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30 August 2013

Social media leads to friction between airlines NTSB and FAA

A Wall Street journal article from 26 August 2013 highlighted the increasingly role social media tools like Twitter are playing in recent airline accidents in the US, leading to some friction between airline officials, the NTSB, and the FAA. In the article, Tim Logan, the senior risk management official at Southwest Airlines, expressed frustrations that speed at which information is released after an accident has led to problems like a lack of coordination between the FAA and the NTSB during an accident investigation, specifically the 22 July 2013 Southwest landing accident in New York.

Logan is not the only airline industry voice with concerns about the speed of information flows to the public. On 8 July 2013, just two days after the of an Asiana 777 in San Francisco, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) sent out a press release stating that the organization was "stunned by the amount of detailed operational data from on-board recorders released by the National Transportation Safety Board," saying also that the amount of information released during the field portion of the investigation was unprecedented.

NTSB post accident policies on information
The speed at which NTSB releases information is part of their normal policy. On its web site, the NTSB states that after an accident, it strives to conduct two press conferences a day when on scene, where Board's spokespersons discuss factual, documented information about the accident. The NTSB may remain on site for up to a week, and they may also have several public affairs specialist to handle media requests.

Media involvement past and present
While the NTSB's policies with respect to being transparent and providing factual information to the public in the early stages of an investigation has not changed over the last few decades, the media realities are far different from the past. A little as a generation ago, only the largest media organizations had the resources needed to send video to viewers around the world, and most people had to wait until the following day's newspapers to get photos and interviews from those involved in the accident. Because of these kind of limitations, it could take days or weeks before minute details of an accident would be available to the public.

Compare the past with the present, where it takes little more than a YouTube or Twitter account (both available for free) for any individual or group to communicate with the entire world within seconds. Anyone interested in an accident can choose from a wide range of resources for information, and can get plenty of information directly from the investigating authorities unfiltered and without delay.

NTSB and social media
A 23 July 2013 article published by Twitter quoted an NTSB official stated that sending out tweets after an accident is standard NTSB policy because it helps to keep both the media and the public stay informed during an accident investigation.

The Wall Street Journal article discussed how the NTSB's use of Twitter to communicate with the media and the public after an accident has forced other parties involved in investigations, particularly airlines and the FAA, to speed up their responses both the the investigating authorities and to the public. The following chart was taken fro the article, and shows that NTSB sent out 86 tweets in the days after the 6 July 2013 crash of an Asiana 777 (flight 214) in San Francisco, with the largest number (30) sent the day after the crash.

A search for tweets sent by NTSB (@NTSB) about the crash reveals that many of the tweets contained links to a wealth of information, including photos from the crash site, videos of press conferences, and the number of times the original tweet was retweeted:
Tweets from NTSB containing the word 'Asiana'
Tweets from NTSB containing hashtag #Asiana214
Tweets from NTSB containing the number '214'

Note that the search was conducted on the Twitter search site at, and as is the case with most search engines, different search terms give different results, so it helps to use various search terms associated with an event.

NTSB uses a variety of social media tools to provide information to the public. In addition to Twitter, NTSB uses Flickr to post high resolution photos from accidents, and also has a YouTube channel where past press conferences can be reviewed at any time. Because all of their published information is in the public domain, anyone can use these photos and interviews without cost, and without first asking permission.

The future has more and not less social media
In spite of the protests about the speed at which the NTSB releases information, it is very likely that the future will see a greater role for social media in accident investigations. In the recent Southwest and Asiana crashes, photos and videos taken by some of the passengers involved in the accidents are being used by the NTSB to help further the investigations.

Perhaps the best description of what the future holds is from a headline from this recent headline from an article from the Airline Passenger Experience Association, "Social media becomes important tool in accident probes whether safety professionals like it or not." The article is about the August 2013 meeting if the International Association of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI), where among other things, an informal poll of the roughly 300 air safety specialists in attendance showed that almost all of them used Twitter. Representatives from the Canadian and German aviation accident investigation agencies, as well as a representative from Southwest Airlines, agreed that information supplied by passengers and other witnesses, and shared online, have helped investigators.

23 August 2013

Fire danger from Honeywell ELTs may exist on aircraft beyond the 787

After last month's fire involving the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on a Ethiopian 787 in London, the FAA and other regulatory agencies around the world have ordered that these ELTs be deactivated, inspected, or removed. The ELT on that aircraft was manufactured by Honeywell, which has produced about 6,000 ELTs for use in aircraft around the world.

