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31 March 2011

Rejected Landings and Safety Issues at National Airport

On March 30, 2010, the Washington Post newspaper featured a story about aborted landings at National Airport just outside Washington, DC. The story discussed how compared to the two other local airports, Dulles in Virginia and BWI Marshall near Baltimore, National had many more aborted landings. This is a procedure where the flight crew is directed by air traffic controllers to not land, or where the crew elects not to land because of weather, runway obstructions, or other reasons.

Typically, the aircraft is not in any imminent danger, and the usual result is either a delayed landing at the destination airport, or a diversion to a nearby airport. Although rejected landings are routine procedures that are designed to help aircraft avoid a hazardous situation, the experience can be unsettling for some passengers. According to research by the Washington Post, aborted landings happen about 10 to 20 times per month at the airport, compared to an average of about 10,600 scheduled landings per month (source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics). This means that at National, there is about one rejected landing for each 500 to 1,000 landing attempts.

On the day the Post article was published, Dr. Curtis of discussed a number of potential safety issues associated with rejected landings at National Airport on WTOP radio in Washington, DC.

Listen to the interview (4:58)

24 March 2011

Qantas A330 diverts after cockpit fire

A Qantas Airbus A330-200 (VH-EBL), with 147 passengers and 11 crew members on board, was on a scheduled international flight from Manila to Sydney, and cruising about 420 miles (675 km) northwest of Cairns, Australia on 22 March 2011, when there was a small electrical fire in the cockpit.

According to several media reports, the fire was initially extinguished by an automated fire fighting system. The fire flared up several minutes later, and one of the crew members extinguished it with a fire extinguisher. The crew diverted to Cairns and landed about 50 minutes later. According to a Qantas spokesperson, an electrical fault caused smoke and small flames near the left windscreen. None of those on board were injured.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is Australia's equivalent to the US National Transportation Safety Board, is investigating this Qantas incident.

Previous A330 cockpit fire event
This is not the first Airbus A330 cockpit fire involving a Qantas aircraft. On 10 June 2009, this JetStar aircraft (JetStar is a subsidiary of Qantas) had a cockpit fire during a flight from Osaka, Japan to Australia's Gold Coast Airport (about 60 miles south of Brisbane).

According to a report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, while the aircraft was flying about 427 km southwest of Guam, the flight crew noticed a burning rubber smell on the flight deck. At about that time, two caution messages were displayed to the crew identifying a fault in the right windshield heating. This was followed by a loud bang along with a flash of light, followed by smoke and fire from the bottom right corner of the right windshield. All flight crew donned oxygen masks, and a crew member used a fire extinguisher to extinguish the fire. The aircraft diverted to Guam and landed without incident.

Additional Resources
2008 Qantas A330 event with injuries
Other noteworthy Qantas events
Fatal A330 crashes

Photos: Min Bajunid, Airbus

11 March 2011

FAA orders the removal of lavatory oxygen generators

The FAA recently ordered all US airlines to remove or disable any chemical oxygen generator installed in an airliner lavatory. According to the FAA, this action was done to deal with a potential security threat, but the action also leaves passengers vulnerable to injury if there are in a lavatory during a loss of cabin pressure. Below are some additional details on what this change means to the average passenger.

What did the FAA order?
According to an FAA press release from 10 March 2011, the FAA ordered all airlines to disable or remove chemical oxygen generators from airliner lavatories. These actions were completed on March 4th. Further details are available in Airworthiness Directive (AD)

Why did the FAA do this?
Because this is a security related decision, it is unlikely that the general public will be told the reasons why. It is unlikely that this order came because of a newly discovered plot to use these generators to threaten an aircraft. The order was given to the airlines last month, and only became known to the public this week.

Chemical oxygen generators provide emergency oxygen to a passenger through a chemical reaction. This reaction produces both oxygen and heat, and one or both of these products of the chemical reaction may have been related to the risks identified by the FAA and the other US federal agencies involved in this decision. This is the kind of technology that was implicated in the 1996 fatal crash of a ValuJet DC9 aircraft. In that event, portable oxygen generators being carried in a cargo compartment likely caused a fire that caused serious damage to multiple aircraft systems and led to the crash that killed all on board.

What's the worst that could happen to me?
In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure that requires the use of supplemental oxygen, passengers in the lavatory could be deprived oxygen to the point of experiencing hypoxia, which is a condition where the body has an inadequate supply of oxygen. If the loss of cabin pressure is gradual and noticed by the crew, it is likely that you would have enough time to make it back to your seat. If there is a rapid loss of cabin pressure, symptoms could be severe, including loss of consciousness, seizures, coma, or death occur. The most well known hypoxia related fatal crash from the past few years involved the 1999 crash of an executive jet carrying professional golfer Payne Stewart.

Does this prevent someone from using oxygen generators as a weapon?
Not at all. The FAA order does not removed portable oxygen generators from other parts of the cabin. Because replacing all portable oxygen generators would require retrofitting aircraft with oxygen systems that don't use oxygen generators would be expensive and time consuming, it is unlikely that the FAA would require to replacement of all chemical oxygen generators from all airliners. Note that some airliner models may use chemical oxygen generators to deliver emergency oxygen, and others may use bottled oxygen.

