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Further BA capacity cuts hinge on slot-rule decisions

By Brendan Sobie

British Airways is prepared to slash more capacity if the European Union extends its suspension of the “use it or lose it” slot-allocation regulation.

In early May the European Parliament agreed to suspend the regulation, which requires airlines to surrender slots not being used at least 80% of the time, for the summer 2009 season.

But BA had already made a decision to reduce capacity this summer by 2.5%. “Unfortunately the European Parliament only voted on the alleviation on 4 May so it was far too late from a planning point a view,” says BA chief Willie Walsh.

The carrier is hoping the Parliament will extend the suspension to cover the winter 2009-10 season. “If we saw alleviation of the slot rule for the coming winter we would reduce capacity beyond the 4% [winter cut currently planned],” says Walsh.

Simon Gregory/AirTeamImages.com
© Simon Gregory/AirTeamImages.com

But he is pessimistic on the prospects of this happening quickly enough for BA and other European carriers to reduce capacity further this winter. He says Parliament has indicated it “wants to see a full impact assessment on the consumer” before voting on a possible extension of the current moratorium.

“The timescale for that will likely go beyond the decision point for most airlines,” Walsh says, adding that, for now, BA “assumes the slot rules will remain in place”. He points out that, before the onset of the downturn, BA had planned to grow capacity by 5.3% in winter 2009-10.

While BA is grounding Boeing 747s and 757s as part of the reduction, it plans to raise its short-haul capacity next winter to protect its slots at Heathrow. Walsh says capacity is only down 2% at Heathrow overall, compared with 14.5% at London Stansted.

“That’s largely because most airlines operating at Heathrow are so protective of their slots,” he adds. “A lot of capacity is coming out of the London market but it’s not coming out of Heathrow. The main reason for that is the slot values.”


Baltic exchange

By Craig Hoyle

NATO’s most recent expansion, in March 2004, included Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were collectively unable to defend their airspace from potential threats. The duty of providing air policing, or quick reaction alert (QRA) cover for the nations’ 6.8 million inhabitants fell upon the wider NATO community, which is expected to maintain its commitment until around 2018.

Flight International visited Lithuania’s Siauliai air base as the fourteenth nation to assume the Baltic QRA mission was less than three weeks into its four-month detachment at the site. Notably for the Czech Republic, the first operational overseas deployment to have been undertaken by its air force since joining NATO in 1999 is also the first commitment of its kind made by Prague since the end of the Second World War.

Equipped with four Saab Gripen C fighters, the current detachment is drawn from the Czech air force’s 211th Tactical Squadron, home based at Cáslav, around 80km (43nm) east of the nation’s capital.

Lt Col David Schreier/Czech air force
© Lt Col David Schreier/Czech air force

Two of the aircraft have been held at readiness to take off within 15min on a 24h, seven-day-a-week basis since 1 May, with the commitment forming part of the wider NATO Integrated Air Defence System. Armaments carried for the Baltic mission are two Raytheon AIM-9M Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles and typically around 100 gun rounds per aircraft.

The deployment is notable not only for its historic-first nature, but also because the Czech air force only began operating the Gripen in 2005 under a 10-year lease deal brokered via Sweden’s Defence Materiel Administration (FMV).

In addition, despite having a total of just 12 Gripen Cs and two D-model operational trainers, the service is providing parallel QRA cover for the Czech Republic from Cáslav.

“As one squadron we are supporting two QRAs, so you can imagine the people are busy now,” says Czech air force Maj Jaroslav Míka, detachment commander for the Baltic mission and also Gripen squadron commander. The fleet logged more than 6,000 flight hours in its first three years of use, according to Saab.

Craig Hoyle/Flight Interntational
© Lt Col David Schreier/Czech air force

Preparations for the Lithuanian deployment started in February 2007, with an initial base survey having been conducted later the same year. Materiel preparation work began last October, with a second site survey conducted in February. “We are not an experienced nation with sending our tactical aircraft abroad,” notes Míka.

Czech personnel and Gripens had previously been deployed to Norway, Poland and Turkey for training, and squadron personnel performed a six-month work-up ahead of the Baltic deployment, following a model used by Czech military personnel deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

EVALUATION EXERCISE

Final preparations included an air policing evaluation exercise conducted at Cáslav from 9-13 March, which assessed the unit’s standards, techniques and procedures against NATO guidelines. The process included support from Czech air force Aero Vodochody L-159 advanced light combat aircraft, plus transports and helicopters.

The first Czech aircraft arrived at Siauliai on 30 April, with the presence to continue until the German air force takes over responsibility for the QRA mission on 1 September (see box).

Representing the 20th period of cover to have been provided to the Baltic states, the Czech detachment has already been called upon for the first time. A so-called “Alpha” scramble intercept was launched on 21 May, after a civilian aircraft was detected flying along the Russian-Lithuanian border after departing Poland.

