The Safest Seats in An Aircraft

April 2017 | Dios Kurniawan

Last week I was having a discussion with friends about which seats should we choose when checking in for our upcoming flight. Some prefer window seats, while some others like seats on the aisle – no body really wants the middle seats, which is quite understandable. It is more of personal preference. But which part of the aircraft will you choose, at the front section, in the middle, or in the back of the plane?

For me, my answer is always the same: I always choose to sit in the back.

Seats in an Airbus A380 (photo: Dios K)

Why? Statistically speaking, the last few rows at the rear of an aircraft, near the tail, would give you the highest chance of survival in the event of a crash.

To support my argument, I compiled data from real-world airline accidents in the last 30-40 years. The list below might not be exhaustive, but it should give you a picture on why sitting near the tail is safer than sitting in the other part of an aircraft.

Here is the list:

  1. Japan Airlines Flight 123 that crashed into a mountain near Tokyo in 1985. This is the most notable tragic accident when more than 500 passengers died in the crash, with only 4 survivors. All survivors were seated in the last 3 rows at the rear of the plane.
  2. Mandala Airlines Flight 91 accident in Medan in 2005, with more than 100 fatalities. Seated at the rear of the plane, 17 passengers survived the crash.
  3. Air Florida Flight 90 in 1985 which crashed into Potomac River. Four passengers survived, while the rest 78 lost their lives. Again, the survivors sat in the last few rows of the plane.
  4. Lion Air Flight 538 in 2004 overran the runway at Adisumarmo Airport during landing, killing 25 passengers, all of those were seated in the front section cabin. Passengers who sat in the aft section survived.
  5. Garuda Indonesia Flight 035 in 1987, struck a power line near Polonia Airport. The tail section separated from the plane on impact with the ground, allowing 22 passengers and crew to escape. Sadly, 23 people who sat in the other cabin section lost their lives.
  6. Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 in 2007 which skidded off the runway at Yogyakarta Airport and caught fire. The accident resulted in 21 fatalities, most were seated in the front and middle sections. Remaining 100 passengers and crew managed to escape the fire.

The statistics above clearly points to the same conclusion: sitting near the tail increases your chance of survival. Yes, there have been many other airline accidents which rate of survival cannot be directly related to the pattern of seating position, but almost none favors sitting in the front of the plane.

Why it is safer in the back? There is no simple answer for this, but one thing for sure is: the middle section of a commercial airliner is usually where the main fuel tank is located, so passengers are practically sitting on top of highly flammable fuel at all times. The front section is the part which would absorb most impact of a crash, because, well, most crash happened nose-first.

No one wants to be involved in an accident, but when booking the seat for your next flight, my little piece of advice is to pick the last 2-3 rows at the rear of the plane. You might see me there, too.

What Caused Egypt Air Disaster?

June 2016 | Dios Kurniawan

Almost a month after the Egypt Air Flight 804 disappearance on May 19, the tragedy remains a confounding mystery for the aviation world. The answer as to what has caused this accident might be best provided by the cockpit voice and flight data recorders, which are now still lying on the seabed of the Mediterranean Sea. However because of the depth of the sea, the underway recovery of these black boxes can take weeks even months, and the answers might not be forthcoming any time soon.

So what has caused Flight 804 to plunge into the sea? Modern planes don’t just fall out of the sky. Flight 804 was flying at cruise altitude, the safest phase of a flight with the computers flying the aircraft, and the pilots should not have very much to do. The aircraft was an Airbus A320, a technologically advanced jetliner and also the most popular in the world, second only to Boeing 737, with great safety record. The weather was reported fine at that night. Also, the Airbus was not flying over conflict area, therefore surface-to-air missile attack (as in the case of Malaysia Airlines MH17) was a remote possibility. The pilots did not transmit distress call, hence something very sudden must have come about.

There have been at least three well-known occurrence of fatal accidents involving trouble at cruise stage; the Adam Air Flight 574 in 2007, Air France AF774 in 2009 and just recently Air Asia QZ8501 in 2014. All involved a combination of technical and human errors, with the latter to blame most (GermanWings crash last year is not discussed here because it involves the possibility of a suicidal pilot).

At the time of writing this article, there is no solid source of information available for investigation. What we have is very limited data, the most compelling one is the ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) messages received from the doomed flight. They are publicly available in the mass media as shown below.

