Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Malaysian Airlines Fuel Fiasco

The Malaysian Airlines Fuel Fiasco
3 July, 2009

Malaysia Today continues with the exposes on the many scandals involving Malaysia’s national airlines, Malaysian Airlines. Today is a report by Dr David Stone with regards to the fuel scandal involving the airlines. There is more to come in the next episodes in these series of articles where we shall talk about the cargo handling and cartel scandals.


by Dr David Stone

The first thing to say is that Malaysian Airlines itself does not have a bad safety record. Unfortunately, facts in this issue have been thin on the ground and no one has ever really come clean on what actually happened. It does however seem certain that on a number of occasions Malaysian Airlines landed Boeing 747s at Heathrow, which were seriously short of fuel. Comments have been made that, in at least one instance, an aircraft did not even have enough fuel to make another circuit of the runway had there been a problem. It seems quite scandalous that such serious problems should have been hidden from public view even though they were apparently known to the authorities. We need to ask how this could happen and what went wrong.

A very firm finger of blame needs to be pointed towards the Civil Aviation Authority who are in charge of policing the safety of all British airlines and foreign airlines flying into Britain. It is interesting to contrast the CAA with its American counterpart, the FAA. The FAA shares the charmingly American characteristic of believing that American organisations are inherently safe while foreign ones are automatically suspect. Thus, foreign airlines flying into the States are subject to rigorous checks and are quite often suspended or allowed in only subject to strict limits. Quite well known foreign airlines have either been suspended or restricted and the list is always changing. On the other hand, many people, including some American experts, believe that the FAA takes a far too lax attitude towards American airlines. From my own point of view, there are certainly some American airlines I would prefer to avoid.

In Britain, the CAA seems to take the opposite approach. British airlines are very strictly regulated, but foreign airlines much less so. Occasional suspensions do occur, such as when Nigerian Airways was stopped from flying here, but at that stage the airline had so many financial problems it probably could not have continued flying anyway. The CAA is clearly anxious to avoid harming Britain's political or commercial relationships with other countries by causing problems. Thus, for the most part, foreign airlines are allowed to operate without intervention. The Malaysian Airlines issue is a good case in point. The Malaysians are notoriously sensitive to criticism and any move against the airline by the CAA would certainly have had implications. However, it seems clear that the CAA was aware of these safety breaches by Malaysian Airlines, did nothing to punish them and avoided making the facts public. This is a scandal and it is amazing the CAA have been allowed off the hook so easily.

We ought to be able to rely on our own government to protect us against unsafe practices by foreign airlines. Unfortunately, we cannot. The other question that needs explanation is how such incidents can occur. Since we are unlikely to get any help from either Malaysian Airlines or the CAA, let me suggest what happened.

When you board a Boeing 747-400 series aircraft at an airport such as Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore you will probably hear the captain telling you he expects to land in London at a fairly precise time. His computer has told him the weight of the aircraft, the prevailing winds and the routing, and produced an exact flight time. The trouble is, it is all dependent on factors which can change. The biggest issue is crossing India or Pakistan where air traffic control facilities are rather limited and at peak hours for flights coming from Asia to Europe some aircraft might be forced to fly at a lower altitude. At a lower altitude planes not only travel more slowly but they burn substantially more fuel. Flights from these destinations to London are right at the limit of an aircraft's range. What is more, they all attract not only heavy passenger loads but very large amounts of cargo as well. When they check in for a flight to London, flight crews make a complicated calculation of the maximum weights allowed and, if they think the flight is likely to be slowed down, they will want to take more fuel. This could mean losing either some booked passengers or cargo to make the weights. In many instances cargo is actually more valuable to an airline than the cheapest economy tickets - and it is also time sensitive - so it might well be the passengers that get left behind.

If the aircraft takes off without the extra fuel and is subsequently forced to fly more slowly or at a lower altitude because of slight wind changes or air traffic control, then it could well begin to run short of fuel before reaching London. The only option is then to land at an airport close to London to refuel. Unfortunately, landing at Frankfurt or Amsterdam to refuel is not like popping into a motorway service station. Because these flights are at the limit of an aircraft's range they are also at the limit of the crew's permitted flying time and, depending on the exact circumstances, a full change of crew might well be mandatory. The airline is therefore faced not only with a delay for the time it takes to land and refuel but the huge extra cost of flying out a reserve crew to take the plane on to London. A British airline will have crew available on standby but a Malaysian airline obviously will not have standby crew immediately available in London, so the consequences for them are even more serious.

What would seem to have happened here is that pilots of Malaysian Airlines were faced with difficult decisions before leaving - either take extra fuel and leave some cargo or passengers off, or take a chance and hope there were no delays. Having lost the first gamble and suffered some slight delay, they decided to continue to London without landing and suffering the huge costs and problems that would bring. Both gambles are quite clearly based on cost. The first being the cost of leaving off passengers or cargo and the second being the cost of an extra stop.

It is surely not a coincidence that Malaysian Airlines is just recovering from a very poor time financially. It seems highly likely that economic factors persuaded the pilots to take these risks.

The good news is that it is highly unlikely to happen again. Despite the fact that the situation was handled very badly by the CAA they must surely be watching Malaysian Airlines very carefully now. The airline itself is hardly likely to want any further bad publicity so one must now assume they will err on the side of safety when making their fuel/load calculations.

A final, interesting point is that Malaysian Airlines is considering joining one of the big airline alliances, with One World tipped as most likely. If this happens their whole safety procedures will be investigated by the other airlines involved. This is because the reputation of the alliance is on the line if one of their members has a safety problem, but also because the other airlines' insurers insist on it. If an American bought a ticket with a bad airline through an American or British airline that subsequently had a crash they would be likely to sue the American or British airline. Membership of airline alliances thus offers the passenger some guarantee of acceptable standards.

The final lesson to be taken from this whole sorry story is that it should lay to rest the whole idea that pilots never take risks with passengers lives because they are in the aircraft as well. Just as the man who has had one drink too many thinks he is fit to drive, so a pilot can be tempted to take unnecessary risks. This is all the more so when he is under commercial pressure from his airline.

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