AirAsia woes

Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

On Dec 28 last year, AirAsia suffered the loss of an Airbus A320-200 jet which crashed after taking off from Surabaya in Indonesia for Singapore, killing 162 people on board. Then there was talk about the weather being a factor and allegations about the lack of adequate measures governing flying permits.

A report by Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) now points a finger at “the maintenance regime of AirAsia, as well as the actions of the pilots at the controls of Flight QZ8501 when it crashed.” The KNKT found inadequacies in the plane’s maintenance system, which may have overlooked the worrying trend of a recurring technical fault with the Rudder Travel Limiter, an inflight system that helps pilots control the aircraft rudder. Apparently the ill-fated aircraft showed a fault in the system 23 times in 12 months. And the recovered flight data recorder showed that the fault occurred four times within 40 minutes of take-off.

According to KNKT, the pilots managed to deal with all but the last warning alert, after which they apparently tried to reboot the system manually against protocol, causing a power trip that disengaged the autopilot and sending the aircraft into a violent roll or “upset condition”.

In response, AirAsia said its line maintenance crew had “rectified the fault messages at the time of occurrence in accordance with the Airbus maintenance manual and troubleshooting manual, which is why it never qualified as a repetitive fault.” But the KNTK said the carrier’s maintenance systems “did not optimise the post-flight reports.”

There is a second issue – the suspicion that the pilots of Flight QZ8501 might not have been trained to handle the A320-300 in “upset conditions”, such training that might even be considered not required because of the unlikely event of it happening. But Mr Jean-Paul Troadec, former director of France’s aviation authority BEA, said AirAsia had not followed the agency’s rules on training.

The KNKT report has opened the floodgates for potential legal suits by families of the victims. Already 11 families – and others are expected to join them – have filed a collective lawsuit against Airbus. US-based aviation lawyer Floyd Wisner who is representing them told The Straits Times: “We believe the recent report by the Indonesian authorities confirms our position that this tragic crash was caused, at least in part, by a mechanical defect in the aircraft and certain of its components.” The claims alleged that aircraft concerned was “defectively and unreasonably dangerous” in part because Airbus had “negligently breached its duty of care” in the design, manufacturing and assembling of the plane.

Mr Wisner is expected to make hay of the fact that Airbus was aware of the recurring problem, yet took no action to check the trend despite its many reported incidents.

AirAsia too may not be spared. Mr Wisner has lampooned AirAsia for “not handling the claims of its passengers pursuant to international standards.” He added, “Despite the promises of AirAsia’s owner, Tony Fernandes, that the victims’ families would be treated fairly, AirAsia is proving that it is a low fare, low compensation airline.”

Any air disaster of this magnitude is bad news for the carrier concerned. For as long as the memory stays fresh in the mind of would-be travellers, demand for seats to fly that same carrier is likely to suffer. It takes time to heal as the airline repairs its image. Between the time of Flight QZ8501’s fatal accident and the KNKT report, AirAsia might have regained some ground with Mr Fernandes himself spearheading the road to recovery. At the time of the incident, Mr Fernandes was quick to offer his sympathies and assistance to families of the victims. He was personally present to take charge of the situation and manage the media publicity. One year later responding to the KNKT report, Mr Fernandes graciously thanked the KNKT for its “very thorough investigations” and reiterated that his thoughts were with the families and crew of the ill-fated flight. He tweeted: “These are scars that are left on me forever but I remain committed to make Airasia the very best.”

However, as much as Mr Fernandes understands the business, the KNKT report is reopening the wounds of the fatal accident and setting the recovery back a few steps. At the time that the KNKT report was released, AirAsia experienced several flight delays out of Kuala Lumpur International Airport (budget terminal) that left hundreds of passengers stranded and angry. Call it a coincidence. Eleven pilots (some reports had the number as 13) called in sick and while there was speculation that this looked like a revolt by pilots unhappy with working hours and conditions, Mr Fernandes dismissed it as a “freak day” when a new rostering system was introduced. Echoing him, an AirAsia spokesman said: “We have over a thousand pilots. 13 is a small number.”

Sure, a small number per se but not in the context of what happened. If that response was not uttered in jest, it smacked of arrogance. Right now, AirAsia can do with a little less disruption but a little more positive reinforcement. Even in small doses.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation, titled “Air Asia loses altitude”.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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