ACARS messages (source: CNN)

We can think ACARS like SMS (short text messages) in our mobile phones. ACARS is designed to send automated messages to the ground, for instance to give the airline maintenance personnel a heads up to possible equipment issues to be addressed upon landing at the destination. In the final moments of Flight 804, the avionics systems sent out a series of ACARS messages which reported faults and malfunctions. They provided valuable information on estimating what happened during the last few minutes of the flight.

Let’s take a look at those ACARS messages as shown in the picture above, and I will try to decode and to estimate the situation happened in the aircraft from each of the messages.

There have been seven messages sent within four seconds, indicating something of a significant scale occurred in a very short period of time. The first three were sent almost at the same time:

  • 00:26 ANTI ICE R WINDOW – this shows the anti-ice heater in the right cockpit window was damaged. Most probably because the window itself has been destroyed (see next message).
  • 00:26 R SLIDING WINDOW SENSOR – this shows the right cockpit window (the co-pilot/first officer position) was not closed properly. Very likely it had been blown away  by an explosive decompression. The co-pilot might have been incapacitated or unconscious at this point.
  • 00:26 SMOKE : LAVATORY SMOKE – this indicates smoke was detected in the lavatory/toilet. Smoke may also be a result of rapid decompression as the cabin was losing air pressure.

One second later, ACARS sent another message :

  • 00:27 AVIONICS SMOKE – there are two avionics bay in Airbus A320; one is just beneath the cockpit, the other is at the tail of the aircraft. Considering the first three messages, it is very likely that the smoke warning came from the avionics bay underneath the cockpit. It also could suggest that the avionics bay was affected by the explosive decompression, and the aircraft skin started to peel off.
  • 00:28 R FIXED WINDOW SENSOR – this suggests that the right fixed window, located next to the sliding window which was blown away two seconds earlier, was also dislocated from its position. With two windows missing at 37,000 feet, the situation inside the cockpit must have been very chaotic. Both pilots, if they were still conscious at that time, could not do any effective corrective action with the wind and noise.

The final two messages indicated that the two important flight computers were damaged:

  • 00:29 AUTO FLT FCU 2 FAULT – one of the two Flight Control Unit (FCU) stopped working. The FCU is the pilot’s interface to the autopilot, which allows the aircraft to fly straight and level, following a preprogrammed route. FCU is located in the cockpit. Most likely the FCU no.2 was damaged as a result of the explosive decompression seconds earlier.
  • 00:29 F/CTL SEC 3 FAULT – Almost at the same time as the destruction of the FCU, one of seven flight control computers that controls the wing’s spoilers and elevators was also damaged. This is the last ACARS message received from the aircraft.

Airbus A320 Computers (Diagram: Dios K)

To give you some understanding on flight computers, as depicted in the diagram above, there are three types of flight computers onboard Airbus A320 : FAC, SEC and ELAC. Each of which manages physical control surfaces on the wings and tail. They allow pilot’s input from the sticks and pedals to be translated into aircraft’s change of attitude and direction (turning, climbing, descending, reducing speed, etc.).  Losing one computer should not bring down the plane as the computers are designed to take over each other’s tasks when necessary.

The ACARS messages from Flight 804 only told us that one of the three SEC was unavailable. Essentially, if one SEC is faulty, the plane can still fly with the other computers. But if all three computers are damaged, pilots ability to control the aircraft would be virtually lost. In the case of Flight 804, apparently the ACARS did not report fault on the other computers because the ACARS transmitter itself might have been damaged and was unable to send more reports. Probably more than one computer were malfunctioning at the final minutes of Flight 804.

Three minutes after the last ACARS message was sent, the plane disappeared from radar. No emergency call was made.

Something catastrophic happened so suddenly that the pilots did not even have time to radio a distress call. The pilots were most likely swamped with multiple warning that popped up in their cockpit’s screens, and at the same time, they might be busy trying to cope with the rapid degradation of control along with the loss of critical flight computers. The blown windows just made the situation worse for them.

In my opinion, judging from the ACARS messages above, the evidence strongly indicates an explosion inside the aircraft. The explosion might be small, not the kind that would destroy the whole plane instantly, however the resulting decompression was enough to rupture the avionics bay, eventually devastating vital computer systems of the aircraft. Pilots were unable to control the plane and it plunged into the sea.

Probable area of explosion (diagram taken from FlightGlobal.com)

One possible scenario: some sort of incendiary or chemical sparked the fire or small explosion somewhere inside the cabin or in the underfloor cargo hold. The fire spread quickly to the avionics bay, puncturing a hole on the fuselage resulting in the explosive decompression. This could be an indication of, but not necessarily, a terrorist attack.

