Why the AirAsia crash report should serve as a wake-up call for travellers

Jamie FreedBy Jamie Freed, Senior Reporter, The Age

Air travel is fundamentally an extraordinarily safe form of transport. But what travellers may not realise is the training standards for pilots and the regulatory oversight of carriers around the world is not uniform – and airlines from countries with weaker watchdogs can fly to and from Australia.

This was highlighted in a report into the crash of AirAsia Indonesia flight 8501. The carrier is a budget airline that flies to Bali from Perth and Darwin and is merging with long-haul arm Indonesia AirAsia X that flies to Bali from Sydney and Melbourne.

As is often the case, there was no single cause for the crash, which killed all 162 passengers and crew on board last December. Instead, there was a cascade of factors, starting with a recurring mechanical system malfunction that should have been fixed before the flight and ending with the stalled Airbus A320 crashed in the Java Sea instead of landing in Singapore. The very airframe involved had flown to Perth at least once, based on internet video shot by planespotters.

The crash of QZ8501 killed all 162 passengers and crew on board.The crash of QZ8501 killed all 162 passengers and crew on board. Photo: Oscar Siagian

The flight data recorder never recorded the signature of the first officer trying to recover from the stall by lowering the nose as stated in the quick reference handbook. That was despite the crash of Air France 447 in 2009 – also due to an unrecovered stall following a mechanical malfunction – leading to an industry-wide focus on preventing such an incident from occurring again.

In the wake of the Air France crash, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority required that pilots receive upset recovery training, although it was long a standard practice at Australian airlines. The AirAsia Indonesia crash report said Indonesia’s Director General of Civil Aviation has no such requirement and neither of the pilots were trained in upset recovery on an A320.

“The effectiveness of fly-by-wire architecture and the existence of control laws eliminate the need for upset recovery manoeuvres to be trained on protected Airbus aircraft,” the Airbus A320 flight crew training manual said, in a statement that AirAsia Indonesia relied on but one that should raise questions within the aviation industry.

An Australian A320 pilot said this crash once again highlighted the issue of pilots becoming too dependent on automation, which was degrading manual flying skills. On a commercial flight these days, it is possible a pilot will spend as little as one minute touching the control stick.

Emphasis on stick flying

Qantas, for example, has placed extra emphasis on manual flying in recent years to combat the complacency that comes with automation. AirAsia Indonesia chief executive Sunu Widyatmoko said in the wake of the crash, the airline was now providing upset recovery training to pilots, but that came too late for the 162 people on board QZ8501.

The previous lack of such training on an airline with the right to fly to and from Australia raises some serious questions. The US Federal Aviation Administration rates Indonesia as a “Category 2” country – as opposed to countries like Australia that are “Category 1” based on a rating of the safety oversight of airlines. Carriers from Category 2 countries – the latest of which is Thailand, having been downgraded on Tuesday – cannot add new services to the US or codeshare with US carriers until they gain a Category 1 rating.

In Australia, CASA issues a foreign air operators certificate to all foreign airlines flying to and from the country, ensuring the airline’s safety standards meet the minimum safety standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation as does the regulatory system of the carrier’s home nation.

A spokesman said if CASA was in any way uncertain or dissatisfied with the safety oversight provided by an operator’s home country, it could refuse to issue, suspend or otherwise vary a foreign air operators’ certificate. CASA made ramp checks of AirAsia Indonesia after QZ8501 and Thai Airways has been under increased surveillance this year.

But the QZ8501 experience – which could just as easily have occurred on a flight full of Perth or Darwin residents coming home from Bali – raises questions over whether a tiered system might be more appropriate in Australia. The Category 2 stigma encourages countries to move rapidly to improve safety oversight – as India did this year – and warns travellers about the higher risk of flying on airlines from those nations.

Politically, that could be a stretch in the case of Indonesia given it is our closest neighbour and the government is looking to improve bilateral relations. But even if CASA doesn’t change its system, Australian travellers do have the ability to choose which carrier to fly on. Although accidents are rare, QZ8501 should serve as a wake-up call that price shouldn’t be the only consideration when booking an air ticket. – The Age

The writer last week was named the aviation journalist of the year for 2015 by the Australasian Aviation Press Club.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/business/aviation/why-the-airasia-crash-report-should-serve-as-a-wakeup-call-for-travellers-20151202-gld94f.html#ixzz3tES3Hnh2
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