Three Points: Mass shootings & plane crashes, Neeleman on TAP, Azul and Moxy, Boeing and the FAA

Issue No. 14

Plane crashes and mass shootings

What if mass shootings were treated like plane crashes? There were two this weekend in America — one in El Paso and another in Dayton a few hours later (and one in California less than a week earlier). It’s not uncharitable to say that it frequently takes a tragedy to compel action — sometimes two — and sometimes many, many more. But action is demanded nonetheless. As is standard practice in the world of aviation safety, there’s an investigation and an examination of root cause. Recommendations would be made to best engineer the cause out of the system to make people safer. It’s an existential necessity. Without the safety of the system, there is no trust. If a plane crashes into Walmart (school, bar, concert, movie theater, etc.) and the first response is — we need to make Walmarts more able to withstand plane crashes — then fundamentally you’re not addressing root cause.

For the sake of this ‘mass shootings are plane crashes’ argument, if two crashes happened in rapid succession in Texas and Ohio, a populace would insist on action by regulators, manufacturers and investigators to look for any links and find ways to break the chain of events. It’s not hypothetical. We’re living that now with the 737 Max. That’s what aviation does to make the world safer. Little to nothing has been done to break the chain of events of each mass shooting in America.

A little less than a year ago, Richard Russell stole a Horizon Air Q400 from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He was killed when the aircraft crashed south of the city on Ketron Island. TAC wrote in the wake of the crash about asking the right questions to find a solution and prevent a repeat. I quoted Linsey Rubenstein, former Boeing Director of Cyber Security, and a graduate of Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. She wrote in March 2018 after a school shooting killed 17 and injured 17 more at her alma mater, about finding real solutions when everyone is pointing fingers. “This blame game is paralyzing.”

It was decided long, long ago that saying ‘plane crashes are the price you pay for aviation’ is not an acceptable answer. In aviation, we reinforce (and mandate) training, licensing, regulatory oversight, security, technical redundancy and so on. Don’t confuse this argument for advocating a specific position or policy solution. It’s not. This isn’t a political statement, this is just how you effectively solve problems. This is how this industry has collectively chosen to solve its problems time and time again.

David Neeleman’s Airline Adventures

AirInsight last week had a fascinating discussion with serial airline entrepreneur David Neeleman. It was a wide-ranging conversation, covering the rebirth of TAP in Portugal, Azul in Brazil and future plans for Moxy in the U.S.. The man’s reputation for finding untapped markets is legendary. Moxy in particular is looking at connecting cities that are spokes on the network hubs of the three big U.S. airlines. “I think we can get you there twice as fast for half as much money,” he says. It’s a model that’s found success in Brazil, he said, 70% of Azul’s routes have no non-stop competition.

Beneath the surface of what Neeleman is talking about is how to structure a network around smaller airplanes and lower trip costs. In his case, ATR-72s and E195s (soon to be E195-E2s) for Azul, A321LRs for TAP across the Atlantic, and eventually A220s coming for Moxy. “The 321LR…is a bit of a disappointment for anyone in Europe, except if you’re in Lisbon. It really didn’t work for any other European mainland hub…because we’re so far out in the Atlantic.” The airplane, which had a range come in at less than 4,000 nautical miles, he said, allows TAP to hit everywhere from Toronto to northeast Brazil from Lisbon. Neeleman notes the LR has 50% lower trip costs vs. the A330 and 15% lower seat mile costs. Interesting commentary on the middle of the market. Howard Slutsken dove into the trend for CNN, too.

Not unrelated, Airbus announced Monday that it had officially begun assembly of A220s at its Mobile, Ala.. The FAL isn’t done yet and delivery won’t come for another year, but Airbus is building A220s on the existing A320 line and associated facilities. The first aircraft will be an A220-300 for Delta Air Lines. Bombardier and Airbus decided last year that as part of avoiding another ITC complaint from Boeing, it would build all U.S. A220-300s in Mobile. Neeleman is getting Moxy’s first plane from Mobile in 2021.

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Boeing, FAA and flipping bits

Within hours of one another on August 1, Aviation Week and The Seattle Times significantly advanced the story around the effort to return the 737 Max to service. Both reported that Boeing’s flight control computer software fix would add a new level of redundancy. The coming software change creates a two-channel system, wrote Gates, “with each of the computers operating from an independent set of sensors, will not only address the new microprocessor issue but will also make the flawed Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that went haywire on the two crash flights more reliable and safe.” The Seattle Times, which calls the update a “fundamental software redesign” also delves deeply into the origins of the FAA tests that spurred the change and the “bit flipping” that can occur inside a microprocessor when exposed to solar radiation.

To read both of these side-by-side, it’s almost as if it is the same story told from separate perspectives. A Boeing perspective on the AvWeek story and an FAA view through the pages of The Seattle Times. Broderick and Gates are two phenomenal aerospace journalists with excellent sources, but the narratives that subtly emerge in both pieces paint an important picture for stories that ran on the same day.

The FAA test pilots, notes AvWeek, “were able to recover using the runaway stabilizer emergency procedure, the source said. There was no hardware failure, and the aircraft’s systems reacted exactly as they are designed to do.” The Times writes: “The FAA demanded, with knowledge about the crashes, that this scenario be rigorously reexamined in a new System Safety Analysis of the MAX’s flight controls.” It’s no exaggeration to say the relationship between Boeing and its chief regulator has been deeply strained by the situation with the 737 Max. Both the FAA and Boeing are eager to illustrate their efficacy in the face of global doubt.

Separately, Boeing sent its 737 Max 7 test aircraft out on a mission on Monday that looked unmistakably like a MCAS evaluation of some sort. The company over the weekend also shipped a 737-800 fuselage (destined for KLM) back to Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita. “Due to one-time issue on the supplier’s end, we are returning an NG fuselage to Spirit,” the company said in a brief statement to TAC. Spirit will build a new fuselage in its place and deliver it to Boeing in the coming months. The new fuselage will be the last NG for a commercial customer to come through our Renton factory.”

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