July 28, 2008

UK Planes Are Flying With Defects, Probe Reveals


Airlines across Europe are flying planes with known defects because pilots routinely fail to report faults when they find them, an investigation has revealed.

A survey of aircraft maintenance engineers, whose work covered flights to and from the UK, found many pilots only reported faults such as brake fluid leaks and loss of cabin pressure after their homebound flight or after the day's flights. The delay allowed airlines to fix faults at a more convenient time, avoiding extra expense.

On average, 80 to 90% of faults were reported after a pilot had made a homebound flight or after the end of the day's flying schedule. The same picture emerged across major and budget airlines.

Engineers say a fault needing attention occurs in about one in every 20 flights. Planes can fly with certain faults but the extra precautions needed to ensure that they can travel safely cannot be taken if the concerns go unreported.

The organisation behind the investigation said that the Helios airliner crash in 2005, when a Boeing 737 crashed into a Greek hillside, killing all 121 on board, was partly caused by a failure to report a fault.

In a catalogue of errors in the run-up to the crash, the pilots failed to record an error in resetting a crucial air-conditioning switch. Soon after the airliner took off from Cyprus, the crew and passengers passed out because of a lack of oxygen.

Aircraft Engineers International (AEI), the global body of 45,000 aviation maintenance engineers, asked its members to make voluntary inspections of airliner logbooks, containing all information on a plane's faults and when they were reported.

One engineer examined 40 logbooks involving more than 3,000 flights, and found that 90% of defects were reported after the homebound flight or at the end of the day. Precise data on the flights involved could not be released, the AEI said, because it feared doing so would put the jobs of the engineers who contributed the data in jeopardy.

It now hopes its survey will prompt Europe's aviation regulators to carry out their own random checks of logbooks to stamp out late reporting.

Fred Bruggeman, the AEI's secretary general, said: "We are positive that if regulators examined logbooks in the way we have, they will discover exactly the same pattern of late reporting.

"Their shocking lack of response makes it clear to us that they do not want to open Pandora's Box. We fear regulators had become too cosy with the aviation industry and are not taking our safety concerns seriously enough."

The UK's aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), said it carried out inspections of logbooks and was satisfied with its safety measures. Richard Taylor, a spokesman, said: "The AEI have been making these claims for some time, but they have so far failed to provide us with specific examples.

"We have carried out our own checks and have found no discrepancies. If they do have any documentary evidence that anyone is failing to report faults, they have a duty to pass on this information to us. Information can be passed to us in complete confidence."

The budget airline Ryanair said it had not seen the pattern of reporting AEI alleged but that it was "aware that it was a problem for other airlines".

Virgin Atlantic said that, as a long-haul carrier, pilots reported after each flight because crews were replaced after each trip.

British Airways said that its own safety inspectors had not found that faults were disproportionately being reported at convenient times - and that its safety checks were in accordance with EU regulations.


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