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06.27.09

Ground These Planes!

Airbus must take extra precaution and fix the A330’s faulty instruments—which could have caused Flight 447’s crash—in order to prevent another catastrophe.

The A330 is ubiquitous—indeed, at the Paris Air Show, an Airbus executive boasted that “one takes off every minute somewhere around the world.” We don’t know how many are still crossing oceans with flawed instruments that can clearly create sudden emergencies that pilots find extremely challenging. It would be a big leap, on current evidence, to believe that this flaw alone brought down Flight 447. Nonetheless, I would argue that the risks posed by these failures of the systems which for most of a flight are deputed to fly the Airbus—and, therefore call for immediate steps from the flight crew to recover from—are so great that all A330s should be grounded until they have upgraded speed gauges. What more do we need to know before taking the minimum preemptive step to ensure against another catastrophe?

We don’t know how many are still crossing oceans with flawed instruments that can clearly create sudden emergencies that pilots find extremely challenging.

On Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board decided to reveal that two A330s, one flown by the Brazilian airline TAM and the other by Northwest, suffered serious inflight computer failures. Both events are related to speed-measurement gauges called pitot tubes, which are prone to be affected by ice and give false readings. Perhaps more startling is how the NTSB heard of these scares. The first source was the Brazilian government and the second was not Northwest but an Internet site where pilots post anecdotal records of problems they experience.

This sure is a piecemeal and haphazard way of monitoring potentially disastrous events in the sky. The NTSB is not empowered to do more than post these “advisories.” Only the FAA has mandatory authority as a regulator of U.S. airlines. One wonders how many more similar experiences with A330s have not been reported—the NTSB admit they haven’t a clue. The pitot tube problem is acknowledged by Airbus and they have been replacing them with upgrades that eliminate the fault, but at a leisurely pace.

There is always an immediate tension between the public demand to know what causes an air crash and the patient, drawn-out process of investigation that, in most cases, explains it. Both groups have the same hope for the outcome—to pinpoint the cause and to prevent it from ever happening again. In fact, commercial aviation has become so safe and the skill of investigators so great that the failures capable of bringing down an airliner, human and technical, have virtually been reduced to the irreducible.

From the outset there are always people with pet theories, and the blogosphere has been a force multiplier. All sorts of wild, often paranoid scenarios show up, ranging from government-ordered missile strikes to extraterrestrial interventions. The disappearance of Air France Flight 447 has unleashed something worse, a lunatic xenophobia toward all things French, in which Airbus (whose airplanes embody not just pan-European technologies but a lot of American stuff, too) appears as the careless creator of voodoo systems of automation. To these people, Boeing is a saintly, unblemished national treasure, even though Boeing outsources as many, or, in the case of its troubled 787 Dreamliner, more of its components abroad than does Airbus.

That kind of partisanship is absurd. Boeing and Airbus have differing philosophies in some aspects of their craft, but both are companies at the top of their game who often share ideas on safety issues and, truth be told, greatly respect each other.

In the last week I have been critical of Boeing for what, by any measure, has been a case of serial bungling in the management of the Dreamliner program; and I am now increasingly concerned about a gathering number of incidents involving the Airbus A330 that are strongly suggestive of having a role in the loss of Flight 447. Those who write about aviation disasters often find themselves caught between the spin doctors of the two companies, who can be a lot more prickly than their bosses. As is often the case in journalism, if you disaffect both parties you know you are doing something right.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation.