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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

March 21, 2005

NEW YORK - Good news/bad news for air travelers.

First, good. The world has grown smaller. Boeing just rolled out its new 777-200 Longer Range passenger jet. This twin-engine transport can carry 301 passengers 9,420 miles, meaning non-stop, direct service between most cities on earth.

Alas, like on current aircraft, passengers will still be denied adequate fresh air or moisture, a serious health risk on long flights. Frigid fresh air from outside must first be heated, and this costs fuel. So airlines restrict fresh air and recycle the filthy, bacteria-laden air within the cabins. Humidity is also to around 10% to slow down corrosion of aluminum fuselages.

Pakistan International Airways is one of the first 777LR launch customers. It will use the 777 on a direct Karachi-Houston route, the limit of the plane’s range.

The 777LR, Boeing’s 787, and Airbus A350, both under development, will allow travelers to avoid congested hubs like London Heathrow or Frankfurt and fly direct to less heavily trafficked destinations. The 777LR and its sister, 777ER, compete head on with my favorite aircraft, the long-range, comfortable four-engine Airbus A-340 series.

Now, the bad news. Last week, the 28-ft high tail of a Canadian Air Transat Airbus twin-engine A310 outbound from Cuba fell off. That’s right: fell off.

The crack Canadian pilots managed the feat of using their wing and tail flaps to return to Cuba and land safely. In 1985, pilots of a Japan Airlines 747, whose tail controls were wrecked by an aft bulkhead explosion, lost control of their plane and crashed.

This was Transat’s second aeronautical miracle after a 2001 flight ran out of fuel over mid-Atlantic and its pilots managed to glide to a safe landing. Pilot error led to the loss of fuel, and brilliant flying to the glide to a safe landing.

The Airbus A300 and A310’s should be grounded until their tails can be proven 100% safe. When these aircraft were introduced 15-20 yeas ago, their tails, made of lightweight composite fibers, were a radical innovation. It’s now clear the 300-series tails are defective, most likely along their hinge joints.

In Nov. 2001, the tail of American Airlines flight 587, an A300 bound for the West Indies, disintegrated over New York City, killing all 260 aboard. Government investigators blamed pilot error, turbulence, and Airbus. But it’s now clear the real culprit was `de-lamination,’ or peeling apart, of the A300’s composite material tail.

Soon after, 20 American Airlines pilots flying A300’s reportedly asked to be transferred to Boeing aircraft. Since then, I have refused to fly A300 or A310’s, about 800 of which remain in service. For full disclosure, I was hijacked aboard a Lufthansa A310 in 1993. This event did not influence my judgment of the aircraft.

My next concern is twin-engine jets flying long over-water routes. Airlines save great amounts on fuel by using two rather than four engine planes. This is acceptable for land flights, but over water, I always prefer a four-engine aircraft, like the magnificent Boeing 747-400 or the newer Airbus A-340 series. Alas, today the majority of flights over both Atlantic and Pacific are on twin-engine jets.

Airlines and manufacturers insist engine technology is so advanced that long over-water flights are safe. I disagree. On 17 March, 2003, a United twin engine 777 outbound from New Zealand with 225 aboard lost an engine over the mid-Pacific and had to limp for three hours against strong headwinds on a single engine to reach Hawaii. If a problem had developed with the over-stressed second engine, disaster would have ensured.

Last January, an Air Canada twin engine 767 outbound from Tokyo to Vancouver lost an engine over the North Pacific and had to return to an emergency landing. Air Canada released no details of this incident. According to `Aviation Week,’ Boeing’s 777’s have had 16 inflight shutdown’s since May 1995. Airlines insist the aircraft, which have flown 2.3 million miles, are safe even on a single engine.

Call me old-fashioned but I maintain four engines are always better than two. Two pilots and a flight engineers in the cockpit are always better than a two-man crew. Automation has indeed replaced flight engineers. You don’t need a third cockpit crewmember – until things start going wrong. The 1999 crash of a burning Swissair MD-11 off Newfoundland, and the 1995 crash of an American 757 in Colombia might have been averted had there been a flight engineer to help the confused pilots.

Government regulators, not airlines and cost-saving, should determine safety. I’d rather pay more and know there is backup when I’m 39,000 ft in pitch blackness over the icy North Pacific.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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