Airbuses suffer cockpit power failure, await fixes
BY DAVID PORTER Associated Press
Thursday, August 23, 2012
8/23/12 at 3:15 AM
NEWARK, N.J. - As United Flight 731 climbed out of Newark with 107 people aboard, the pilot and first officer were startled to find screens that display crucial navigational information were blank or unreadable and radios were dead.
They had no way to communicate with air traffic controllers or detect other planes around them in the New York City area's crowded airspace.
"I made a comment to the captain about steering clear of New York City, not wanting to get shot down by USAF fighters," first officer Douglas Cochran later told investigators. He wasn't joking: "We both felt an extreme urgency to get this aircraft on the ground as soon as possible." Electrical failures that cause communication blackouts are more dangerous nowadays, given the post-Sept. 11 fear of terrorists seizing the cockpit.
Within minutes, Cochran and the captain had turned around and safely landed the Denver-bound Airbus A320 at the Newark airport. Cochran later told investigators that clear weather might have been the only thing that saved them from a crash.
The January 2008 emergency was far from the first such multiple electrical failure in what is known as the Airbus A320 family of aircraft, and it wasn't the last, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press. More than 50 episodes involving the planes have been reported.
And it could be another few years before the last of the thousands of narrow-body, twin-engine jets in use in the U.S. and overseas are modified to counteract the problem. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an order in 2010 giving U.S. airlines four years to make the fixes. The FAA's European counterpart did the same thing in 2009.
While no accidents have been blamed on the problem, the pilots union in the U.S. wanted the FAA to give airlines just two years to comply, but the FAA rejected that.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator said long time frames for fixing problems are not uncommon, because of the inconvenience involved in grounding planes for repairs. And FAA spokeswoman Allison Duquette said the four-year window was determined by the estimated 46 hours required to fix each jet. Safety regulators put the cost at $6,000 per plane.
The Airbus A320 family includes the A318, A319, A320 and A321 models - passenger jets with 100 to 220 seats.
Last year, American Airlines announced it plans to acquire 260 Airbus aircraft from the A320 family and that it also has obtained 365 options and purchase rights for additional aircraft. American will take delivery of 130 current-generation Airbus aircraft beginning in 2013.
France-based Airbus told NTSB investigators in 2008 that 49 electrical failures similar to the Newark emergency happened on its planes in the U.S. and abroad before that episode. Nearly half involved the loss of at least five of six cockpit displays.
Also, pilots who post to a website operated by NASA have described at least seven more instances of multiple electrical failure that forced them to abort takeoffs or make unscheduled landings. Four happened after the FAA directive was issued in 2010.
It isn't known how many of the 633 A320-series jets operated by U.S. carriers are flying without the modification because airlines do not have to notify the FAA about each one. United said it has completed work on about 90 percent of its fleet of 152 Airbuses covered by the FAA's directive, and Delta said it has made the fix on 124 of its 126 planes. USAirways said it has modified "more than 60 percent" of its 189 affected Airbuses.
Original Print Headline: Airbuses with cockpit power failure await fix
A United Airbus A320 passenger plane takes off at Newark Liberty International in Newark, N.J. Airline pilots who fly certain Airbus jets that first came into service more than two decades ago have reported more than 50 episodes of multiple electrical failures in the cockpit. MEL EVANS / Associated Press