Category Archives: Safety

The backstory of a front-page aviation story

photo (2)There’s a story behind every story, as they say. Here’s how an intended bearing360 .ca blog post ended up morphing into a front page story in the Toronto Star.

Early last January I stumbled upon a tweet posted by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, which is an arms-length agency established by the federal government. The tweet, which included a link to a video, read as follows:

My interest was immediately piqued. Here is the TSB, as its known, stating its concern on social media. And the news value — that Canada’s rate of runway overruns is twice the world average — hit me immediately. I thought it would make excellent discussion material for bearing360. I had a look at look at the accompanying video and there was more news value, including this nugget: That runway overruns in Canada were four times the world average when runways were wet. The natural question, of course, was why? Moreover, I quite surprised at how straightforward and forceful the language was in the video. Quotes like:

“This … issue is one that can no longer be left unaddressed. The bottom line is if we don’t do anything to prevent landing accidents and runway overruns, passengers, crew and aircraft will continue to placed at unnecessary risk of injury or damage.”

Here’s the overall thing I found striking: The TSB wasn’t just sitting back, issuing reports. It was taking to social media to apply pressure. So, again. Why? One way to interpret that decision is it just wants to fulfill its mandate and make transportation in Canada safer. Another interpretation is that the TSB was growing exasperated with the amount of time it was taking Transport Canada to implement changes that the TSB recommended. I know enough about human nature to know that no one likes not to matter, and there is no reason to think the TSB would be happy with simply issuing recommendations and not seeing a payoff in the form of safer travel. At the very least both questions deserved an exploration.

So about a week late, with some time available, I started in on the story. I contacted TSB media relations official John Cottreau, who was kind enough to set up an interview with one of their senior aviation investigators and subject matter experts, Mark Clitsome.

Mark confirmed and echoed the concerns expressed in the tweet and video, that the TSB was concerned about the number of overruns in Canada and had been for some time. He didn’t say explicitly that the TSB was frustrated with Transport Canada — it’s not his job to start a battle with Transport Canada — but he did say that the runway overrun issue had been on the TSB’s watch list for some time and concern was growing. It’s easy enough to connect the dots and infer frustration with the pace of change.

I then started in on the research, looking for documentation about the state of runway overruns in Canada and what Transport Canada was doing to remedy. If you’re a journalist today, the web makes things so much easier than it was before documents were available online.

Of some interest to me was a Transport Canada document TP14816, Transportation in Canada 2011, which stated “Transport Canada is proposing regulations that will require certain designated certified aerodromes to install and maintain a Runway End Safety Area (RESA).” In the same publication TC said it was “revising TP312 — Aerodrome Standards and Recommended Practices in cooperation with industry experts.”

I also armed myself with current international runway standards. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) governs international rules on air travel. The TSB had said to be on the phone that Canada was not in compliance with ICAO rules on runways. Hmm. Why?

So I contacted Transport Canada’s media relations office, reaching a staffer I had dealt with on a story last summer, and asked a series of questions, among them:

  1. What is the status of proposed runway regulatory revisions? Are they in force or no?
  2. Are revisions to TP312 complete. If not, what is their status?
  3. Why, in the opinion of TC, have overruns not significantly decreased since 2010?
  4. Why does Canada not require airports to be in compliance with ICAO standard?

I received an immediate reply but was informed there would be an undetermined wait for the answers. I expected this. Government agencies will spend a great deal of time and energy shaping their message so as cause the least amount of harm to the agency and its political master. Every few days I’d check in to find out what the status was of my query.

After nearly three weeks I was beginning to think an answer wasn’t going to come, so I politely informed TC that I was going ahead with a story anyway and would be happy to include their response when they were able. My thinking was I’d fall back on that journalistic maxim: Go with what you have and fill in later if you can. My contact at TC appreciated the heads up and said she’d do what she could.

To my surprise, a couple of days later, just as I was about to post a story on bearing360,ca, I got a response.

Some questions had been answered and some hadn’t. It was clear to me, however, that I had a story. The concerns raised by the TSB were still being addressed, Canada was not in compliance with international standards, and it would be some time before a policy change would take place.

