Editor's note: Edmund Newton, managing editor of our sister paper in Fort Lauderdale, sends along the following tale:
Here’s the question: Is it safe to fly during times when commercial airlines are under grinding economic stress?
American Airlines Flight 48 had just taken off from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, at the start of a nine-hour overnight flight to Paris on April 20, when flight attendants heard an alarming noise from the bottom of the plane. According to one source, the sound was of “vibrating, shaking, even some ripping.”
Alerted to the noise by flight attendants, the trio of pilots in the cockpit -- two of them Miami-based -- considered their options. One of the pilots got on a phone line to the dispatch center at American headquarters in Fort Worth and then to the maintenance center in Tulsa. According to an internal memo from an unidentified flight safety official, “the pilots and TUL Tech thought [the sounds] may have been [from] a cargo shift of some sort.”
The memo added that “there were no indications in the cockpit, no warning lights or airframe vibrations felt.”
Though the plane was still a relatively short distance from take-off, the pilots, with the support of ground technicians, elected to continue the flight.
The source (who was not on the plane but is familiar with some of the principals involved) says the flight over the Atlantic was reportedly “pretty bumpy,” both because of unstable weather and because of the rumbling sounds emanating from the bottom of the plane.
After landing at Charles DeGaulle in Paris, the flight’s crew and French airport officials quickly gathered under the airplane to see a frightening scene of exposed machinery and dangling paneling. Some took pictures.
Though the company has made no announcements about the incident, scuttlebutt about the incident flew among American Airlines personnel.
Many flight employees were openly upset about the seeming recklessness of the decision to proceed with the flight -- though a source at American insists there was nothing reckless about it. "If the captain had known the panel was missing, there's no question he would have turned around," says the source, "but given the noise was the only indication with no further warnings in the cockpit, and three hours to judge the situation before they reached the ocean, the decision wasn't reckless. The pictures are very dramatic, but the passengers and crew weren't in any danger."
A corporate spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about the number of passengers on the airplane, but the Boeing 767-300 can carry up to 220.
Seasoned flight attendants questioned why, given the noises from the bottom of the airplane, the pilot didn’t return to DFW to check the fuselage. They also questioned a peculiar silence about the flight from corporate officials and from the crew. It wasn’t until Monday, after we started making inquiries, that a corporate official sent out a general message to all flight attendants, explaining what had happened. This was two weeks after the incident.
“The first thing you’re supposed to do in something like this is file a report with the union safety department,” the source said. “Some people think the company got to the flight attendants and told them to shut the fuck up.”
Lonny Glover, safety coordinator for the flight attendants union, said that he had received “inquiries” from members about the incident but no “reports” from the flight attendants involved.
Asked about the appropriateness of continuing the flight, Glover said, “Given the information, it is the pilot’s final decision… From other pilots that I have spoken to, they stated they would have elected to do the same.”
Like the rest of the airline industry, American is suffering from high fuel costs and a shrinking travel market. American has been particularly afflicted by a series of forced inspections last month of its MD-80 aircrafts.
The company reported this week that its traffic had dropped 6.6 percent in April when it was forced to cancel more than 3,000 flights because of the rigorous inspection schedule. The value of company stock has fallen from almost $28 a year ago to its current level of about $9.
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The internal memo concerning Flight 48 said that “an air conditioning access panel apparently departed the airplane during the climb out of DFW [Dallas/Fort Worth].”
It added: “The fuel burn on this particular flight… was not much more than any other flight,” indicating that there was no special drag on the airplane. The report acknowledges, however, that “there may have been some loud noise” during the flight because of the broken panels.
Also: “The captain took the situation very seriously and only continued the flight after consulting with ground personnel and determining there were no system malfunctions or other indication of continuing problems.”
Late Monday, American’s corporate communications manager John Hotard messaged that the airline “is investigating the incident and until all of the facts are known, we will have no further comment.” A Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson said today that the agency had received a hot line complaint about the incident from an airline employee and that it is under investigation. The hot line is set up for aviation industry employees to report on safety issues. --Edmund Newton