A recent airworthiness directive from Transport Canada airworthiness directive (AD), which takes effect on 26 August 2013, has gone a step further, requiring that Honeywell ELTs on a variety of aircraft be inspected by the end of 2013. Transport Canada stated that the AD was issued as a precautionary measure to address the possibility of a fire due to wiring installation discrepancies of the ELT system. Depending on the outcome of the AAIB investigation, Transport Canada may revise the AD or mandate additional corrective actions.

Affected aircraft
Previous directives from the UK and US authorities were limited to the 787. This latest Canadian AD covers a much wider range of aircraft, including the Boeing models 717, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, 787, MD11, MD80 and MD90; and the Airbus models A300, A310, A320, A321, A330, A340 and A380.

Other countries following Canada's lead
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has also adopted the Canadian AD. According to various media reports, the FAA also plans to issue a similar AD for US-registered aircraft.

Why ELT fires are potentially catastrophic
As was described in some detail in an earlier article on the Ethiopian 787 event, fire caused by an ELT would be particularly worrisome because these devices, unlike other systems such as engines and auxiliary power units, do not come equipped with fire suppression systems, and they are typically located in parts of the aircraft that are inaccessible from the cabin. In the event of an in flight fire, it may not be possible to put out the fire, and it may spread to other parts of the aircraft.

In the event of an onboard fire, typical emergency procedures include landing at the closest suitable airport, but if the fire occurred if the aircraft were far from a a suitable airport, which would be the case for many transatlantic or transpacific flights, passengers and crew could be exposed to large amounts of smoke and fumes for a significant amount of time.

In such a situation, emergency oxygen systems may not have been useful for passengers since these systems are typically designed to supply passenger with a combination of oxygen from the emergency oxygen system and ambient air from the cabin, including any smoke or fumes that are present in the cabin.

14 August 2013

UPS A300 crash in Alabama kills both pilots

14 August 2013; UPS A300F4-622R; N155UP; flight 1354; Birmingham, AL: The aircraft was on a domestic cargo flight from Louisville, KY (SDF) to Birmingham, AL (BHM), crashed and burned during a landing attempt. The aircraft was destroyed in the crash and subsequent fire, and both pilots were killed. There were no other occupants, and no one was killed or injured on the ground.

Video from the crash site

NTSB photos from the crash site

Speed and altitude profile from

Note: Time in the graph is EDT, Birmingham, Al is in CDT

About the A300-600
This is the fourth fatal plane crashes involving the A300-600. The previous events were:

  • 26 April 1994; China Airlines A300-600; Nagoya, Japan: All 15 crew and 249 of the 264 passengers were killed.
  • 16 February 1998; China Airlines A300-600; near Taipei, Taiwan: All 15 crew and 182 passengers were killed, as were seven people on the ground.
  • 12 November 2001; American Airlines A300-600; Queens, New York: All nine crew members and 251 passengers on the aircraft were killed, as were seven people on the ground.

UPS accident history
This is the second fatal crash involving a UPS aircraft. On 3 September 2010, a UPS 747-400 aircraft crashed in Dubai, UAE, killing both pilots. UPS had two other accidents that destroyed aircraft, but did not kill any crew members. The first was a 1985 crash of a Swearingen SA227 at London, KY on 31 January 1985, and the second was due to a fire that started shortly before the aircraft landed in Philadelphia, PA on 8 February 2006.

12 August 2013

Why TSA may be searching you well outside of airports

A New York Times story on 5 August 2013 described an ongoing program that has allowed the TSA to expand their activities well beyond airports, to places like sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highways, and train terminals. The story pointed out how some groups hold that what the TSA is doing in this program is well beyond their original mandate and that their behavior may violate the constitutional rights of people in the US.

The TSA currently has a legal right to act outside of airports, even though many in the US don't like what they are doing. To understand why this situation exists, it is important to understand a several key realities about the TSA

  • TSA is not a law enforcement organization.
  • Law enforcement organizations have significant limits when it comes to conducting a search.
  • TSA has an exemption from these limits when it comes to searches at an airport.
  • There is an ongoing program that allows the TSA to operate outside of airports under law enforcement supervision.

TSA is not a law enforcement organization
The TSA employees that you see at airport screening locations typically wear the uniform that you see in the photo below. While TSA employees wear an outfit that looks like a police uniform, have badges that looks like the type used by police officers, and sometimes have titles like Transportation Security Officer, TSA is not a law enforcement agency and its employees do not have typical police powers.