At this stage I realized I had a story that a newspaper would likely find worthy. Not only was there a news peg — that Canada lagged in runway safety standards and unsafe incidents were higher than the world average — but aviation stories generate quick interest among editors and readership because when something goes wrong with an airplane, the outcome is often ugly. Runway overruns, in particular, are a hot-button issue in Canada with the 2005 episode at Toronto’s Pearson International, when an Air France jet ran off the runway in wet weather and burned — precisely the scenario of growing concern stated by the TSB in its video. It also stood to reason that because of this episode, there was pressure on Transport Canada to take action.

So I wrote a story and then contacted a former Globe and Mail colleague who, as luck would have it, happened to now be the national editor at the Star. I pitched the story in a short, bright, couple of paragraphs. He was immediately interested. We worked out freelance payment terms and I filed the story.

A day later he wrote and asked if there was any reason he couldn’t hold the story and put it on A1 (front) for Sunday. I said no reason whatsoever. I knew from my days working as the front-page editor at the Globe and Mail what he was thinking: Weekend papers, specifically the news cycle of Saturday-to-Sunday and Sunday-for-Monday, can be slow. Offices are closed, government departments closed, so it’s difficult to generate news.

My story happened to have a not-bad news peg and it could sit for a few days without undo harm. In other words, it was perfect for a weekend paper.

Low-and-behold, it showed up on front.

I got the much-appreciated heads up of its publication on Sunday morning from the aerial photographer for whom I work as a pilot. Something entirely appropriate about that, I thought.

I then spent the following day building a follow-up package for bearing360.ca based on the Star story. My days as deputy sports editor at the Globe taught me the value of packages. They’re a way to stoke interest and flesh out an issue. This blog post is part of that package. You can find my related side-bar here.

 

Is debacle too strong a word for the 787? Perhaps not

Well I certainly didn’t anticipate writing about Boeing’s 787 problems two days in a row but it’s impossible not to do so in the wake of the eye-popping developments last night.

ap840802997092_wide-24b0ae5a4a75fa4e8592fefd8888343a2d3666e0-s6-c10

All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 with its evacuation slides deployed after an emergency landing in Japan.

For those who haven’t yet heard, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines yesterday grounded their 787 Dreamliner fleets — collectively 24 aircraft in all and nearly half of all 787 deliveries made so far — in the wake of an emergency landing by an ANA flight at Takamatsu airport in western Japan.

ANA said the aircraft’s pilots received a cockpit message indicating battery problems. A burning smell was additionally detected in the cockpit and cabin. All 129 passengers and eight crew members evacuated safely using the emergency slides.

The episode comes in the wake of a decision last Friday by the FAA to conduct a review of the airliner and its certification after a litany of problems, many of them related to the lithium-ion battery technology the aircraft. Here’s a link to a comprehensive list of recent snags from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

Boeing last night tweeted this response: “We’re aware of the ANA 787 diversion in Japan. We will be working with ANA and the authorities to determine what happened and why.”

That the batteries once again appear to have caused a problem is striking. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the airplane makes use of battery technology in place of hydraulics as a weight-saving measure (the weight saving is one of the reasons the airplane is said to be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than other aircraft of its size). I came across a tweet today from Stephen Trimble (@FG_STrim), an aviation reporter and editor at flightglobal.com, who says a 787 lithium battery caught fire in 2006 and — ehem — burned down an office building.

By the way, here’s a picture, in a story written by Stephen Trimble, released by the NTSB in the U.S., showing the charred battery box from an incident last week involving a JAL flight at Boston’s Logan Airport. Clearly the battery was on fire.

I received training on extinguishing Lithium-ion battery fires when I was a flight attendant. They’re commonly used as a power source for laptop computers and cell phones. When a li-ion battery has what’s called a thermal runaway and overheats, the result is nasty. And cell phone batteries have had precisely these kinds of runaways on aircraft before. In fact there was one in 2011 in Australia. Temperatures can go as high as 1,110 F. The important first response is to cool the battery using water.

More from twitter: Josh Newman (@joshuan542), who is studying to be an AME in the UK, sent me a message pointing out that ANA and JAL use the same maintenance company. Worth noting, given the majority of the 787 problems have come from those two airlines. That said, those two airlines also have more of the aircraft than any other operator thus far.

By the way, Air Canada has ordered 37 787s so far. Here’s a link to a list of 787 customers.

No one at this point would be surprised if the entire 787 fleet was grounded until the FAA completes its review. Increasingly, it would appear the FAA made a prudent decision last week and it’s important for Boeing to respond as openly and transparently as possible and not simply assert the airplane is safe. Clearly it’s not quite.

