Aircraft Accidents and Shortages

In aviation news this week: there’s a pilot shortage on the horizon.  Shortages mean that the pool of qualified candidates dwindles, forcing airlines to hire less qualified aviators to supplement the retirees or ‘jumpers’, those who go to a more promising career elsewhere; this jeopardizes safety.  Consequently, the pilot and technician shortages have been old news for over twenty years.  As a line maintenance manager for an airline, my co-managers and I were discussing what to do about the inevitable deficit in 1997; at that time, it was already a growing concern.

But how does one deal with an aviator shortage?  For one, as JetBlue has, by starting a pilot training program that drafts inexperienced pilot wannabes, puts them through a rigorous training program and makes them the senior JetBlue pilots of the future.  These trainees will have the advantage of guaranteed employment in what will be a highly competitive market; accruing seniority based on time-in service; and not have to worry about being called back on furlough from another airline.  JetBlue will have pilots that have been trained and bred in their ‘way of business’; a loyal employee who tows the line with less possibility of being corrupted by another airline’s culture or voting with a bargaining unit for representation.

How about technicians?  Several airlines have made agreements with maintenance … aka Airframe and Powerplant (A&P), schools.  The company pays for all or a good portion of the A&P certification; upon graduation, the technician joins the ranks of the hosting airline.  Again, the technician is trained in the airline’s culture; they become a willing and loyal advocate for the airline; and they work undeterred to make the airline successful.  Loyalty to a job provider must not be underestimated.  Meanwhile the technician’s loyalty helps to guarantee little to no outside interference in the airline’s continuing success.

What about the Regionals and Feeders?  Aren’t they at wit’s end keeping pilots and technicians employed before losing them to the attractive wages and equipment of the larger airlines?  It is my feeling that regionals are slowly becoming extinct; they will be absorbed, as were so many of the larger airlines of the ‘80s and ‘90s.  American Eagle, once a regional for American Airlines, is now part of the American system.  Independence Airlines tried to break free of United in 2003, trying to grow in United’s backyard at Dulles airport.  Instead Independence collapsed under United’s superior presence in Dulles, folding without ever standing on its own.  And just like Independence and American Eagle, the regionals will inevitably be starved out or annexed into the larger whole.  Their inability to rearm with fresh pilots and technicians will only accelerate the end.

What about Feeders?  In this, conditions may remain the same.  Feeders, in the sense I speak of, are smaller aircraft certified under Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 Air Taxi; they can get into smaller airports that are not cost effective for the mainline airline, e.g. a cargo airline.  In some cases, the Feeder aircraft are owned by the mainline, but leased back to the Part 135.  The mainline carrier secures the pilots, technicians and Part 135 operator are loyal, while guaranteeing the aircraft are never wanting for anything.

The world is getting smaller; resources are limited.  The bigger fish continue to swallow up the little fish.  AirTran, TWA, Pan Am, Continental, Northwest, Eastern, the list goes on; a litany of big fish, many of whom didn’t know how to plan ahead to survive on their own or becoming too big and trying to survive on dwindling resources.

Aircraft Accidents and a Certification Crisis

Boeing is seeking help from government lawmakers in pushing through legislation that will ‘streamline’ the international certification of its new jets: the 787-10 and the 737 MAX.  It appears that the international aircraft market is moving at a snail’s pace and Boeing wants the Federal Government to help it grease the skids.

Asking the government to intervene is a dangerous position, not to mention employing an unfair advantage in what is supposed to be the free market.  Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are wined and dined to sway their votes on subjects they have no first-hand experience with.  Rick Larsen (D-WA) is a ranking member on the Aviation Subcommittee; and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) Chairman of this subcommittee are positioned to make some major decisions concerning reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  Neither lawmaker, nor anyone else on the committee, have any transportation or manufacturing experience beyond being a passenger on an airliner.  As Maxwell Smart might say, “this would fall under the old making-bad-decisions-based-on-emotion-rather-than-knowledge trick.”

Just as dangerous is pressuring the government to require the FAA to intervene in matters of Commerce.  As I tell all my students, the FAA, the Federal Rail Administration, the Federal Maritime Commission or any other regulating body do not arbitrate how the various transportation companies do business; they do, however, determine that they should do business – safely.  It is a dangerous precedent to set that allows the government to dictate how an airline sells its services; a shipping company what ports to go to; or a railroad what engines to use.

In the same way, the government should not be used as the muscle in a sales agreement.  Would we want Canada saying to the United States that the US is moving too slowly on a deal; that to pick up the pace or there’ll be consequences.  Then the US should not participate in the increasing of speed of certifying aircraft in a foreign land.

As shown in the Lithium Battery conundrum of the B787 a few years ago, rushing to certify can lead to mistakes.  As technology slips further through our understanding, the chances for safety issues increases; we would like to think we have the flick, but we don’t … we can’t … Man is just not that smart.