Does this rule affect my oxygen tank?
This change in FAA policy only deal with chemical oxygen generators used in airline lavatories. It does not affect medical oxygen systems.

Photo: Emirates A380 lavatory shot from Telstar Logistics

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Resource
Google has provided an online service called Person Finder that provide a tool to either help locate someone who may have been displaced by the recent disaster or who may have information about a displaced person. Google has provided this free services previously after earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

You can visit the site at

04 March 2011

Why box cutters found on a jetBlue flight is not a cause for concern

The recent news about a pair of box cutters being found on a jetBlue flight may at first seem frightening, but it is probably not a cause for concern for the average passenger. Last Saturday, on February 26th, several box cutters fell from the carry on bag of a passenger on jetBlue flight 837 shortly before the aircraft was due to depart New York's JFK airport for a flight to the Dominican Republic.

A flight attendant who saw the box cutters fall out of the bag informed the captain. The passengers were evacuated, the aircraft searched, and the passengers rescreened before the aircraft was allowed to depart. The passenger who owned the box cutters, who was reportedly a factory worker from New Jersey, was interviewed by authorities and released without being charged.

Why box cutters are a big deal
According the the 9/11 Commission Report (see page 9), a passenger on American Airlines flight 77 (which was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon) reported that the hijackers were armed with box cutters. The Commission did not mention whether such weapons were used on the the other three hijacked flights. Although knives with blades less than four inches (about 10 cm) in length were allowed in the passenger cabin prior to 9/11, knives of any length have since joined a long list of items banned from the passenger cabin.

The TSA, which was formed after 9/11, has numerous procedures in place to prevent knives, box cutters, and other contraband from entering the secure area of the airport. No security procedure is perfect, and clearly in this case the procedures did not work. Ann Davis, a spokesperson for TSA, stated that three screeners will be disciplined and given remedial training for failing to spot the box cutters. She did not mention if TSA also considered changing any of their current procedures. If procedures are changed, it is unlikely that the public will be notified, unless of course TSA accidentally releases sensitive security information to the general public, as they did in late 2009, when they released for public review a report on security procedures without completely deleting the most sensitive security information.

Why box cutters are not a big deal
While box cutters can certainly be used as a weapon, and keeping them off airplanes is a good idea, the fact that some box cutters accidentally ended up on the jetBlue flight did not expose passengers to any danger because there was no plot by any individual or group to cause harm to the aircraft or its occupants. There are many other reasons why the presence of box cutters should not be of great concern to the flying public:
  • Knives and other potential weapons are readily available in the airport terminal or allowed on board by TSA: While the TSA thoroughly screens any individual who wants to access the secure area of an airport terminal, there are many items that the TSA allows in the passenger cabin of aircraft or that are available in the terminal that could be used as weapons. Items which are currently allowed in the passenger cabin include matches, cigarette lighters, screwdrivers that are shorter than seven inches (18 cm) long, and sharp pointed scissors less than four inches (10 cm) long. Also, while passengers and flight crews may be prohibited from taking knives into the secure area of an airport terminal, the restaurants, bars, and other eating establishments in the secure area of an airport will likely have knives and many other potential weapons at hand.

  • Additional layers of security added after 9/11: In addition to hardened cockpit doors, and updated flight crew and cabin crew procedures for preventing or dealing with attempted hijackings, some flight may also have armed federal air marshals or armed flight crew members.

  • Passengers more likely to confront a hijacker: Prior to 9/11, hijackers may have had many motivations for taking control of an aircraft, including killing passengers or taking them as hostages, but with rare exceptions like the 1987 hijacking of a Pacific Southwest Airlines airliner, forcing the aircraft to crash was not a goal. In the pre-9/11 era, passengers and crews would comply with hijacker demands, rather than attempting to intervene. Since 9/11, passengers have consistently demonstrated a willingness to immediately confront hijackers, including Richard Ried (the Shoe Bomber), who attempted to set off an explosive on an American Airlines flight in December 2001, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Underwear Bomber), who attempted to set off a bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight in December 2009.

  • TSA security procedures are not designed to be 100% effective: As last year's public outcry over invasive TSA search procedures illustrated, the TSA has to balance the need to have a secure air transportation system with the need to have procedures that reduce risks from hijacking and sabotage, while at the same time not exposing air travelers to other kinds of unacceptable risks, including invasions of privacy and exposure to radiation from full-body scanners. In the recent jetBlue incident, the box cutters in the carry on bag were not spotted by either the screening devices used for carry on bags or by the TSA screeners who presumably should have searched the bag and found the box cutters. Even after additional training, there is no guarantee that those screeners, or any other airport screening professional, will be able to find every banned item.

Bonus Video - Space Shuttle launch seen from airliner
Below is a video of Space Shuttle Discovery's final launch (STS-133) on 24 February 2011. This has no bearing on any airline safety or security issue, this is just plain fun to watch. Please enjoy.

Photo: Duke Green
Video: NeilMonday