The reason Boeing’s 787 needs a formal review

imagesSo I went back and forth all weekend trying to make my mind up about whether or not this Boeing 787 tempest was worth some discussion or no.

For those who missed it, the FAA on Friday announced it was going to conduct “a comprehensive review” of the Boeing 787 systems and a “sweeping evaluation of the way Boeing designs, manufactures and assembles the aircraft.”

In aviation circles, this is a big deal, and something that doesn’t happen very often. It illustrates just how many problems have emerged with the new airplane recently; as of Friday, Reuters said there had been approximately 10 events in the span of six weeks. The list from last week, which I’ve more-or-less cut-and-pasted from two L.A. Times stories and a story from the New York Times, looked like this:

  • A smoldering battery fire related to the auxiliary power unit, discovered Dec. 7 on the underbelly of a 787 operated by Japan Airlines.
  • On the same day, a United Airlines Dreamliner flight from Houston to Newark, N.J., was diverted to New Orleans after an electrical problem emerged mid-flight. Qatar Airways, which had accepted delivery of a Dreamliner a month earlier, grounded the aircraft for the same problem that United experienced.
  • Last Friday a crack on the cockpit windscreen on an All Nippon Airways 787 was discovered. The plane landed safety but its return trip to Tokyo was canceled.
  • On the same day, oil was discovered leaking from an engine on another All Nippon Airways 787.
  • Last Wednesday, All Nippon cancelled a 787 flight after a computer mistakenly showed problems with the aircraft’s brakes.
  • Last Tuesday, a fuel leak forced a 787 operated by Japan Airlines to return to its gate minutes before taking off from Boston.

Quite the list, no doubt. But by Sunday night I finally decided it wasn’t worth adding my two cents. My thinking was this: Teething problems on a new airplane are not new, particularly on one which has introduced, as the 787 has, so many new technologies. I read remarks from Boeing engineers who said the 747 went through the same sort of process when it was introduced, and thought to myself, OK, they’ll sort it out, and the FAA review is just good safety management.

And then yesterday, Monday, yet another problem emerged on a Japan Airlines 787: An inspection Sunday revealed that the same 787 which leaked fuel in Boston more than a week ago had spilled another 100 litres of Jet A at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo.

That event snapped me awake and made me decide something important was at stake and needs discussion, and I’m not talking about last week’s problems or the FAA review, per se.

In my time as a journalist and just a guy following current events, I’ve come across countless examples of accidents or near-accidents unfolding from organizations that once considered themselves bullet-proof.

The episodes that immediately came to mind were the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. They shared a common thread: Arrogance, indifference, procedural creep.

Boeing has had a pretty good ride of late. It’s order sheet is fat. It’s building airplanes as fast as it can, airplanes that are considered state of the art. The Dreamliner, as it’s known, has introduced lightweight carbon-fibre construction and replaced much of an aircraft’s traditional hydraulically actuated systems with electrical systems using lithium-ion batteries. The ensuing weight reduction has generated 20% fuel savings compared to an older airplane seating as many people (210 to 290, depending on configuration). It’s an enormous technological leap and understandably, airlines, many of them struggling financially, are lining up to buy them.

And you know what? That’s precisely when you put the brakes on and have a good look-see.

Nobody would (yet) suggest Boeing doesn’t manufacture a fine product or that the Dreamliner isn’t a remarkable airplane. They do and it is.

But it could very well be that a company going hell-bent-for-leather, one under pressure to get aircraft out the door (the first aircraft was delivered in September of 2011, more than three years late, and then production went into high gear and last year the company built 46) misses something. Or that the FAA, during the “unprecedented” certification process,  misses something. People and processes aren’t perfect, as aviation has proven again and again and again.

There was a terrific quote posted online by Time magazine on Jan. 11:

“'[Boeing] may have gone too far, too fast in building 46 planes,’ says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry market analysis firm. ‘You need the proper cadence, that proper manufacturing rhythm.’ Boeing is clearly a sophisticated and experienced producer, but going from zero to 46 with this much innovation is just inviting glitches, says Aboulafia.”

So why not have another look? For silly. Yes, it will cost Boeing and the FAA some money. And why not think of that as an investment rather than a cost? After all, if one of those airplanes has a serious safety episode, one that results in the loss of life, the cost, in human and financial terms, will make the review ordered last Friday by the FAA look like so much pocket change.