Even if the black boxes from Air France flight AF447 (which have just been located) are retrieved and read, there is a question of great importance to all airlines that they may not answer: to what extent was this disaster caused by pilots thinking more like accountants or shareholders than as pilots?
AF447, an Airbus A330-200, crashed into the mid-Atlantic on June 1 last year on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing the 228 people on board. At last, analysis of data recorded by a French nuclear submarine — sent in the following weeks to the general crash site — has found traces of the “pinger” radio signals sent out from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders before their batteries failed.
This in turn has allowed their location to be defined as an area about the size of central Paris, but unfortunately under thousands of metres of water, on a sea bed that is actually a maze of canyons and towering peaks.
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Recovery is thus problematical. But the data would reveal more than the live flight status signals received at the Air France base in Paris that night, indicating that external speed measuring devices called pitots had iced up, preventing the jet’s flight control computers from knowing its true air speed.
This crisis occurred as the Airbus was flying through a severe storm belt known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone, a hazard that dozens of jets were that night dealing with by weaving a course around the areas of maximum turbulence as detected by their weather radars.
Which brings us to several serious allegations made by Air France pilots and some disturbing established facts.
AF447 doesn’t appear to have been deviating around the storm clouds. We don’t know if its weather radar was fully functional. And on the morning when AF447 didn’t arrive as scheduled at Charles de Gaulle airport, Air France claimed that the pilots had reported severe turbulence, yet the French accident investigators were quick to find in their interim reports that there were no voice communications between the pilots and its operations base after departure, which in itself is rather strange and contradictory.
And while the issue with ice-prone pitots of a particular design on A330s was well known (but not used on Qantas or Jetstar A330s), the French authorities have also published a rather withering commentary that suggests Airbus was slow to deal with it, as well as with specific complaints raised by Air Caraibes about the quality of Airbus recommended procedures for handling temporary pitot icing after it affected two of their trans-Atlantic flights in 2008.
Add to the mix a rather badly written expose in Der Spiegel, which shows clear signs of being sourced from the Air France pilots union, reveals that the jet was loaded to the max and fuelled for Bordeaux not Paris CDG, with a view to “diverting” to its real destination at the last moment.
This is a long-standing and widely used airline ploy to save fuel on long-haul flights by in effect not setting out with the legal reserves required for a diversion at the destination but instead diverting to it from a point not quite at the end of the route.
Pilots come under intense pressure in some airline cultures to think revenue, think fuel saving, think fly as straight a course as possible, rather than think like professional pilots, and plan for the things that routinely go wrong with flight plans.
And that is the really critical question about AF447. Were the pilots captured by the cost and corner cutting ethos that is openly espoused by legacy and low-cost carrier managements in general?
Air France launched an independent audit of its safety systems after the crash. No outcome has been leaked, so far.
Most airliner disaster are caused by the convergence of many factors. The emergence of career pilots who will “bend” the rules rather than apply them is already emerging as a cause of growing concern in various flight safety forums.
But so far, measuring this issue in the way the bean counters can grasp it is all too hard, unless they recognise that if it kills several hundred people it can be very bad for the share price, the brand value, their bonuses and the profit and loss accounts.