Typical law enforcement officers include the power to arrest someone, and the power to use force in order to execute their duties.

One similarity between police officers and TSA personnel is their ability to legally search individuals or their property. However, police officers in the US have significant limitations of when such searches can be conducted, and TSA, at least at an airport, do not have these limitations.

Typical law enforcement limitations on searches
In general, law enforcement officials in the US can search an individual or that individual's property without a warrant only if that law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe that someone has committed a crime, or has a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime.

Why TSA can operate outside of common law enforcement limitations
The TSA's ability to search passengers and their belongings at airports is based in part on a US federal court decision from 1973 which ruled that airport screenings are considered to be administrative searches because they are conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme that had the purpose of preventing the carrying of weapons or explosives aboard aircraft.

The TSA outside of the airport
The TSA VIPR ( program uses TSA assets and personnel to augment law enforcemement (including Federal Air Marshals) resources to ensure security in all modes of transportation, as well as at special high profile events. The program, which began in 2005, allows TSA to extend its ability to conduct searches beyond the airport.

Past misconduct and legal limits on searches
The New York Times article pointed out that there had been some cases in the past where the VIPR teams have conducted searches that were ineffective, for example searching passengers after they had left a train, and the Inspector General's office of the Department of Homeland Security issued a report in August 2012 that discussed numerous concerns about how these teams stay within their legal limits when it comes to searches outside of the airport.

General public concerns
One of the fundamental concerns expressed both by the New York Times article and by some in the community is that the TSA should not have the same kind of wide-ranging ability to search individuals and their belongings outside of the airport environment. This extension of TSA's authority outside of the airport parallels the New York City's "stop and frisk" program where police officers were allowed to stop, question, and search individuals without having the meet the basis law enforcement standards of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The program, which has been in place for about a decade, has often led to arrests and confiscation of illegal weapons. However, on 12 August 2013, a US federal judge ruled that the New York City policy was unconstitutional and must be changed to adhere to constitutional limits.

It is too early to tell if this decision will outlaw similar practices across the US, of it will have any effect on the TSA's VIPR program. No doubt, many who oppose the VIPR program will welcome this latest decision and will hope that it will lead to changes in how the TSA operates outside of the airport.

09 August 2013

Passengers are not required to see or understand preflight safety briefings

While passengers, especially those who fly frequently, often ignore the preflight safety briefing, they do serve a vital purpose, and over the last few decades these briefings have no doubt allowed passengers and crews to avoid serious injuries and deaths during emergencies. However, the experience of one passenger, who is also a career aviation safety professional, highlights the fact that airlines may not be required to ensure that passengers can hear or understand these safety briefings.

On 20 July 2013 I flew on a SAS MD82 from FCO (Rome) to CPH (Copenhagen), and I was in seat 33A. A panel was just in front of my seat and I could not see the safety demonstration carried out by the flight attendant standing many rows ahead (see photo below). In the same time, listening by the loudspeaker (in English and probably Danish) was difficult and irregular. No other safety information was given before takeoff.

The view from seat 33A on an SAS MD82

I don’t need to receive a safety demonstration as I have been working in the Italian Civil Aviation Authority for more than 30 years, but the handler and the airline did not know this when they assigned that seat to me. The aircraft was also full of Italians who probably weren’t able to fully understand the message without a visual demonstration. If the demonstration had been different from the usual I would not have been able to understand it at all.

Now I am pretty sure that everything has been done according to the rules, only I would like to know which rules. Is that seat certificated for all kind of passengers? For example many airlines require that emergency exit seats are available only for English speaking people (for example Air Canada). As I think that many MD82s are still in service in the USA, what is your opinion about this topic? - Valter

Dr. Todd Curtis of responds
You raise an interesting set of questions. I'm not aware of the rules around the world for passenger safety briefings, but in the US, airlines that fly aircraft that are of size of the MD82 have very clear guidance on the visibility of flight attendants during the safety briefing. FAA Advisory Circular AC121-24C describes what is required to be, or should be, covered in oral passenger briefings. In the section that discusses passenger briefing requirements for operations that include flight attendants, it states the following:

The pretakeoff oral briefing should be given so that each passenger can clearly hear it and easily see required demonstrations.

By that standard, it appears that your flight, if it had been a US airline, would not have been in compliance with the requirements of this FAA Advisory Circular.

This advisory circular also requires that an airline provide passenger briefing information in the languages used by the airline. However, there are no requirements that every passenger should be given an oral safety briefing in a language that is understood by that passenger, and there are also no requirements that accommodations be made for passengers who may have limited sight or hearing.

