How Safe is Air Asia-Is it Worth the Risk

A preliminary fact finding by the ATSB (Australian Transport Safety Board) on the recent Air Asia engine blow out on a flight leaving Perth for Kuala Lumpur in June 2017 (leaked) does not auger well for Air Asia, its maintenance standards, its maintenance records, history and its overall approach to air and passenger safety.

Experts referring to the crash of Air Asia QZ 8505 from Surabaya Indonesia to Singapore on New Year’s eve of 2014 say airlines like Qantas would have never flown a plane with the sort of defects and maintenance history the ill fated Airbus belonging and flown by Air Asia on that fateful journey suffered from.

Yet Air Asia’s PR machine running overtime has said it had improved its pilot training and maintenance standards since the ill fated QZ 8505.

The preliminary findings arising out of the so called “Bird collision” incident more recently out of the Gold Coast airport in Queensland demonstrates the issue of poor passenger and aircraft safety by Air Asia. It not having improved its safety and maintenance record inspite of assurances given by its management points to a money grab at all costs by Air Asia.

The preliminary report appears to indicate that pre existing problems with both the Perth and Gold Coast aircraft engines which would well have been known to Air Asia were not corrected or attended to as it ought to have been. Rolls Royce the engine manufacturer has a lot to answer for which it prefers to remain mum about.

This kind of cost cutting and ‘negligence’ according to another aviation expert is common practice amongst Asia’s burgeoning cut price airline industry who work their aircraft and staff (pilots) over and above the industry average in some cases by 70-100% running personnel and assets into the ground.

Airlines like Air Asia report earnings above industry averages because their strategies are designed to attract bookings well in advance of travel dates. This coupled with restrictive conditions to cheap flying which allows the airline to resell a ticket more than once where a traveller defaults.

Triggers for default conditions have a very low threshold and the airlines in this sector often re sell the cancelled defaulter tickets to last minute travellers in some instances for a premium. However the high cash flows do not translate into re-investment in training, maintenance and passenger safety.

Air Asia appears to be following an industry trend in low cost air travel that appeals to the lower socio economic demographic who are not as discerning about matters such as maintenance records, airline safety and pilot training.

A survey done after the crash of a United Airlines flight in Buffalo New York nearly 10 years ago found that most passengers on low budget airlines like Air Asia (although Air Asia is not specifically mentioned in the Survey) clearly show that cost of travel is more the consideration than anything else like safety and training is to this demographic.

Air Asia according to one aviation commentator  and university academic is a tragedy on a grand scale waiting to happen. If it does have another incident within Australia’s jurisdiction, criminal charges will most certainly follow.

Australia has a tighter and more thorough regime in aviation unlike most of South East Asia barring Singapore.

 

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3 Responses to “How Safe is Air Asia-Is it Worth the Risk”
  1. IT.Scheiss says:

    If the ATSB finally confirms that the broken blade is due to poor maintenance and not a manufacturing defect, I hope they will throw the book at AirAsia good and proper.

    I also blame the media, especially the business media in countries like Malaysia which have glorified AirAsia and Tony Fernandez to the skies but which have given rather scant coverage about what went wrong with that AirAsia X flight out of Perth on 26 June 2017.

    None, not even pro-opposition “alternative” media have published this photo of the broken fan blade which resulted in an imbalanced fan which vibrated as it windmilled from the air flowing through it.

    Here is the photo published by The Aviation Herald.

    http://avherald.com/h?article=4aac9f14&opt=0

    I suppose the media do not want to antagonise AirAsia for fear of losing their ads.

    With these so called “Fourth Estate” it seems that the saying, “Money talks, bullshit walks” applies to them.

    How’s that for journo-prostitution, or as Paul Craig Robers would say, “Presstitution”

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  2. IT.Scheiss says:

    For the information of all, the final version of Indonesia’s KOMITE NASIONAL KESELAMATAN TRANSPORTASI (National Transportation Safety Committee) Air Accident Investigation Report – FINAL KNKT.14.12.29.04, on the crash of that AirAsia Indonesia plane with the loss of 162 lives can be downloaded via the link below:-

    http://knkt.dephub.go.id/knkt/ntsc_aviation/baru/Final%20Report%20PK-AXC%20Rev-1.pdf

    It is in English and is 212 pages long but has been and is the primary source of information on this tragic and quite avoidable incident,which many media reports have drawn the facts from.

    A summary of the the maintenance report begins from Section 1.6.3.3 on Page 26 of the report (page 28 of the PDF document).

    1.6.3.3 Summary of PK – AXC 1 Year Maintenance Report

    It contains a chart showing the frequency of occurrences of issues with the planes rudder travel limitation unit (RTLU) per month in 2014. There was only one occurrence per month in January, February, May, June, July and August 2014, which then ramped up to 2 occurrences in October, 5 in November and 9 in December before the plane crashed.

