An AirAsia technician checks a plane before take off at Soekarno Hatta International Airport on December 28, 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia (Oscar Siagian/Getty Images)
Once again, a commercial aircraft has gone missing on the far side of the globe, as AirAsia Flight QZ8501 disappeared from the radar over the Java Sea while flying from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore with a reported 162 people onboard. But even as the search continues for the Airbus A320-200, a suspected cause has been identified, and it’s the oldest of all aviation hazards: dealing with severe weather.
In the early hours of this crisis, the Malaysian low-cost carrier has kept the public informed with frequent updates on its site and its Facebook page. But the earliest reports may prove to be the most prescient, with the airline stating: “The aircraft was on the submitted flight plan route and was requesting deviation due to en route weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of the Indonesian Air Traffic Control (ATC).” News reports noted the severe weather included “dense storm clouds, strong winds, and lightning.”
Experts claim commercial aircraft are designed to fly through such hazardous weather, but no flight is immune from the dangers associated with these conditions.
A flight information status displays information on the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501 at Changi Airport in Singapore. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Weather Remains a Concern
The aviation industry has made great strides through the years in identifying, avoiding, mitigating, and overcoming hazardous weather. Unfortunately, many of these improvements were developed through the painful process of analyzing fatal accidents, as noted by Dr. Todd Curtis of AirSafe.com. NASA, for example, assisted in research that enhanced airborne detection of wind shear after a series of related accidents. Other advances have led to better de-icing of airplanes.
According to PlaneCrashInfo.org, weather was the primary cause of 16 percent of fatal accidents among large airliners during the 1950s, and steadily decreased since then. But despite improvements, weather remains a constant concern for airline pilots, dispatchers, and air traffic controllers. Weather still accounted for six percent of fatal crashes in the 2000s.
An exhaustive study provided by Boeing claims only one fatal airline accident between 2004 and 2013 was due to wind shear and thunderstorms; that was a crash in Nigeria in 2006 that resulted in 96 fatalities. However, if weather was a factor in bringing down QZ8501, that would mark the second fatal airline accident this year attributed to the elements. In July, TransAsia Airways Flight 222 crashed in Taiwan with 58 people onboard during severe weather, under conditions that may have been exacerbated by Typhoon Matmo.
Severe weather poses a hazard (Photo: Thinkstock)
“Airplanes can fly through weather,” explains John Goglia, the only FAA-licensed aircraft mechanic who served as a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board. “But it’s a concern. That’s why the airlines have dispatchers and meteorologists.” He notes that severe weather can be quite hazardous during takeoff and landing, but requests for altitude changes inflight to avoid worsening weather — such as the request by the crew of QZ8501 — are quite common.
Goglia notes lightning doesn’t pose the same threat it once did in bringing down aircraft, though it can “knock out” certain systems onboard a plane. In his view, the most likely scenario for the AirAsia disappearance was airborne icing: “I believe it was present. You have moisture at that high altitude.” Goglia expanded upon his theory, noting that storm-related ice crystals on the aircraft’s pitot tubes could be the cause, as it was for the fatal loss of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
Room for Improvement
A map of the search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 21, 2014 (AMSA via Getty Images)
Although it’s still early in this search, for the second time this year a commercial aircraft has disappeared in an area of the world where there are gaps in radar coverage. The mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and its 239 occupants endures, with no confirmation of debris after nearly 10 months and the most expensive search in aviation history. Shortly after that flight disappeared back in March, I detailed a list of lessons we need to learn from such tragedies. Some of these lessons are relevant to AirAsia:
• There’s a critical window to find survivors
• Do we still need “black boxes”?
• Can’t commercial aircraft be better monitored worldwide?
There were inexcusable missteps in how Malaysia Airlines and government officials handled the search and rescue efforts and family assistance for MH370. That tragedy highlighted the need for better communication; as I wrote: “It’s also clear that the armed forces of several nations had access to radar and satellite data concerning MH370, and safety experts questioned why so many of these findings took so long to come to light.”
As for the “black box” (there are actually two boxes, and they’re orange), many experts have advocated for improvements. The NTSB, for example, has lobbied for crash-protected image recorders in cockpits. Still others suggest newer technologies that can stream critical data in real time to the ground, rather than to recorders onboard a doomed aircraft, thereby providing search teams much better and faster information on the whereabouts of a downed airplane. So what’s the downside? The same impediment to many safety improvements: cost.
Furthermore, technology exists that can provide better real-time tracking, but it’s not common on most commercial airplanes. Several hours after Flight 8501 went missing, Goglia stated: “Unfortunately, very few aircraft are equipped with a system that continuously reports its position. Given that the aircraft has been missing for so many hours, it is likely that the aircraft was not equipped with a continuous location reporting system.”
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 lies in a field on July 22, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
Hopefully answers will be forthcoming soon on the fate of QZ8501. But the AirAsia disappearance marks the third major occurrence in an unprecedented year for Malaysia’s airline industry. Even while the search for MH370 was ongoing in July, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine with 298 people onboard.
In the meantime, there will be no shortage of media speculation, particularly during a holiday week. Since so many infrequent flyers are taking to the skies this time of year, it can be helpful to remember not only that commercial flying is quite safe, but also that early guesses about airline accidents are often wrong.
Related: How to Combat Fear of Flying
Travel columnist Joe Brancatelli sums it up: “The best way travelers can put this in perspective is to ignore ALL of the coverage until we find the damned aircraft. Until we find the aircraft — or at least know where it presumably went down — we’ll know nothing.”
William J. McGee is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher and the author of Attention All Passengers.