When it comes to exit row seating, in the Advisory Circular the FAA strongly encourages, but does not mandate, that air carriers require crewmembers to provide a preflight personal briefing to each passenger seated in an exit seat. The FAA did not mention whether an exit row passenger should also understand English.

In summary, it appears that the FAA gives US airlines wide latitude when it comes to passengers safety briefings, and from your description of your SAS experience, only the fact that you were not able to see the flight attendant give the briefing would have fallen short of FAA requirements. On your particular flight, the relevant requirements would have been the appropriate European regulations that would have been in effect for SAS.

One of those regulations appears to be European Regulation (Reg CE 8/2008), which unlike the FAA regulation does not specifically require that the safety demonstration be visible to every passenger. Like the FAA Advisory Circular, this European regulation does not specify that the briefing be given in language that a passenger can understand.

07 August 2013

Second NTSB update on Southwest 737 accident at LaGuardia

Earlier this week, the NTSB released a second update on the 22 July 2013 Southwest Airlines flight 345 landing accident at New York's LaGuardia Airport. The accident, which is being handled by the NTSB's Major Investigations Team, resulted in substantial damage to the aircraft.

Initial press release
The initial NTSB press release on 23 July 2013 stated that the jet's nose landing gear collapsed rearward and upward into the fuselage, damaging the electronics bay. The aircraft was also damaged from sliding over 2,000 feet (610 meters) before coming to rest off to the right side of the runway.

First investigative update
Key findings from the first NTSB investigative update released on 25 July 2013 included the following:

  • Evidence from video and other sources was consistent with the nose landing gear making contact with the runway before the main landing gear (this is the reverse of what happens in a normal landing).
  • Flaps were set from 30 to 40 degrees about 56 seconds prior to touchdown.
  • Altitude was about 32 feet, airspeed was about 134 knots, and pitch attitude was about 2 degrees nose-up approximately 4 seconds prior touchdown.
  • At touchdown, the airspeed was approximately 133 knots and the aircraft was pitched down approximately 3 degrees.
  • After touchdown, the aircraft came to a stop within approximately 19 seconds.

Second investigative update
Key findings from the second NTSB investigative update released on 6 August 2013 revealed additional information about the accident flight:

  • This was the first trip the flight crew had flown together and it was the second leg of the trip.
  • The first officer had previous operational experience at LGA, including six flights in 2013.
  • The captain had one previous flight into LaGuardia.
  • On approach into LaGuardia, the first officer was the pilot flying and the captain was the pilot monitoring.
  • The wind changed direction prior to landing, from an 11-knot tailwind when the aircraft was at 1,000 feet, to an 11-knot headwind at landing.
  • The aircraft had been cleared for an ILS approach on runway 4 (see diagram below).
  • The crew reported the airplane was on speed, course and glideslope down to about 200-400 feet.
  • At some point above 400 feet, there was an exchange of control of the airplane and the captain became the flying pilot and made the landing.
  • The NTSB has so far found no mechanical anomalies or aircraft malfunctions, and that a preliminary examination of the nose landing gear indicated that it failed due to stress overload.
  • The NTSB has collected five videos showing various aspects of the crash landing. The team will be analyzing these recordings as part of the investigation.

Photos: NTSB, Wikipedia

02 August 2013

Surprising exceptions to hazardous materials restrictions

While the TSA has a number of restrictions on hazardous and dangerous items, the FAA allows passengers to travel with several categories of hazardous items on commercial airliners. These exceptions are for small amounts of hazardous materials, typically included in items that are for personal use.

The FAA has provided a rather detailed table listing these exceptions, and they explain in that document that the TSA may on occasion prohibit these items, and that airlines may have additional limitations on these items. Some of the hazardous materials exceptions mentioned in the FAA document are listed below:

  • Toilet or medicinal articles that are hazardous materials such as rubbing alcohol, flammable perfume and colognes, nail polish and remover, and aerosols (hairspray, shaving cream, etc.).
  • One book of safety matches (book matches) allowed in carry-on bags only.
  • One lighter (gas or absorbed liquid) in carry-on baggage only.
  • Up to 5 liters of alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of more than 24% but not more than 70% in unopened retail package, in carry-on or checked bags depending on the situation (Note: for tips on how to travel with liquor, which is typically a duty-free item, visit for advice.
  • A cordless curling iron with a flammable gas cartridge installed.
  • Small personal mercury thermometer in a protective case.
  • Small arms ammunition (up to 19.1 mm for rifle and pistol cartridges, any size bshotgun shells) for personal use, when securely boxed (checked baggage only). Also, check out this 2010 article on how to travel with firearms.
  • One small (4-ounce or less) self-defense spray (checked baggage only).
  • Diving lamps and other battery-operated extreme heat producing equipment, with power disconnected and in carry-on bags only.
  • Small lithium and lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronic devices. Spare batteries must be protected from damage and short circuit and placed in carryon baggage.

