Air France – Easy to blame the pilot but…

When the Air France A380 hit a commuter jet on the ground at JFK the video spread across the internet and television like wildfire. To a casual observer, it was another example of the rather cavalier-style that some Air France pilots have a reputation for.

On the face of it, the case against the Air France pilots is pretty clear. Just as with motor vehicles, if an aircraft hits a stationary aircraft on the ground, it is nearly always judged to be the fault of the moving aircraft. However, before jumping to conclusions, it might be wise to look at a a few facts.

- The A380 is fitted with cameras to allow flight crew to see other parts of the aircraft but there are no cameras which show the wing-tips so, when taxiing, the pilot can only rely on his judgement to gauge available space.

- It looks as if the commuter jet had stopped short of its parking stand because of a vehicle in the way in the service area.  The ground controller had probably assumed that the aircraft would proceed directly to its stand. The Air France pilot might have been expected to see that the aircraft was not yet fully on its stand but it was dark and maybe not possible to spot that the other aircraft had stopped a few yards away.

- If the FAA had followed its original instincts, this accident could not have happened. They wanted to restrict the use of the A380 to airports, or areas of airports, that had wider taxiways than many of those at JFK. Of course, the A380 is designed for use on busy routes which, by definition, means operating at the busiest – and most congested – airports. Ironically, the airports best suited to handling the aircraft might not have the traffic to support it. The FAA gave into commercial pressure and allowed the operation of the A380 at airports with taxiways that it originally considered too narrow.

It will suit all parties to blame the pilot in this instance. The FAA will not want to accept blame for authorising use of the aircraft at JFK. Airbus will not want to be blamed for not fitting cameras on the wing-tips. Air France will probably rather have a pilot rapped over the knuckles than its operations at JFK (and maybe other airports as well) curtailed.

Air France ding – expensive

This is why you need to keep your seat belt fastened until you reach the gate. The fact that it’s an Air France A380 doing the dinging and that Inside Traveller has expressed concern about safety standards at Air France on a number of occasions in the past, is purely coincidental.

Air France Again

A few days ago, the pilot of an Air France 777 had to abort take-off at the last moment from Lagos because of a lack of power. Fortunately, the aircraft was able to stop in time and passengers disembarked without using the chutes. There was no great mystery about what had caused the problem – it seems both pilots simply forgot to arm the auto-thrust selector. Boeing have accepted that their instructions might need improving because there have been seven other reported incidents of this happening. Nonetheless, forgetting a fairly obvious part of the pre-departure procedure is, to say the least, unfortunate. Nor is this the first time it has happened with Air France – a 747 crew made the same mistake with an aircraft in Tahiti.

To its credit, Air France has already accepted that its safety record is not as good as it should be and has employed Delta to perform a full audit on the airline. Of course, the actual record of an airline only shows incidents where aircraft have been badly damaged or people injured. Incidents such as the two above, lurk under the statistics and often go unreported – even though they could very nearly have been very serious accidents.

The Air France pilots’ union was furious with the company last year when they suggested that the pilots should pay more attention to in-house operational instructions.  This incident is yet further indication that the airline might have a point.

It is time that Air France buried the “Air Chance” nick-name and it seems that the pilots might have to climb off their collective high horse if the airline’s reputation is to be improved.

Air France independent safety review

France’s air accident investigative body is scheduled to deliver its second report into the crash of Air France Flight 447 on 17th December. Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal, Air France is taking an unusual and high-profile step to assess operational risks, by assembling a group of internationally respected aviation officials to conduct an independent safety review in the wake of the fatal crash last June.  The group is won’t be investigating the Flight 447 crash en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. but will be conducting an extensive review of all the airline’s safety procedures and providing ideas for continuous improvement. All of which is to be applauded – Air France currently is near the bottom of European airlines’ safety rankings, above Turkish Airlines.

Air France Crash

It is very difficult for newspapers to write anything sensible in the hours immediately after such a crash. There is virtually nothing to say – other than the fact that an aircraft has disappeared crossing the Atlantic. However, most newspapers and television stations commented on the fact that Air France is one of the world’s top airlines and has an “excellent safety record”.

Well, maybe that last bit should be questioned a little.

The crash of the Air France Concorde was blamed on debris on the runway at Charles de Gaulle but Air France had not made some modifications to their Concordes that British Airways had done. Had the same incident happened to a BA Concorde on take-off, it would probably have survived.

An Air France Airbus crash-landed at Toronto and this down to pilot error. The aircraft was a write-off but all the passengers escaped unhurt before the aircraft exploded, partly due to exemplary evacuation procedures by the cabin crew.

More recently, as readers of Inside Traveller know, one of Air France’s regional subsidiaries crashed a commuter jet because the pilot had not de-iced the aircraft. Following other similar incidents to the same type of aircraft, operators had been warned to de-ice this model in specific circumstances but this instruction did not appear to have been passed down to Air France pilots. Fortunately, none of the passengers were killed (though a passing motorist was) – otherwise, Air France would have had some serious explaining to do.

Unfortunately, air crash investigations in France are in the hands of the government and are open to accusations of bias. The French are very proud of their national institutions and unwilling to bring them into public disrepute. The report into the Concorde accident is a case in point because – at the very least – serious questions should have been asked about Air France’s failure to make the same modifications as BA.

The report into the latest accident will pose a serious problem. Air France is a French company but Airbus is also partially owned by the French state. It is possible that one or the other could face some criticism. For once, it is vital that the French put jingoism aside and produce a report that is comprehensive and will be respected by all parties. Airbus will be particularly anxious for this because their worldwide credibility is at stake. If airlines and the manufacturer have to make a few amendments to the way they fly the A 330′s, that is fine. Aircraft types can survive one crash and remain popular with airlines and the public – providing it is known that everyone has learned from the crash.

It is very early to draw conclusions as to what happened but one or two points of interest are emerging. Airbus sent out a service bulletin in late 2007 advising the replacement of some probes. Air France did not fit these. Airbus have also reminded all airlines of the minimum speed requirements as laid down in their manuals.

The report into the Concorde accident made France rather a laughing-stock in some quarters. They must not make the same mistake with this report.