As I said on numerous occasions: pilots don’t fly anymore; mechanics don’t repair anymore; and air traffic will soon no longer control the skies.  Should we force our lack of respect for technology on other nations?  Maybe … maybe, their lack of arrogance would be a lesson for the Federal Government, and Boeing.

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Aircraft Accidents and 3-D Printing

“3-D printing has popped up on the cutting edge of some surprisingly diverse industries: food healthcare, retail, and now aerospace.” That sentence starts an article I read … three years-ago in Forbes magazine.
One of the issues that came up recently in my Non-destructive Inspection (NDI) class was the dawn of 3-D printing in the aircraft manufacturing world. We were discussing scenarios where NDI principles could be applied in aerospace for finding different structural problems with aircraft, e.g. dye penetrant for cracks in a metal’s surface. This led to the limited number of NDI principles used on composite materials, e.g. tap tests: searching for ply separation by listening for a hollow echo. When I asked the question about new technologies, such as 3-D printing, or Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) it caught my students off guard.
3-D printing has made the Science and Technologies documentaries circuits; even sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory have played with it. On the serious side, ALM has been in the news recently, as Airbus adopted a new Titanium printer for manufacturing some components. Smaller aircraft manufacturers have improved on ALM technologies, printing aircraft spars – the load bearing structure for a wing – that are lighter, easier to manufacture and stronger than older technology spars. I wrote an article on this in AMT Magazine a year-ago.
But I digress. In 1992, my airline received some of the first composite intensive airliners. We soon discovered the inconveniences of new technologies when two composite elevators were damaged. There was no procedure – and no one – to fix or replace them, even by the manufacturer. Twenty-five years later, NDI testing for composites have not progressed much further than 1992, while manufacturers design and build practically all composite aircraft.
The aviation industry adopts new technologies because they’re lighter, stronger, less expensive, and, let’s face it, cool. There’s often a rush to implement technologies, that we don’t shake them out properly. Computer-run airliners and new fuel technologies move at light speed; slap a label on it and we’re off. We never pause to ask if we COULD do a thing. Yet history has taught us that we must ask ourselves if we SHOULD do a thing (tip of the hat to Michael Crichton).
How much time has been dedicated to 3-D printing’s integrity? How many materials are used to print with this technology? It’s one thing to print a microwave oven’s door inside the International Space Station; quite another to print an aircraft component that hasn’t been durability tested with extreme temperatures, pressurization, hydraulic fluids, aerodynamic stress loads, and the effects of time. How do we test these 3-D items? How do we assure their continuing integrity? Do they crack, corrode, stress fracture, or just give into age?
If aviation manufacturing does this wrong, it will lead to a whole new age of accidents; one the NTSB and the FAA are quite out of their element to figure out.

Aircraft Accidents and an Executive Order

Last Wednesday, while rewriting a class on Repair Stations, my coworkers and I were informed that the course material, regulations and all, must be put on hold for the time being. The reason to do so is because of Executive Order, until the dust settles from the change of Administrations.
Anger rose as two people started in with the partisan comments; I raised my voice among the disagreement to point out that this occurs every time America elects a new Administration; we need to stop the nonsense and get back to preparing the class without the guidance to reference. “This isn’t the place or the time for political discussion,” I said. “And quite frankly, I don’t have the stomach for the futility of both sides of the argument.”
These types of Executive Orders are the norm; it occurs in order to determine what it is an Administration must do to get their agendas moving forward. Every successfully elected President has put the brakes on government policy until the lawyers can identify conflicting regulations; they’ve been doing this since some of the earliest Presidencies.
Why does this happen? Is it designed to hamper commerce and progress? Just like last minute orders and reprieves, an outgoing President often – more often than not – adds last minute agendas to the laws, hoping that the incoming Administration will be too preoccupied with ‘taking over’ to notice, that is, until it is too late.
The time wasted on this is an inconvenience, but usually not more than that. Any challenges to the rules of law can either be delayed or referred to the law at the time of question. A delay would amount to a few weeks, at most, giving both parties in a dispute more time to prepare.
Referring to a law relevant to the timeframe, the law would have to relate to the time period in which the law was violated. Since this will usually be the course of things, the law broken has to be judged by the circumstances at the time, e.g. if it is unlawful to do something in 2016 when the law was violated, the change in law in 2017 has no influence on the 2016 law’s validity; the decision will be made by the law broken by 2016 standards.
All things will go back to business as usual in no time, or within a short time. It is sad to see how rumors start, especially with political disagreements. This President, whether right or wrong, has the right and privilege to enforce an Executive Order to delay government guidance and regulation, just as Obama, did … and Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, etc.