    Back in the 1980s, I was a computer service engineer who maintained minicomputer systems, including those big and bulky hard disk drives with removable drive packs and I encountered a similar pattern of rapidly increasing occurrences of problems, especially with the electronic circuitry of the computers, before it finally failed.

    Such intermittent problems were one of the most frustrating kind for a maintenance engineer, since they occur infrequently at first, even when running diagnostic software and the system can run fine for hours without problem, which makes it almost impossible to identify the faulty component or module.

    I was delighted when the problem began to occur more frequently, since this usually preceded the outright failure of the component or module, which then was made the it much easier to identify the faulty component or module, which I could then replace.

    Of course, I could not do that in the case of the RTLU on an aircraft but since earlier problems related to RTLU had already been logged, its replacement earlier in 2014 would have saved 162 lives that fateful day in December 2014.

    Now why wasn’t it and why have no major heads rolled as a result of these official findings?

    With regards the broken fan blade on the Rolls Royce RB211 Trent 700 series engine of that AirAsia X Airbus A330 which returned to Perth on 26 June 2017, there also was an incident with Rolls Royce Trent 700 series engine on a China Eastern Airbus A330 which forced it to return to Sydney on 11 June 2017, about two weeks earlier and just over a year earlier on 23 May 2015, a Shanghai bound Singapore Airlines Airbus A330 lost power in both of its Rolls Royce Trent 700 series engines over the South China Sea but managed to restart them, fly on safely.

    The Air Accident Investigation Bureau Singapore (AAIB) confirmed this as an engine incident over international waters and rated this as a serious incident which it would investigate. Currently, investigations of this incident by the AAIB are still ongoing according to its website, the bureau has only published its interim findings which can be downloaded as a PDF via the link below.

    https://www.mot.gov.sg/uploadedFiles/Ministry_of_Transport/Content_Blocks/About_MOT/Air_Transport/AAIB/Interim%20Statement.pdf

    There have been other non-fatal incidents involving Rolls Royce Trent 700 series engines on other airlines’ Airbus A330 aircraft.

    It will probably take a while before the ATSB produces similar reports on the fan blade failure on that AirAsia X Airbus A330 which returned to Perth, the China Eastern Airbus A330 which returned to Sydney and the most recent engine incident with another, allegedly due to a “bird strike” on the Gold Coast of Australia.

    However the ATSB technical report on a similar broken fan blade incident much earlier on 31 January 2001, involving an Rolls-Royce RB211 Trent 892 engine on a Boeing 777-300 departing Melbourne Airport can be downloaded via the link below:-

    https://www.atsb.gov.au/media/33974/tr200100445_001.pdf

    The conclusion on page 18 of the report reads:-

    1. The engine failed as a direct result of the loss of a single low-pressure compressor (fan) blade.
    2. The failure was contained.
    3. Release of the blade occurred due to the initiation and growth of fatigue cracking within the convex root of the component.
    4. The blade was free from any material or manufacturing defects that could have influenced the failure.
    5. The development of fatigue cracking was attributed to the synergistic effects of extended periods of high power operation and uneven blade root seating.
    6. The uneven blade root seating stemmed from the breakdown of the dry-film lubricant layer between the load bearing surfaces, allowing irregular surface galling and micro-welding damage to accumulate.
    7. B777-300 aircraft operating in hot, dry environments typically require extended periods of high power operation in order to meet the specified performance requirements. The operations of aircraft A6-EMM were typical of this.

    The above conclusion suggests that this fan blade incident was primarily due to a maintenance problem, not a manufacturing defect.

    However there have been Rolls-Royce engine failures due to manufacturing defects.

    For example, on 4 November 2010, a fire and explosion occurred in the rear section of the No. 2 engine, a Rolls-Royce RB211 Trent 972-84 high-bypass turbofan powering Qantas Flight 32, an Airbus A380-842, at around 2:01 UTC (10:01 am Malaysian time). The explosion occured at an altitude of just over 7,000 feet above Batam island, as the plane was climbing out of Singapore Changi Airport with 440 passengers and 24 cabin crew enroute to Sydney, Australia. After nearly two harrowing hours in the air, the plane finally landed back in Singapore just before 03:47 UTC (11:47 Malaysian time) and the passengers and crew all disembarked unhurt.

    A softcopy of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s ( ATSB’s) 305 page Transport Safety Report – Aviation Occurrence Investigation AO -2010 – 089 Final report published on 27 June 2013 can be downloaded via the link below:-

    http://www.atsb.gov.au/media/4173625/ao-2010-089_final.pdf

    It basically reveals that the engine explosion was the result of a manufacturing defect in an oil feed stub pipe (a short pipe connector) within the engine and also slackened observance of high quality control standards and a growing complacency and lackadaisical attitude amongst Rolls-Royce’s workforce.

