September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Widespread condemnation and exasperation followed the chaotic opening of London Heathrow”s Terminal 5 at the end of March when hundreds of British Airways flights were cancelled - the national psyche was given a fresh shot of self-doubt, our international reputation resembling something like a rugby prop forward”s face after the final whistle at Twickenham.
However, a glance across the pond in the last two weeks will have revealed we are not the only ones with problems. Spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of air passengers Stateside left stranded at airports - queues like anacondas - as the country”s carriers grounded whole swathes of their fleets in a safety clampdown.
The first cancellations occurred on 12 March and - at time of writing (11 April) ” the problem is ongoing, with 570 American Airlines flights scrapped just today, and CNN reports showing seriously disgruntled travellers.
It has all come about because the body responsible for airline safety ” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ” found that one airline, Southwest, had not complied fully with a mandatory maintenance check.
It consequently decided to send out inspectors to all 117 carriers to ensure its Airworthiness Directives (ADs) were being adhered to ” since when major airlines including Delta, United, Southwest and American have all grounded aircraft.
Whose fault is this fiasco? It is the airlines” responsibility to maintain their fleets to the correct standard, but it is the system of checking them that is now under the spotlight, with leaders on Capitol Hill scathing as hearings continue.
New York Senator Charles Schumer: ”The US economy can”t afford to have one of its major airlines [American] just shut down for days and the FAA took no interest in enforcing these regulations until it surfaced that FAA employees were turning a blind eye to some flagrant violations.”
An FAA spokesman told ABTN that in the first phase of its new clampdown it has ”found an extraordinary level of compliance ” over 99% of work complied with our ADs. That said, if we do find issues, were going to point it out to carriers ” safety is essential, and work should be done safely, not quickly.”
The second phase (ongoing) is looking at 10% of ADs applicable to any airline”s fleet and runs until 30 June ” ”It”s impossible to say if there will be further problems,” said the spokesman.
Amazingly, American was forced to do the same checks twice on its MD-80s ” which make up around a third of its fleet - flooring services each time. American said this was because of a difference in interpretation of the check, but the FAA said the specifics of that directive - developed by engineers at the aircraft's manufacturer, Boeing ” were clear, and it didn”t know why American had got it wrong the first time around.
Is this kind of communication breakdown symptomatic of the problem between the FAA and airlines? On 2 April the Administration announced it would make improvements to its inspection programme, one of them to improve ”the clarity and coordination of directives issued by the FAA.”
”We are currently experiencing the safest period in aviation history,” said FAA acting administrator Robert Sturgell. Regarding its system to oversee carriers ” used since 1998 ” he added: ”The results show that our overall program is working and delivering incredibly high levels of compliance and record levels of safety. These new action items provide new tracking mechanisms and avenues for communication that will be vital additions to the data-driven system.”
And what is the knock-on effect of the travel chaos this has caused? The US National Business Travel Association (NBTA) says confidence in the air travel sector has been rattled and warns it will cost corporate America untold amounts of dollars in lost productivity and business.
”I don”t think anyone will be able to measure the cost of this until long after it”s over,” an NBTA spokesman told ABTN. ”Nearly 200,000 travellers have been affected, so there”s certainly an affect on business. I just spoke to a travel manager who had teams in two different locations travelling to a conference.
Their flights were cancelled and they almost all missed it ” thankfully the travel manager was able to stay at the office that day for an extra five hours to get them re-booked and get them there. But the potential for a serious missed opportunity was pretty large, and that was a good ending. For every one of those stories there”s another with a bad ending.”
All affected airlines apologised to their passengers and attempted to re-book them onto later services or those of their competitors.
American, which cancelled nearly 3,000 flights up until time of writing ” making the 600-odd at T5 seem modest ” was among them, its executive vice president marketing Dan Garton saying: ”We are very, very disappointed to ever let them [passengers] down and we know how difficult this has been - whether you are on a leisure or business trip ” this kind of interruption is truly unacceptable.”
The NBTA says it”s not at all clear who”s to blame, but its government relations department is urging the powers that be to get to the bottom of it so these problems can be avoided in future.
”If this continues to happen, the cancellations we”re seeing will start weighing into the decision-making process about when and how to travel ” that would be a real tragedy,” said the spokesman. ”People will say, instead of flying, maybe I should find some other way to travel ” if that is the response people start having, that would be a real problem for air travel.
”This seems to be essentially a domestic issue right now ” let”s hope it stays that way.”
There have evidently been major mistakes made somewhere along the line, and blame must be apportioned not for blame”s sake, but so that a remedy is administered to ensure this kind of situation isn”t repeated.
However, safety in aviation is obviously paramount, and nobody would want to cut corners when it comes to maintenance of aircraft. Once a problem had been found, you can understand both the carriers” and FAA”s caution - as one stranded passenger leaning on his airport trolley told news cameras, ”this is better than the alternative ” the plane dropping out of the sky.”
Harry GlassSenior Reporter, ABTN