Yes, this is only a speculation based on small amount of data available at this point. Until a more definitive data is acquired from the flight recorders, this could arguably be the most probable explanation of the accident.

When A Maritime Minister Speaks About Planes

August 2015 | Dios Kurniawan

The newly appointed Minister of Maritime, Mr Rizal Ramli, recently made the headlines by publicly insisting the national flag-carrier airline Garuda to cancel the order of 30 new Airbus A350 wide-body aircrafts on the basis of “the aircraft is only good for Europe and US routes”, and “those routes are unprofitable business, Garuda should concentrate on domestic market instead”. We will see how false these statements are.

Boeing 787 (above) and Airbus A350 (below). Photo: flightglobal.com

To begin with, medium-sized wide-body aircrafts such as A350 and its main competitor Boeing 787 are not necessarily used for long-haul flights. Many airlines use wide-bodies to fly short-to-medium regional sectors, typically flights under 6 hours. Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airlines and Air India fly Boeing 787 for their domestic routes. Thai Airways and Qatar Airways fly 787 for regional flights as short as Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur and Doha-Abu Dhabi. Moreover, some airlines, for example Singapore Airlines and Emirates, exclusively operate wide-body aircrafts.

Modern wide-bodies are preferred because they can carry 200-500 passengers and tons of cargo in one go with superb efficiency. They are also valuable assets for serving busy airports with limited available flight slots.

Wide-body aircrafts are the workhorse of all major airlines, and Garuda as part of its expansion plan should have enough of them in its fleet. Medium-sized 200-300 seater Airbus A350 or Boeing 787 fits nicely into routes not sizeable enough to warrant the operation of larger aircraft such as Boeing 777-300ER. Garuda can make use of A350 (or 787) to serve Japan, China, Korea, Australia and emerging markets in the future.

Next comes the waiting list problem. All major airlines in the world are lining up to get new jets to replace their old ones and to expand their networks. The problem is: there are only two wide-body aircraft manufacturers in the world today; Airbus and Boeing. In the last several years, they have already been swamped with orders from airlines, fueled by growing demand of the world’s air travel which has yet to show sign of a downturn. Current backlog orders at Airbus and Boeing have reached record-high with more than 10,000 planes on order. That is a huge task for Airbus and Boeing to fulfill.

Boeing factory. (photo: boeing.com)

Despite continuing attempts to boost production capacity, Airbus and Boeing can only produce around 1,000 jets each year. That means if you place an order today, the planes will be delivered to you 5-10 years from now. A very long time for most customers to wait, which could mean lost opportunities.

One cannot expect to buy a plane now and have it delivered next week. For airlines, purchasing aircrafts requires proper long-term planning.

The statement “long-haul market is unprofitable” may be true for Garuda at this moment, however the demand for long-haul travel remains stable at around 5% annual growth (source: Boeing Market Outlook 2015). Garuda needs to gradually penetrate the global market, stealing market share currently enjoyed by Emirates, Singapore Airlines and others.

Also, Garuda needs to grab the increasing inbound tourists and business travelers from Asia, Australia, Europe, Middle East and even the US. Last year saw a healthy growth of 7% per year in foreign tourist traffic. To accommodate the anticipated growth, Garuda will require to expand its fleet of wide-body aircrafts, and as well to replace its ageing 1990-era A330 and B747-400 aircrafts.

At the present, Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 are the most viable choices as they offer the right seat capacity, range and operating costs.

Looking at this, either to go with Airbus or Boeing, Garuda’s decision to place order for wide-body aircrafts today is the right one. Garuda needs to stay competitive by expanding its fleet with fuel-efficient aircrafts, both narrow-body and wide-body. If Garuda does not plan to acquire new wide-body jets now, Garuda will be left with not enough wide-bodies in its fleet in the next 5 years as its older aircrafts must leave the fleet for retirement.

Retired Boeing 747s at Cengkareng Airport (photo: Dios Kurniawan)

In point of fact, one of the significant factors that brought Merpati Nusantara Airlines into bankruptcy was its failure to expand its fleet (see my other post). Fleet expansion is crucial.

Mr Rizal Ramli, Minister of Maritime (source: Google)

In spite of this, Mr Ramli thinks that the wide-body purchase is a mistake. He believes that there is no need to gradually build the network of international routes. He prefers to let other countries’ airlines to seize the increasing tourist traffic to Indonesia. A very smart and visionary minister (yes, it is a sarcasm).