For questions or comments regarding these hazardous materials regulations, please contact the Hazardous Materials Information Center at: 800.467.4922 or

For questions about TSA prohibited items or other air travel security measures please visit, which has a detailed overview of what is allowed in either carry-on or checked baggage, what is completely prohibited, and what kinds of exceptions are allowed by the TSA.

For details on typical airport security procedures please visit You can also visit the TSA web site at, or contact the TSA for questions about security procedures or prohibited items at 1.866.289.9673 or

01 August 2013

FAA further restricts non-US airlines using the San Francisco airport

On 30 July 2013, the FAA issued additional restrictions for non-US airlines landing at the San Francisco International airport (SFO). In addition to the earlier restriction that non-US airline crews use their GPS systems to help guide them during landings operated under visual flight conditions, this new restriction does not allow non-US crews to land alongside another plane during visual flight conditions. Domestic carriers are still allowed to perform side-by-side landings.

Typical restrictions on parallel runways
Under visual flight rules (VFR) conditions, the FAA allows simultaneous aircraft arrivals and departures so long as the parallel runways meet minimum spacing requirements. Runways 28L and 28R, the longest two runways at SFO, meet these minimum requirements. Runway 28L is the one being used by Asiana flight 214 when it crashed on 6 July 2013.

Why is the FAA singling out non-US carriers at SFO?
One the reasons given by the FAA for its latest restriction was so that it would "minimize distractions during a critical phase of flight." Given the recent crash at SFO, and the fact that this restriction, as well as the earlier recommended use of a GPS device during visual approaches to SFO, is only aimed at non-US airlines, the actions of the FAA imply that the organization believes that all non-US airlines are at higher risk when landing under VFR conditions at SFO.

These decisions of the FAA would make sense, and would be justified, if the FAA could show a measurable difference between how well crews of US airlines land at SFO compared to crews of non-US airlines. Perhaps one of easiest to understand comparison would be the rate of missed approaches by the two groups of airlines. While the FAA has mentioned that there have been a number of missed approaches by non-US airlines at SFO since the Asiana crash, the FAA has not released detailed and comprehensive data that would allow a fair comparison between these two groups of airlines.

Opinion: What may be behind the recent rule changes
The early factual information that has come from the NTSB investigation of the Asiana crash indicates that the Asiana crew was unable to execute a stabilized approach to one of the longest runways in the US under daylight VFR conditions. Instituting these rule changes for all non-US airlines in the absence of any kind of NTSB recommendation for changing landing procedures at SFO makes sense if following things happen to be true:

  • That there are only a subset of the airlines that have issues with visual approaches.
  • The FAA was aware of this potential problem with specific airlines before the NTSB began its investigation of the Asiana crash.
  • The FAA does not wish to publicly embarrass a particular airline or the civil aviation organization of that airline's home country by suggesting that it is allowing pilots to fly airliners without having those pilots demonstrate mastery of basic VFR piloting skills.

What's the FAA's next move?
The last two announcements by the FAA were not expected. After an accident, it is unusual to have procedural changes implemented that focus on a group of airlines. If changes are made to procedures associated with a particular airport, then all aircraft using that airport would be subject to those changes. This combination of changes affecting only particular airlines at one airport is not only unusual, but the logic behind it has at least one obvious flaw.

When the FAA issued its earlier recommendations to use a GPS during SFO approaches, an FAA representative stated that the recommendation was a response to concerns that some non-US airline pilots may not have sufficient experience or expertise to land an airliner using visual approach procedures, which don't rely primarily on electronic landing aids.

While this explanation may make sense for non-US airlines that are flying to SFO from Europe or Asia, but it would not make sense for airlines from Canada and Mexico. Also, by implementing these rule changes for all non-US airlines, the FAA is implying that airlines like British Airways and Qantas, airlines that are noted within the airline industry for the capability of their crews and quality of their training and operating procedures, and which have been flying to SFO for decades, have suddenly become operators of aircraft flown by higher risk flight crews.

Additional information