Saturday, November 27, 2010

Recent Safety Review Begs the Question: Are Airplanes Too Fat To Fly?

On November 4, a Qantas flight departing from Singapore had to turn around after one its engines experienced a midair blowout. The plane landed safely in Singapore, and all passengers were safe, but the engine was toast.

The engine in question is a Trent 900, manufactured by Rolls Royce and installed on the A380 planes of Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, and, well, the damn thing disintegrated upon takeoff. A domino effect occurred, a series of events that, as you can imagine, caused all sorts of problems for the pilot.   

The incident occurred without much media coverage or public outcry about airline safety, perhaps because Qantas did everything right—both from a safety and PR perspective—to correct the situation, including replacing some of the Trent 900 engines, grounding planes for exhaustive safety checks, and flying its chief executive on a Sydney to London flight today as a sign of the airline’s commitment to safety.

In an act of good faith and PR suavity, Qantas flew its chief executive on the first flight by one of its super-jumbo jets since a midair engine explosion in early November triggered a safety review of the airline’s fleet.
But still, even Qantas admits there’s more work to do. The airline will eventually pursue compensation from Rolls Royce for the faulty engines and seek compensation for losses it suffered from grounding its fleet. And there’s the matter of redeploying its fleet of A380s that fly the Australia to Los Angeles route, currently one of the longest commercial flights in the world. Those flights are currently suspended while the airline tests whether the extra thrust required for takeoff on these routes creates too much stress on the engines.

In other words, the airline is keeping its fingers crossed that our desire (our need?) for long-haul world travel hasn’t exceeded its operational capacity.

Certainly it’s a question other airline executives must be asking themselves. As if the airline industry doesn’t have enough to worry about, now it can add “Stressed Out Engines” to its list of woes.

That’s because the A380s that fly these long-haul flights must load up on more fuel than other flights if the airplane is expected to make it across an ocean. The planes, therefore, are heavier at take off and require more thrust in order to get the bird in the sky. Qantas insists the Trent 900 engines are up for the challenge, and claims the suspension of these flights is only precautionary.

But even if the engines are manufactured correctly and the airline follows all the rules and adheres to strict safety protocols, there’s no denying that outside factors are starting to affect airlines’ ability to carry us safety around the world.

I’m talking about our insistence on packing our entire closet in our luggage.

How many times have you seen someone wheeling a ginormous “carry on” bag onto an airplane and wondered how on earth an airline employee didn’t question it? Or stood speechless at the check-in counter as the family in front of you checked, like, ten bags? I know that’s happened to me on several occasions and frankly, it’s selfish of my fellow passengers and it’s unfair that airlines aren’t doing more to stop it.

I know the airlines have instituted fees for checked luggage in an effort to discourage people from bringing too much stuff (and okay, to make money for the financially strapped companies), but so far all the fees have proven is that people will gladly whip out their wallets if it means they can still pack eight pairs of shoes. We Americans don’t want anyone telling us what to do, least of all dictating what we take with us on vacation, so if we have to pay a little bit extra for the right to exercise that freedom, then so be it.

And therein lies the problem: At some point, it becomes a safety issue. If every passenger on a full flight checked just one bag that was “only” ten pounds over the weight limit, that’s thousands of extra pounds on that already heavy flight.

Sure, Qantas says the extra weight—in their case because of extra fuel—was okay and didn’t effect the airplane, but what’s the tipping point? When will extra weight be too much weight? At what point will airplanes simply be too fat to fly?

There’s nothing us average passengers can do about the extra fuel required to fly us on super-long flights; that’s up to the airline industry and its suppliers to sort out. But we can help control the excess weight of the airplanes that we board.

The next time you’re preparing for a flight, stop and think about what you’re packing. Seriously people, do you need four bags’ worth of stuff for your extended weekend jaunt to Florida? I understand that international--and extended--travel requires more luggage than usual, but let’s do our part to make our flights less hefty by carrying less stuff.

I promise you, there are washers and dryers wherever you’re going. And if not, there’s always the hotel bathroom sink.

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