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A Troubling Spirit of Flight Safety at Spirit Airlines

Thu, Jul 22, 2010 — David Evans

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For a blasé attitude about fly-by-wire controls, consider the proposed fine levied on Spirit Airlines. In a registered letter 16 July 2010 to the carrier, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed a $50,000 civil penalty (fine) for operating one of its A321 twinjets on a revenue passenger flight with an uncorrected problem that caused the airplane to suddenly pitch down. The problem was repeated on a second flight, the fault still uncorrected.

A Spirit Airlines A321

A Spirit Airlines A321

This is rigorous, Johnny-on-the-spot maintenance? The FAA certainly does not think so, having proposed a penalty of $25,000 for each event. One would think the penalty for a repeat uncorrected event would be twice as high, making the total forfeiture $75,000 instead of $50,000. The proposed forfeiture of $50,000 works out to about $250 per passenger, which seems awfully low, token really, suggesting that the FAA isn’t all that serious about this case.

Miramar, FL-based Spirit has yet to respond to the FAA’s letter.

The FAA alleged that Spirit failed to replace a faulty elevator aileron computer (ELAC) after the A321 experienced an uncommanded pitch down of the nose while flying between Orlando and Puerto Rico on 29 August 2009. The faulty part was not repaired or replaced during the layover, and the aircraft experienced a second uncommanded pitch down on the return flight the next day.

The ELAC is at the heart of the A321's fly-by-wire control system.

The ELAC is at the heart of the A321's fly-by-wire control system.

An erroneous command from a computer is especially bad in a fly-by-wire airplane, which is entirely controlled by electronics. On airplanes without fly-by-wire, a system of pulleys and cams and other mechanical devices take the autopilot’s or pilot’s inputs and pass them to the control surfaces.

After the first pitch down, the pilots made the following entry in the log book: “At FL 370 the aircraft pitched nose down accompanied with ECAM [Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitoring] F/CTL [flight control] ELAC #2 pitch fault.”

The Airbus A319/A321 Trouble Shooting Manual (TSM), adopted as Spirit’s FAA-approved maintenance program, required replacement of the ELAC if it is reported faulty by the crew.

In its letter to Spirit the FAA noted:

“(N)o certificate holder may operate an aircraft unless that aircraft is in an airworthy conditions and meets the applicable airworthiness requirements …”

By operating with a faulty ELAC, Spirit operated the A321 in an unairworthy condition, hence the fine.

Spirit has 30 days to appeal the penalty.

There is another aspect of the case that bears comment. Note that the incident(s) occurred in July of 2009. Only now is the FAA proposing a dollar penalty.

The FAA’s proposal does not meet the test of timely punishment necessary to imprint the seriousness with which it views the offense. Allow 30 days for knowledge of the unairworthy flights to come to the attention of the FAA’s Principal Maintenance Inspector at Spirit. Allow another 30 days for him to complete an investigation and send his report up the chain of command. Allow another 30 days for this report to be digested and acted upon at FAA headquarters. That’s three months, at the outside. The “Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty” was mailed to Spirit nine months after this generous timeline for discovery/action.

Either the FAA’s lawyers are hugely overworked and have a backlog of cases stuffing their “in” boxes, or the process of review and decision-making is entirely too cumbersome. Punishment, to have the intended effect, must be timely. The delay in this case may suggest to Spirit that the FAA does not consider the offense particularly egregious.

During the same period this case was gestating, Spirit experienced unprecedented labor unrest. The airline and its pilots were unable to achieve a new contract through the National Mediation Board. Only after a five-day cooling off period in late May was a tentative agreement reached, which the Air Line Pilots Association said, “(I)ncludes improvements in pay, benefits, and work rules that reflect the pilots’ contributions to the company’s success.”

The labor unrest and the maintenance deficiency encapsulated by the proposed fine are indicative of a troubling culture at Spirit that clearly has affected the integrity of the operation.

Fly-by-wire computers that emit false commands and flight safety don’t mix. The laggardly intervention, the open call to “negotiate” a settlement (as explained in a handy Option Selection Form included in the FAA letter to Spirit), and the token fine are ill becoming a regulatory agency that is supposed to exercise rigorous oversight to protect the flying public.


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