“A signal informing about an A-Scramble rang at 17:30. Our pilots were airborne at 17:41 and intercepted a German-registered aircraft at 17:50,” says Lt Col David Schreier, liaison officer of the Czech air policing detachment. Restricted from approaching within 1,000ft (305m) of the potential threat, the Gripens monitored the aircraft until it landed at Lithuania’s Klaipeda airfield, before they returned to Siauliai.

“We learnt the day after that the aircraft had had a flight plan through that area, but it was not activated by the Brussels flight co-ordination centre,” says Schreier. Typical of most recent incidents, the event was the first in several months over the Baltic states: the previous Danish Lockheed Martin F-16 contingent did not conduct an Alpha scramble during its entire tour of duty. US Air Force Boeing F-15s were twice launched from Siauliai between October and December 2008.

Gripens are launched around 10 times a year in the Czech Republic to investigate irregular flight activity, says Míka.

A total of 75 Czech personnel are participating in the Baltic mission, with the majority of these to be rotated half-way through the commitment. The total includes eight pilots and 36 maintenance and logistics personnel at Siauliai and some personnel assigned to a Lithuanian command and control facility at Karmelava.

The mission is planned to total around 290 flying hours and not more than 350 by September, with the latter limit having been established to avoid adversely affecting operations at Cáslav. The air force usually has eight of its 12 Gripen Cs ready for operations each day, and detachment maintenance and logistics officer Maj Pavel Buchta notes: “What you do now, you will see the results 18 months from now.”

The planning assumption is for the detachment to fly eight two-aircraft training missions – or Tactical scrambles – a week, up to a maximum of 8h a day and 25h a week. No training sorties are flown at weekends due to local noise restrictions, although the 15min QRA cover is maintained.

As its existing Gripen deal only covers the support of aircraft operating at their home base, Prague has signed a supplemental deal with the FMV to enable its Baltic duties. This covers some additional spare parts, line replaceable units and ground support equipment delivered to the Czech Republic, from where one logistics flight is performed to Siauliai each week using an air force Antonov An-26 transport.

© Craig Hoyle/Flight Interntational
© Craig Hoyle/Flight Interntational

“Our main ground support equipment and resources are at our home base, and we had to be prepared to fly from an almost bare base,” says Buchta, who describes the mission as “the biggest challenge in my career”.

Around 80% of the squadron’s equipment arrived in Lithuania by road, while more sensitive and hazardous supplies, such as ammunition and missiles, were flown in by An-26. “We have limited airlift resources in the Czech Republic, which is not so good for a detachment abroad,” says Buchta. However, its air force will later this year receive the first of four Airbus Military C-295 transports under a deal announced during May.

MAINTENANCE WORK

Minor maintenance and repairs are conducted at Siauliai, while larger activity, such as technical services scheduled after every 200 flight hours and lasting between four and six weeks, are conducted in the Czech Republic.

The aircraft had logged 72h in 48 sorties by 19 May, and Míka says: “We haven’t had any major maintenance issues; we keep four aircraft in flying condition.” He praises the Gripen’s on-board diagnostics system, noting: “Straight after landing you know what it is necessary to maintain.”

Some Swedish support personnel are also based at Cáslav under the lease deal, and the air force brought two of these to Siualiai at the start of the detachment. But in a sign of the squadron’s independence they soon returned to the Czech Republic. “There was nothing for them to do,” says Míka. “We are doing well,” adds Buchta. “It was good preparation, and we have found solutions to problems.”

TRAINING SCRAMBLES

Czech pilots are managing to conduct some training during Tactical scrambles, for example flying with Lithuanian air force Aero Vodochody L-39s or Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters. However, these are largely limited to flying 2:1 scenarios, says Míka. Visiting pilots are also making use of the mission’s protected airspace over the Baltic Sea, which offers a different training experience to the land-locked Czech Republic.

The last Gripen will leave Lithuania on 4 September for its 80min return flight to Cáslav – a distance of almost 1,040km (560nm).

Although the detachment is stretching the Czech air force’s small fleet of fighters and testing its aged air transport fleet, the experience is an important one for a country just a decade into its NATO experience. The detachment is also a welcome opportunity for its fighter pilots – capped at flying an average of 150 flight hours a year at home – to taste deployed operational life for the first time.


VIRGIN GALACTIC ROCKET MOTOR TEST A SUCCESS

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two hybrid motor has been successfully fired by the spaceline’s prime contractor Scaled Composites and its subcontractor Sierra Nevada, which owns SpaceDev, one of the companies that helped develop SpaceShipOne‘s rocket.

Flight International was unable to confirm whether the motor tested was full scale or if the firing test was for the full duration SS2 requires.


Emirates incident highlights electronic flight bag human factors

By Kieran Daly

The recent near-catastrophe in which an Emirates Airbus A340-500 was almost lost on take-off after the first officer misentered the aircraft’s weight by a single digit in the electronic flight bag has highlighted the human factors issues associated with this new technology.

