There are so many things that are wrong about yesterday’s incident involving an AirAsia X A330 trying to fly from Perth to Kuala Lumpur that it is possible Australia’s air safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), and incident investigator, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), could be forced to haul the Malaysian carrier into line.

The twin-engine wide-body Airbus began to shake violently (as shown in passenger videos) after a fan blade broke apart and flew, according to the commentary from the flight’s captain, into the core of the engine.

But instead of landing at the nearest suitable airfield, which in this case was Learmonth (near Exmouth), the jet carrying 359 passengers flew all the way back to Perth.

The ATSB investigation will determine the exact times and distances. However, the jet was at 38,000 feet, about 370 kilometres from Learmonth, when a loud bang followed by strong vibrations caused the engine to be shut down.

The flight had left Perth at 6.50pm local time, and it didn’t land back at its airport until 10pm, after flying about 720 kilometres and at a reduced altitude to return to its point of origin.

According to passenger accounts, some airline crew urged passengers to pray for a safe landing, and inside information reported by the Aviation Herald website says Perth airport wasn’t given precise information as to the nature of the problem.

However, maritime emergency services were reported as preparing for the possibility that the flight might ditch in the sea before the roughly 90-minute return leg had been completed.

Exactly who told the airport and emergency services what was going on aboard the AirAsia flight is unclear at this stage, but the seriousness of the incident is beyond doubt, backed up by in-cabin videos that were quickly posted on social media and had thus bypassed any control or vetting by the airline.

AirAsia X issued a statement this morning that said, among other things, that the flight had returned to Perth “shortly after take off due to a technical issue”.

But the “shortly after” reference is contradicted by the passengers and the airline’s own, more detailed commentary:

“Our flight crew were in constant communication with air traffic control. Perth Airport was the most suitable airport after assessing all possible options and requirements. The management applaud the decision made by the flight crew that brought the aircraft to land safely at Perth Airport.”

That assertion needs to be put beside the regulatory requirements of twin-engine airliner flights and the evidence of the seriousness of the situation as shown by the video evidence and the information passed to WA’s emergency services.

There is no doubt that Perth was the more distant but much more commercially convenient option for the AirAsia X diversion than landing at Learmonth.  However, Learmonth proved its suitability as an emergency airport in 2008 when a flight computer component on a Qantas A330 went berserk, injuring more than 100 of those onboard before it was able to land.

The Rolls-Royce engine type used on the AirAsia X flight, a Trent 772 to be precise, is the same as that which experienced a different failure mode on a China Eastern flight as it took off from Sydney Airport for Shanghai on June 11.

Australia’s aviation authorities, CASA and the ATSB, are notoriously reluctant to criticise airlines over incidents in which obvious issues with operational standards arise. This AirAsia X incident may test that reluctance.  

Peter Fray

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