    Following below are key excerpts from the ATSB’s report:-

    “A number of oil feed stub pipes within the High Pressure / Intermediate pressure (HP/IP) hub assembly were manufactured with thin wall sections that did not conform to the design specifications. These non-conforming pipes were fitted to Trent 900 engines,including the No. 2 engine on VH-OQA. The thin wall section significantly reduced the life of the oil feed stub pipe on the No. 2 engine so that a fatigue crack developed, ultimately releasing oil during the flight that resulted in an internal oil fire. That fire led to the separation of the intermediate pressure turbine disc from the drive shaft. The disc accelerated and burst with sufficient force that the engine structure could not contain it, releasing high-energy debris.”

    “Debris from the the uncontained engine rotor failure (UERF) impacted the aircraft, resulting in significant structural and systems damage. The flight crew managed the situation and, after completing the required actions for the multitude of system failures, safely returned to and landed at Changi Airport.

    “Following the UERF, the ATSB, Rolls-Royce plc, regulatory authorities and operators of A380 aircraft with Trent 900 engines took a range of steps to ensure that HP/IP hub assemblies with non-conforming oil feed stub pipes were identified and either removed from service, or managed to ensure their safe continued operation. Rolls-Royce also released an engine control software update that included an IP turbine overspeed protection system (IPTOS) that is designed to shut the engine down before the turbine disc can overspeed, in the unlikely event that a similar failure occurs. Rolls-Royce has also made a range of changes to their quality management system to improve the way in which they manage non-conforming parts, both during the manufacturing process and when it has been identified that parts had unknowingly been released into service with non-conformances.

    “The ATSB identified a number of issues during the manufacture of Trent 900 HP/IP hub assemblies that resulted in their release into service with non-conforming oil feed stub pipes. Those issues highlighted the importance of providing clear procedures during the manufacturing process and of personnel complying with those procedures. Even though modern civil turbine engines are very reliable, and UERFs are very rare events, the resulting damage from such a failure can be significant and the potential effects catastrophic. This accident represents an opportunity for the regulatory authorities to incorporate any lessons learned into their certification advisory material to enhance the safety of future aircraft designs”, the ATSB said in its summary.

    Further down the report attributed the fracture in the stub pipe to the non uniform thickness of the pipe’s wall which varied from 1.42 mm on one side to 0.348 mm on the opposite side. The manufacturer’s The counter boring operation to make the pipe consisted of a two-step process which involved drilling into the pipe end and then reaming it to a shallower depth than the drilled hole to form a close-tolerance fit for the filter body. However, the drilled and reamed sections of the counter bore were misaligned with respect to the centreline of the pipe and each other, resulting in the thinnest part which fractured.

    The manufacturing records for the HP/IP hub assembly (involved in the uncontained engine failure) from ESN 91045 showed that it was manufactured at Hucknall Casings and Structures between April and June 2006. The HP/IP hub assemblies were not allocated a specific serial number, but were identified by a unique number applied to the hub castings. The identification number for the HP/IP hub assembly from ESN 91045 was 0225.

    In February 2007, Rolls-Royce conduted a quality investigation at its production facility at Inchinnan, UK and found:-

    “That ‘concession familiarity’ was a local rule whereby personnel would take it upon themselves to allow minor non-conformances to pass, as experience had led them to believe that the concession approval process would not fail an item, and was therefore a waste of time. A follow-up action to the Inchinnan major quality investigation was to ‘read across’ the lessons learned other business units”.

    However, whilst Rolls-Royce’s facility at Inchinnan produced a number of other gas turbine engine components, including compressor blades. None of those parts directly related to the manufacture of the HP/IP hub assembly, but the major quality investigation led Rolls-Royce to conduct two separate quality audits at its Hucknall facility in the UK in June 2008 and based upon its findings, the manufacturer launched a major quality investigation at Hucknall which found:-

    “The high level of undeclared non-conformance at Hucknall existed because the facility’s management had not effectively read across the actions from the Inchinnan major quality investigation. The Hucknall investigation also found that the ineffective read across was primarily because at the time ‘There was not a strong focus on quality within the business’.

    It’s pretty sobering to think that a manufacturing defect in a “humble and lowly” oil feed stub pipe and a slackening in quality control standards could well have resulted in the loss of 464 lives and a 400 million dollar aircraft. To its credit, Rolls-Royce consulted its staff to identify the problems they faced with inter-communication of requirements and experiences at different work sites, and quite literally put them through a re-education programme to get them back on track.

    We’ll have to wait until the ATSB releases its reports on the fan blade incidents on the two Air Asia X Airbus A330s to know whether they were due to poor maintenance or manufacturing defect.

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