Better remain shut
Airline economics dictate whether aircraft doors should open or stay plugged
Good morning! Why would the emergency exit of an aeroplane be sealed up? Isn’t it better to have more exits than fewer? Passengers in an aircraft that caught fire after a landing accident at Haneda airport in Tokyo on January 2, wouldn’t have had to endure several scary minutes before they made their escape if more exits and chutes were available. Yet the question wouldn’t have even been asked had three days later an Alaska Airlines flight not lost its door-plug at 16,000 feet. So why don’t airlines use all emergency exits if they’re available? Because each door costs a lot of money in maintenance and inspection. Read on for an insightful analysis of the cost of safety. Also, a selection of the best stories of the week for your reading pleasure.
The aviation industry is still in shock from a near disaster on January 5 in which a 60-pound “door plug” blew out from a nearly new Boeing 737 MAX 9 in flight at 16,000 feet, leaving a gaping hole in the fuselage.
The industry is watching closely.
A lot of news coverage has emphasised the impressive safety record of the global airline industry, particularly since an Alaska Airlines crew managed to land the plane with no fatalities. I commend the outstanding performance of airline employees, air traffic controllers and emergency responders who achieved this impressive feat.
However, as a former United Airlines pilot now lecturing in Yale University’s School of Management, I believe the wrong questions are being asked about what happened on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. As the National Transportation Safety Board and numerous news outlets have explained, door plugs are commonly used to seal unused exits on commercial airliners. The question we need to ask is: Why wouldn’t an airline use all of an aircraft’s emergency exits? Wouldn’t that make passengers safer?
It’s all about money.
Safety isn’t free
Airlines have lots of expenses. Some, such as jet fuel, are easier to calculate. Others, such as emergency exits, are more opaque to travellers.
Believe it or not, every functioning emergency exit comes at a price for an airline. Each requires routine maintenance and frequent inspections – for example, to make sure that emergency evacuation slides work properly – and flight attendants must staff emergency exits during takeoff and landing for safety reasons.
In other words, every working exit comes with associated costs in salaries, health benefits, pension plans, training and related expenses. Sealing off an emergency exit cuts costs.
But is every one of those emergency exits crucial? From the US government’s perspective, not necessarily.
Why you get more emergency exits in Indonesia
In the US, airlines must comply with federal aviation regulations, which dictate aircraft maintenance procedures and in-flight personnel assignments—and minimum standards for emergency exits.
The issue is that Boeing sells the same aeroplane to different airlines with different needs.
Boeing notes that its 737 MAX 9 can carry up to 220 passengers, which, under US regulations, requires it be built with a specific number of emergency exits. This dense seating configuration is common among lower-cost global airlines such as Jakarta-based Lion Air.
However, given Americans’ desire for legroom, most US carriers are equipped with considerably fewer than 220 seats—and when there are fewer than 190 seats, the rules allow fewer emergency exits to be in service. The Alaska Airlines Max 9 had just 178 seats.
Under these conditions, the federal rules allow air carriers to disable these exits and plug the openings. That’s precisely what happened with Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 – and how “door plug” suddenly entered the American vernacular.
Although this sort of workaround is authorised, it’s unclear to me that this is in the best interest of air safety. Wouldn’t it be better for the FAA to require that all exits are available for use in an emergency, regardless of aircraft seating capacity, even if it required some additional expense for airlines?
A worrying safety record
The 737 MAX is a plane of many firsts—not all of them positive.
The MAX is the latest addition to Boeing’s 737 family of aircraft. The 737 family has far eclipsed all rivals as the most popular commercial airliner ever built, with over 10,000 sold worldwide since its introduction in 1967.
Some carriers, such as Southwest Airlines in the United States and Ryanair in Ireland, fly only 737s; it’s a critical element of their low-cost business strategy. By flying just one type of aircraft, these airlines significantly improve scheduling flexibility while cutting maintenance and training costs.
That’s all to say that demand for the latest 737 was high. In 2017, when the FAA certified the 737 MAX safe for flight, Boeing had already received more than 3,600 new orders from 83 customers.
But very shortly afterward, two crashes that together killed 346 people grounded the 737 MAX for nearly two years – another first as the longest airline grounding in aviation history. Destined to profit $12 million on the sale of each $121 million MAX, there was significant incentive for Boeing to press on with MAX development even though it had already proved to be a dangerously problematic aircraft design.
In 2020, the FAA recertified the MAX as “safe for flight”; by 2023, Boeing had logged more than 7,000 total orders for the MAX, far eclipsing the sale of any other type of airliner. This fact alone ought to raise safety concerns. It may soon prove impossible to avoid flying on a 737 MAX, particularly in the US domestic market. United, American, Southwest and Alaska airlines all currently fly the MAX.
When aeroplane parts and passengers’ cell phones are raining from the sky, it could be a sign that the industry needs to think harder about unintended costs—and consequences.
