David J. Danto
Business travel thoughts in my own, personal opinion
NOT Traveling Blog, 1st Week Of March 2021
David Danto’s ongoing list of disjointed and occasionally random observations and thoughts as we wait-out the pandemic – mostly NOT traveling like we used to.
If you’ve been a frequent traveler for as long as I have (or longer) you’ve seen some amazing things over a long period of time. I’ve seen pure angels that work for airlines go way out of their way to do nice things for travelers. I’ve seen ground crews repair a broken aircraft with duct-tape so it could take off. I’ve seen FAs decide it was their duty to bring holiday celebrations to their passengers. I’ve been stuck all day at a storm-closed Heathrow where the airline agents told first and business class travelers from a cancelled flight to go to a different gate (where they were given a printed letter that basically said ‘leave the airport’) while coach travelers just heard the very same message as a PA system announcement. I and others probably have hundreds of stories about experiences like these that would warm your heart and curl your toes. It is purely from that ‘experienced’ perspective that I recall a lesson I learned when I was a senior in high school: When you bend a strip of metal back and forth a number of times, or put continued stress on it, it eventually becomes brittle and snaps.
The phenomenon in question is called “metal fatigue.”
I learned about it – along with what I suspect was most people at the time – when engines started falling off DC10 aircraft. The deadliest hint came on American Airlines flight 191 in 1979, when an engine fell-off the aircraft upon take-off. Over the next few months there were a number of other incidents where DC10 engines falling or falling-apart were confirmed or presumed to be the root cause.
It is fair to say that the aviation industry was forever changed by these incidents, because, as a result, safety and inspections were given an elevated level of importance. But then over time, as happens in many cases, greedy management in an industry seeking higher and higher profits show they either don’t have as good a memory as the rest of us or simply don’t care enough about the risks they take. Reducing and outsourcing airline maintenance became the one of the ways for airlines to make more money. One old article covering the situation stated:
“According to a 2008 audit conducted by the Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), nine major air carriers, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, America West Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines, outsourced 71 percent of their heavy airframe maintenance checks in 2007. Almost 27 percent of these heavy airframe repairs were outsourced to repair shops overseas. Roughly 20 percent of these repair shops are in developing countries. Therefore, about one in every five planes is being sent to developing countries such as Africa, Asia and South America, to be overhauled and repaired.”
Now as we turn to the present, imagine the shock (shock I say!) to airline management when they suddenly discovered that engine fan blades may suffer from metal fatigue. (You know, that same phenomenon we definitively learned in 1979 could cause engines and other airline parts to fail and fall-off.)
As I’m sure you’ve seen in the news, a United 777 had one engine essentially disintegrate after take-off from Denver last week. It was one of TWO reported incidents about that type of engine on the same day. The FAA has ordered the grounding of 777s with the same Pratt & Whitney engines (but not including 777 aircraft that use engines made by Rolls Royce or GE because….um….somehow the FAA and airline management think those other firms use metal blessed by magical fairies that are not subject to the laws of physics I guess.) Click the picture below to see video from the incident.
From USA Today - Chad Schnell via Storyful
Without getting melodramatic, thank goodness that the United flight returned to Denver safely on its one working engine; thank goodness that the shower of engine parts didn’t kill anyone on the ground; and thank goodness the failure of the engine didn’t happen later in the flight when the Hawaii bound aircraft would be completely over water with no nearby airport to run-back to. Anyone thinking those results were anything but dumb luck is deceiving themselves. This incident could easily could have resulted in dozens of deaths in the air and/or on the ground.
What should we learn from this? I suggest there are two lessons.
The first one is obvious: metal fatigue is real, and airline parts are made of metal. There are dozens of parts on an aircraft that could be compromised by this issue. They are all just waiting to happen. The second one is also obvious – at least to me: deregulation of the US airline industry is a failure. Money that should have been invested in the safe and successful operations of the fleet has been redirected to greedy management and undeserving investors. As is the case in the health insurance industry, the Texas electric power industry and all other privatized / deregulated industries that effect the safety of the customers, whenever there is a conflict between serving the public good and making a profit, a privatized / deregulated industry will always opt for profit instead of the public good. Are government agencies the panacea for good decisions – hardly – but at least with the profit motive removed these industries would be able to operate as utilities in the public interest again. The Healthcare and Power sectors are clearly a mess that have no easy solutions, but the airlines however have already accepted billions of our tax dollars – probably more than they are worth – to keep flying. I suggest we just foreclose and develop an agency in the public interest to run them all.
Perhaps then we can have airlines run by people who don’t forget that water is wet, the sun comes-up in the morning, metal fatigue is a real thing, and safety is more important than increased profit.
As always, please feel free to write to me with comments or items I should add to a future Not Traveling blog (or if you just need someone to write to.) Stay safe, be well, hug those you’re sheltering with (but no one else) and do your best to stay positive. We’re going to be in this for a while longer.
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.
All image and links provided above as reference under prevailing fair use statutes.
The Explanation for my Not Traveling blogs: In 2014 I was voted by USA Today readers as one of the top ten business travel bloggers in the USA. Now mind you, I turned out to be number ten on the list of ten, but I did make it on (with my thanks to all those who voted.) Now that we’re all stuck at home and not traveling, I had to think about what to do with my blogs. I could stop writing them entirely – waiting till we all get through the current COVID19 pandemic / crisis. I could wax nostalgic and/or complain about past trips. Or, I could focus all of my efforts on my day job – growing the use of collaboration technologies – especially in light of how many people are now forced to use those tools for the first time. In reflecting upon those choices, what I decided to do is compile an ongoing list of observations during the crisis. Some of these may amuse, some may inform, some may sadden and others may help. My goal will be for you to have seen something in a different light than you did before you stopped to read the blog. I was going to apologize for how disjointed these thoughts may seem when put together, but then it dawned on me that feeling disjointed is our new normal – at least for a little while.