of the NTSB investigation hint at a wider problem in the worldwide 737 fleet. Among other things, the NTSB found evidence of extensive fatigue cracking in the area of the fuselage rupture, cracking that hadn't been discovered during routine maintenance before the flight. The NTSB also stated that the underlying problem would likely not have been caught by the kinds of visual inspection that are required for that part of the aircraft.

Southwest grounded 79 other 737-300 aircraft that may have been prone to fatigue cracking, and have so far found three other aircraft with similar cracks (by April 7th, two additional aircraft were found).

The NTSB investigation is in its early stages, and it may be weeks or even months before the NTSB determines a cause for the fuselage rupture. Before that happens, it is very likely that the FAA or Boeing may recommend or require additional inspections or procedures for uncovering conditions that may cause similar fuselage ruptures.

Dr. Curtis Interview on BBC's The World Today

Previous Related Incidents
This isn't the first time Southwest has been in the news because of issues related to inspections or metal fatigue. In 2009, a Southwest 737 on a flight from Nashville, TN to Baltimore, MD experienced a loss of cabin pressure due to a smaller fuselage failure in a different area of the fuselage.

In 2008, Southwest faced millions in fines because of problems with FAA safety inspection process that allowed the airline to continue to fly airplanes that were not in compliance with a mandatory safety inspection. The following podcasts and videos discuss some of the issues around those proposed fines.

Show #47: Interview on the Radio America Show 'The Gregg Knapp Experience' - 14 April 2008
This interview from the Radio America show The Gregg Knapp Experience focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. Topics covered included the threats that were alleged to have been directed at whistleblowers in the FAA who wanted to report problems with the oversight process.
Audio: MP3 Length: 9:35

Show #46: Interview on the BBC Show 'The World Today' - 7 April 2008
This interview from the BBC show The World Today focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. Topics covered included the role of whistleblowers in the FAA and whether the FAA is doing their job of protecting those who fly.
Audio: MP3 Length: 5:12

Show #45: Interview on the Don Shelby Show on WCCO Radio in Minneapolis - 7 April 2008
This interview from the Don Shelby Show on WCCO radio in Minneapolis focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. Topics covered included the risks passengers may face as a result of recent maintenance problems, and issues around airline maintenance that us outsourced to companies outside of the U.S.
Audio: MP3 Length: 10:11

Show #44: Interview on the Ankarlo Morning Show on KTAR Radio in Phoenix - 3 April 2008
This discussion with KTAR host Darrell Ankarlo focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would likely discuss in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. The key issue of concern in the hearing was the relationship between the FAA and the airlines, specifically whether the recent problems with the FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines were a symptom of a broader problem within the agency.
Audio: MP3 Length: 11:44

Show #43: A Discussion of Concerns After a String of Airline Safety Events - 1 April 2008

A roundtable discussion on National Public Radio station WAMU from 1 April 2008 featuring Dr. Curtis, the Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Daily Jim Matthews, and the vice president for operations and safety of the Air Transport Association Basil Barimo.
Audio: MP3 Length: 47:56

Show #42: The FAA Inspection Process and Southwest Airlines - 28 March 2008
In this Conversation, Dr. Todd Curtis discusses a proposed $10.2 million dollar fine against Southwest Airlines and how problems with FAA safety inspection process allowed the airline to continue to fly airplanes that were not in compliance with a mandatory safety inspection. Dr. Curtis also discusses the role the FAA played in allowing Southwest to fly out of compliance aircraft, and how subsequent actions by the FAA may ensure that all airline operators may be following the rules but may also inconvenience passengers and undermines their confidence in the FAA.
Audio: MP3 | VideoiPod/MP4 | WMV | Google Video | YouTube Length: 9:05

Video Report from 28 March 2008

For more videos, visit the YouTube channel.

Related Resources:
18 March 2008 letter sent by FAA to airline operators requesting safety audit
Text of AD 2004-18-06
Safety events involving Southwest Airlines
Types of Airworthiness Directives