Amy Frahar is Lecturer in Management, Yale University.
This article is republished from https://theconversation.com under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article at https://theconversation.com/why-did-alaska-airlines-flight-1282-have-a-sealed-off-emergency-exit-in-the-first-place-the-answer-comes-down-to-money-221263
The smiling beluga: When Hvaldimir first started living near the Norwegian coastal town of Hammerfest, one of the northernmost in the world, in 2019, residents were wary. Then they were curious about the friendly creature. Eventually they became friends, admirers, protectors, and even crusaders. Hvaldimir is a beluga whale who, it was eventually determined, was kept in captivity and trained by the Russian navy. Russia never acknowledged it but then no one else claimed Hvaldimir, who had originally showed up with a harness, indicating he was held in captivity. His friendliness and inability to hunt reinforced it. As it happens on such occasions, the whale has become a global celebrity, spawned a couple of organisations dedicated to it, and attracted scientific and policymakers’ attention to himself as well as the larger issue of human-animal interactions, captivity and rehabilitation. The New York Times Magazine tells the fascinating story of Hvaldimir, which is a portmanteau of whale in Norwegian and the common Russian name Vladimir.
Same-same: You walk into a cafe and are greeted by the strong smell of coffee. You look around and see strobes of sunlight streaming through giant windows, settling onto the furniture and giving it a familiar snugness. The furniture is all a mix of wrought iron & wood, with muted lights above the table… this right here is the perfect description for almost every major cafe in the world. Kyle Chayka, writes about this very homogeneity in The Guardian. She calls this phenomenon the result of “AirSpace”, a frictionless geography created by digital platforms and co-working spaces. Some have even dubbed them the millennial aesthetic, suggesting it to be a direct result of that generation's taste. However, actual geography does have its impression in terms of its exclusive clientele and expensive items. For a thoughtful reflection on globalisation and its consequences, do check out this piece.
Life in groups: From Silicon Valley’s biggest tech founders to the most powerful voices in American journalism to you, and the annoying relatives who send you ‘Good Morning’ forwards—everyone is part of a group chat. This essay in The New York Times Magazine muses about the evolution of the group chat from the earliest days of instant messaging on a desktop to today’s ubiquitous iMessage groups (or WhatsApp groups, in the Indian context) we now make with friends, family, colleagues, and other people in our lives. Author Sophie Haigney points out how the group chat has fundamentally altered human existence: never before could we connect simultaneously with hundreds of people in one go. Not every group chat is about simply keeping in touch. Instead, we can now exist in a bubble of virtual conversation where the point of conversation, or even the connections among the participants, are vague and ever-changing. Have group chats brought us even closer or suspended us in conversation we don’t really need to have?
Myth-buster: That’s what you can call Sarah Meiklejohn, a University of California, San Diego graduate. Almost as a side quest, Sarah had started a project in 2013 to dispel the anonymity of Bitcoin. Which is kind of a bummer if you’re a Bitcoin enthu because that’s one of the major attractions to the tech. She meticulously documented all the transactions. By all, we mean ALL. That means noting down roughly 16 million transactions that had occurred across the entire Bitcoin economy since its creation four years earlier in 2009. This gave her unprecedented access to even some of the earliest transactions done by Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s creator. Using Nakamoto’s own technique, she uncovered every Bitcoin transaction, a feat that helped the US Department of Justice catch three of the biggest law enforcement monetary seizures in its history. To get a complete picture of this story, read this amazing piece in the Wired.
Doppelgänger Danger: Welcome to AI-hell, where you can stumble on a video or photo with your AI-generated face on it selling random online trinkets, pushing a scammy scheme, or engaging in unspeakably graphic acts. This is a brand new experience for everyone on the internet, one that we are probably unprepared for. But, as this story in Intelligencer argues, there is one set of people who can help us navigate this hellscape: celebrities. Famous actors, singers, and other celebrities have been victims of impersonation and non-consensual pornography since the beginning of the internet when we received scam emails from Nigerian ‘princes’ or ‘famous businessmen’. Their problems are now getting democratised at an unprecedented scale, but it isn’t as if lawyers and lawmakers have absolutely no experience with it.
More on Boeing: For a company that once prided itself on aircraft safety, Boeing’s reputation has been in a free fall over the last five years. Days into 2024, the aircraft manufacturer has been sucked into a news cycle vortex from hell—from fuselage blowouts to cracked cockpit windows, among other things. But how did it get here? Several deep dives over the last week point to some thorny issues, particularly its relationship with a company it once owned (and later spun out in 2005): Spirit AeroSystems Holdings. Spirit, now a public company, heavy lifts a lot of the production work (as much as 70%) for Boeing’s core and (once) most sustainable 737 product. Also read: Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing (book). Plus: Downfall: The Case against Boeing (2022) on Netflix.