'Young man, did we land or were we shot down?' - Why airlines turn around due to ‘minor technical issues’ and the post-landing safety protocol

2019-08-23 12:10 - Selene Brophy
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All travellers the world over would agree, "a good landing is one you can walk away from, and an excellent landing is when you can use the plane again." 

But let's face it - flight delays are an irritation and can often incur major financial costs for both the passengers and the airline at the worst of times. 

Aviation safety should never be taken for granted though and even the smallest issue sees airlines err on the side of caution, as we can all agree there literally is no cost inconvenient enough for arriving alive.  

This morning a tweet caught my eye by Toni G stating, “Old lady after hard bouncy landing to aircrew: Young man, did we land or were we shot down?"

It turned out to be part of a thread related to a FlySafair flight that had to turn around due to a technical issue. FlySafair Flight 310 bound for Lanseria had to return to Cape Town International shortly after take-off due to "a minor technical issue".

The airline issued a statement saying it had done so “in the interest of safety”. 

"Boeing 737-400 aircraft do not have the capacity to dump fuel in order to lighten the aircraft weight so as to be able to land within the safest weight parameters. As a result the crew were forced to circle for a while over Robben Island in order to burn some fuel off in order to achieve the desired landing weight." Read the full statement here.

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While I can think of far worse sights than circling Table Bay, the matter had raised added concern in the twitter thread about why airlines experience technical issues, the impact of aged fleets and whether an earlier incident in the week in which passengers needed to use oxygen masks was related.  

After reaching out to confirm if the incidents were related, FlySafair spokesperson Kirby Gordon responded saying, "These were two different aircraft and two very different issues. Safety is always a top priority and Flysafair will always act conservatively when it comes to any safety issues. We maintain a great safety record and are very proud to have received exemplary results after recent audits by both the SACAA and IATA as part of their IOSA accreditation."

But what does that mean for you and me as passengers exactly? 

Just last week we had a reader contacting us commenting that two particular Air France flights bound for Republic of Congo had had to turn around. 

The reader states, "An Air France flight from Paris CDG to Brazzaville turned back to Paris about an hour into the flight and landed back in Paris. This was due to the captain being ill and the return declared as a medical emergency. I have since sought more information on this from news networks in SA and there has been nothing reported. I found this even stranger when a second Air France flight from CDG to Abidjan turned back to CDG (about 17h30) with a technical issue. It is now 19h55 and there is no reporting on any of these anomalies." 

"Is this not news ?" the reader asked. 

None of the above information has been confirmed as fact, and while Flight Radar screengrabs (sent to us by above reader) show the planes had turned around - what is noteworthy is that these flights returned safely without fatalities - especially when considering the IATA 2018 safety report detailing that the 2018 rate for major jet accidents (measured in jet hull losses per 1 million flights) was 0.19, which was the equivalent of one major accident for every 5.4 million flights.

These flights returning safely without fatalities are a relief, but it certainly raises questions about safety, delays caused by minor incidents and what actually happens once the plane has landed safely? 

This is when rigorous aviation safety regulations and certification kick in.

Because while planes operating in South African airspace can be anything between 5 and 20 years, said to be younger than international airline averages - the age of a plane cannot be viewed as a benchmark for accidents as maintenance procedures are exceptionally rigorous and high. 

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Aviation expert Guy Leitch says the perception that older planes are more dangerous is “simply not true”.  

Aircraft certification is set at four levels of maintenance from an A to D he says, with "each applied over a period of time, determined by hours of operation, as well as cycles of take-off and landing".  

"By the time a plane reaches a D check, the aircraft is completely striped out - with even the interior replaced by some airlines."

Leitch points out that there is a serious amount of effort that goes into the maintenance of aircraft, considering that it makes up about "25% of an airlines operating cost, with fuel being around 32%".  

Airplanes that fly shorter routes are subjected to more wear and tear, says Leitch and therefore cycles as well as calendar time would require even more rigorous inspection.  Therefore airlines mostly replace old planes to ensure fuel efficiency.

But Leitch points out that any incident that happens adds to future safety measures, highlighting that it is a consistent sharing of information between the airline operators and the manufacturers.  

If a persistent issue within a specific model is flagged, it will see the Original Equipment Manufacturer issue what is known as a Service Bulletin says Leitch. This will then become part of the safety certification process for that particular model, seeing a specified inspection time-frame assigned to, as in "within the next 10 hours or the next hundred landings – you must inspect the following item”. It would then become a mandatory SB inspection for the South African Civil Aviation Authority."

"Searching the records I doubt you will find any fatal airline accident that was caused by maintenance problems because the aircraft was old," says Leitch. 

He does however recall when a Nationwide plane lost one of its engines during take-off back in 2007. 

"The engine literally fell off on the runway, and the plane continued to fly around Cape Town for an hour-and-half in very bad weather. That was maintenance related and a lot questions were put out because of the provenance of the bolts used to hold the aircraft on."  

Clearly a flight emergency no passenger wants to have to deal with.  

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There were allegations of pirate parts being used by the airline that has since closed down, but Leitch states a clear audit trail detailing the background of every part means the use of pirate parts is widely eliminated.  

Traveller24 has reached out for comment to the SACAA related to the number of technical incident reported within SA airspace and is awaiting a response. 

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