That incident at Melbourne was only the latest of several known cases involving widebodies, and insiders say similar errors on narrowbodies are even more common but go unreported because of their greater performance margins.

Dan Pendergast of Arinc says: “Regarding Emirates or any other case, even though certain technology was involved, usually there are multiple factors and you cannot point at any one part as a major factor.

“One of the roles of the EFBs is to improve safety – to try to automate as many things as possible that could be subject to human error and could contribute to an accident.

“I think the industry in general should view this technology as a way, just like ACARS [datalinking], to reduce pilot workload and we have to be very careful as an EFB is implemented, in how it is presented to the crew and how much work they have to do on it. It is a powerful tool.”

Joe McGoldrick, chief executive of Aircraft Management Technologies, stresses the importance of cross-checking, saying that, with his company’s software, “at key points in the flow the captain has to sign off what the first officer entered”.

Lufthansa Systems highlights the robustness generated by a heavily integrated EFB, which makes it more likely that a data error will be caught due to its incompatibility with other data. Marc Szepan, senior vice-president airline operations solutions, says: “In our take-off performance module, if you enter a weight value that is not possible or the aircraft is not certified then the module would not allow it.

“The value of the EFB, if you have a fully integrated EFB solution in which everything talks to each other, is that there is much richer potential for cross-checking. If you have a fully integrated EFB then in the take-off performance module where you entered, say, 250t instead of 280t, it will cross-check with the weight and balance module which has determined that related to the zero-fuel weight and the number of passengers it would not work and the warning will flash up.

“We have tried in as many ways as possible to leverage that possibility with some fairly sophisticated cross-checks that provide the maximum degree of check against values that are not realistic.”


BMI bids to replace Eastern for Airbus shuttle work

By Alex Derber

UK carrier BMI is in discussions to take over shuttle operations between Airbus‘ manufacturing plants.

Airbus has opted not to renew the contract of British regional operator Eastern Airways which flies the airframer’s personnel between its Broughton and Filton manufacturing sites.

Eastern had been employed to shuttle Airbus staff with 29-seat British Aerospace Jetstream 41 turboprops “as and when they required” for a number of years.

But an Eastern spokesman says: “We have been given notice by Airbus of a change of operator as they’re adopting a different approach to their flying programme and the Jetstream 41 operation is not appropriate for what they want to do going forward.”

Airbus is in talks with BMI to pick up the business with 49-seat Embraer ERJ-145 jets.

“BMI Regional is in discussions to operate a shuttle service for Airbus,” confirms the airline.

ERJ-145 jets would not only offer higher capacity but additional range for any other routes that Airbus might require.


FAA: Under-inflated tires suspected in deadly Learjet overrun

By John Croft

A proposed airworthiness directive (AD) set to be published tomorrow suggests that under-inflated tires may have initiated the chain of events that led to the rejected takeoff crash of a Learjet 60 crash in Columbia, South Carolina on 19 September 2008, killing four of the six onboard.

According to the US National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report, issued in October, information on the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder revealed that the crew initiated the rejected takeoff after hearing a “sound consistent with a tire failure” at 136kt (252km/h), just after the V1 callout, the speed beyond which pilots are generally instructed to take off rather than attempt to stop on the remaining runway.

The business jet continued past the 305m (1,000ft) runway safety area, hit airport lighting, navigation facilities, a perimeter fence and concrete marker posts before crossing a roadway and coming to rest on an embankment and burning, the NTSB determined.

In the AD to be published tomorrow, the FAA reveals that all four of the aircraft’s main tires appear to have blown out, which could have also played a role in the NTSB’s finding that at least one of the Learjet’s two engines thrust reversers had not deployed during the full-power rejected takeoff attempt. Though the FAA does not identify the particular accident, details provided link it to the Columbia crash, the only Learjet 60 hull loss in NTSB records since 2004.

“We received a report of all four of the main landing gear tires blowing out during a takeoff roll of a Learjet Model 60 airplane,” writes the FAA in the proposed AD. “The airplane overran the end of the runway, ultimately stopping when it struck an embankment, and was destroyed by fire.”

Additionally, FAA says that investigation of tire fragments “indicates that, in all four tires, there was evidence of internal heat damage consistent with under-inflation, over-loading, or a combination of both; damage to a tire under these conditions is cumulative” and that “tires that have been rolled or taxied at lower-than-specified tire pressure settings may fail”.

The regulator says it is proposing the AD “to prevent tire failure, which could result in failures of the braking and thrust reverser systems. In a critical phase of operation such as takeoff, loss of airplane control may result”.

If approved as written, the AD will require operators to include procedures for the aircraft’s flight and maintenance manuals to use when checking for and maintaining proper tire inflation. Public comments on the proposal are due by mid-July.