Flying on National-Prestige Airframes

So last Sunday, an Airbus 310 flying from Cuba to Quebec lost the entire control surface of its rudder (picture). According to BitsBlog (via Instapundit), even though the plane was in US airspace at the time, the pilot elected to return to Cuba rather than declare an in-flight emergency. He did so after conferring with the plane’s owner, Air Transat.

This is the third incident involving a A300-series’s rudder. One of the incidents resulted in the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in November of 2001, which resulted in the deaths of all 265 lives aboard. This raises legitimate questions about the safety of the A300 airframe’s revolutionary use of composite materials. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Airbus or any competent authority is taking the matter seriously. I think they are not tackling the problem because of matters of national prestige.

The Air Transat decision not to declare an emergency and land in the US probably had more to do with their fear of the bad press that would result if the plane landed in media saturated American instead of media controlled Cuba (the company has a history of maintenance problems) but as a Francophone owned airline, and a heavy user of A300s, the desire to protect the reputation of the A300 can’t be ruled out. Both Airbus and European regulators also have an intense interest in sweeping problems under the rug.

The main problem here is that Airbus isn’t just a manufacturer of aircraft. Rather, it is a political creation of the European Union and one which Europeans are very proud of. Failure at Airbus doesn’t just cost investors money but tarnishes the political class and cultural self-esteem of Europe. When Airbus unveiled its new mega-plane, the A380, the ceremony was attended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. They are not going to look favorably on the idea that the A300 series may have a design flaw.

This represents one of the systemic problems with State intervention in economic matters. Once the political class bets its own reputation on the success of an enterprise, the State ceases to be an honest regulator of that enterprise. In effect, the State becomes an investor potentially more concerned about the appearance of success than with safety or economic efficiency. We saw this happen in the post-WWII era with nationalized industries in Europe and with Cold War era defense contractors in the US.

As even the most ardent free-market advocates from Adam Smith onward have recognized, the profit seeking behavior of private companies only produces a greater public good in the aggregate. Over time and the breadth of the entire economy, the positive effects of profit seeking outweigh the negative effects, but the negative effects do occur and sometimes they cost lives. The modern State has carved out a role of trying to ameliorate the negative consequences of the free market. (Whether it has been successful or efficient in doing so is another argument.) However, in order to fulfill this role, the State cannot have an interest in the actual success or failure of an enterprise.

Not only does State investment, financial or otherwise, disrupt the State’s regulatory role, it also shields the enterprise from the free-market influences that correct negative behaviors. Freed of all constraints, the enterprise becomes reckless, pursuing its self-interest with no regard for the possible negative consequences. The general populace ends up with the worst aspects of socialism combined with the worst aspects of the free market.

If the A300 does have a rudder problem, it may be very difficult and expensive to fix due to the extensive use of composite material in the airframe’s construction. Airbus could be looking at a very expensive and very public retrofit program. The question is: Will the European political system be able to accept the humiliation of having to do so before more people die?

11 thoughts on “Flying on National-Prestige Airframes”

  1. Once the political class bets its own reputation on the success of an enterprise, the State ceases to be an honest regulator of that enterprise. In effect, the State becomes an investor potentially more concerned about the appearance of success than with safety or economic efficiency.

    This is strikingly true not just WRT economic enterprises. For example: “The Middle East peace process.”

  2. Another point to consider is that had the pilot declared an air emergency (like Moses parting the Red Sea; everyone immediately gets out of the way to allow a landing) that would’ve prompted an investigation by the NTSB. That would be ongoing bad PR and all the various international airlines would receive the official report by simply asking for it. Don’t want that if it can avoided, obviously.

    I’d be curious to know excatly what’s failing. Is the rudder actually disintegrating? If so, that’s clearly a materials failure and probably points to: A) poorly manufactured composites, or B) bad data tables of the material’s properties. It’s also possible the problems is more subtle than that. Maybe the bolts on the rudder drive are shearing off and the whole assembly is getting ripped out when under high stress.

    It may not even be something Airbus is doing. I recall a problem with the turrets of several M1 tanks shearing off after the main gun was fired several times. Turns out the bolts were counterfeit. They had the appearance and markings of expensive, high shear strength bolts but were not. It’s the materials equivalent of getting a bad $20 bill passed to you.

    Still, this is what thorough investigation should reveal, and one is certainly overdue. I’ll also point out that that the US has similar problem WRT the FDA. It’s charged with both promoting and regulating the drug industry. Two tasks which are clearly at cross purposes.

    Finally, does the EU have an agency like the NTSB?

  3. I think the point about the malign influence of national-prestige products is a good one. Airbus operators in the US, of course, are subject to the FAA, which is unlikely to be impressed with European national-prestige arguments.

  4. I’ll stand second to none in government bashing, French bashing or French government bashing. But if we have a complaint here it is with the NTSB not Airbus, just as would be the case if the problem were on a Boeing aircraft.

    If there is truly reason to think that the A3xx rudders are unsafe the NTSB should launch an investigation. If there is not cooperation forthcoming, it surely has power to ground the fleet. I see no reason to believe the NTSB would do otherwise if it had sufficient reasons to suspect a systemic defect.

  5. Ralf,

    Euro, French, or Airbus bashing it may be, and the A3x0’s may not have atypical airframe failures, but these three incidents happened in, if I read correctly, 2001, 2002, and now 2005. It is possible that there is a materials fatigue or service issue of some sort. Has anyone seen anything comparing the service lives of these three aircraft?

  6. Ralf Goergans,

    “this really looks like Euro-bashing more than anything else”

    I don’t know if there is actually a problem with rudders of the A300s, I just worry that IF there is a problem that do to the highly political nature of Airbus, Airbus and European regulators will be slow to address it.

    This isn’t a European phenomenon, per se but rather a problem inherent in the State becoming directly involved in individual enterprises. Europe might suffer from it more than other places due to the greater degree of socialization but beyond that I don’t think it is a particularly European problem.

    I think there is definitely a problem with the Canadian airline. There behavior in the latest incident (if reports are accurate) is simply bizarre.

  7. Give me a Boeing any day. I remember when the 2001 crash happened, I was talking to a friend on whether it was terrorism, I said “they’re not made out of tinker toys after all.” Guess I was wrong. Good point Shannon.

  8. Has anyone actually looked at the photo that’s linked in the post of the rudder? ..or lack thereof?

    All of the primary bolts are in place. It’s the material that ripped away. Scary.

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