Tuesday, 30 July 2013

787,-More insomnia for Dreamliner?

With over 60 787-8s now delivered and the type being seen in more and more liveries at more and more airports, Boeing executives must have been sleeping more easily of late.

Reuters and others reports over the last few days of another possible electric, heat, smoke, occurance must though be sending arms reaching for the sleeping tablets again. This is despite no information other than cheery denials of a problem coming from either the manufacturer or the airline.

Whether or not there turns out to be any substance to the reports or rumours, there are, as we noted on 14th July,  two separate areas of concern which have to be dealt with.

The first is the obvious. Something has been going wrong in the area of electrics, notably the various lithium batteries. From this have flowed in turn  heat, smoke and burning.  Despite all the efforts and reassurances and the insulation and encasement of batteries and surrounds,  the  customers and the media are still on the case. Boeing simply can not afford any more smoke or visible scorch marks on the structure. The underlying problem has to be and will be solved. There is little doubt about that.

The second concern is the repairability of the “all in one” carbon fibre structures. The main fuselage comes all in one piece as do the nose and tail barrels. Initial questions have been about repairs to the structure when fractured by catering trucks, jetways etc. Boeing have always been confident that these present no problems. The Ethiopian incident however raises a completely different issue,- the repair or replacement of an area of structure affected by heat.  Presumably this has already been considered and there are solutions. How they are applied to the Ethiopian aircraft at Heathrow, how long they take and what if any subsequent weight, lifetime limitations or other penalties they carry will be watched with great interest.

To all this, arising from the UPS 747 crash and the excellent though harrowing report on it , there is the obvious third concern as to whether any lithium battery of any sort should get anywhere near an airliner or freighter. The implications for laptops, tablets, phones and the rest are of course enormous although there are as far as we know there have been no recorded airbourne problems with these. However, many purchasers of mobile phones will have been warned that these devices can burst into flames and they should not be left unattended on battery recharge sessions. If one can be a problem, what  does that say about a whole container load?

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

UK Transport policies in the slow lane? No.

Regrettably not.

Almost all transport plans and developments are not in any lane.

They are stuck in the car park.

A few lesser ones , mainly on the railways are under way, but many haven't even got to the decision making stage or, beyond that , starting the planning process. They are firmly in the car park and not even at the exit.


Scene: The Prime Minster's office:

Sir Howard Davies (Leader of the Airports Commission, due to make its recommendations on London capacity in 2015 despite a list of options being published this year):

"We've got the submissions from Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted Sir. We've also got our own work on alternatives like White Waltham , Haddenham and a few others ".(Why is Roskill 1973- recommmended Wing/Cublington never mentioned?). "We could put the whole lot together and make our recommendations this year if you like".

PM: "What is there about Not Before The 2015 General Election that you don't understand ? Once that's out of the way we can do anything we like, -and if we can't Labour will do it anyway. They were on the brink of going ahead at Heathrow but we put a stop to that. Think of that, we would be doing something -the diggers would be in right now. Terrible. Go away and waste some more time like you were told to do".

           "Sorry sir. My mistake, See you,-or someone,- in 2015."

Meanwhile over at HS 2, Britain's planned second domestic high speed railway line, a hybrid bill to enable building to start needs to start its journey through parliament this autumn if it is to be passed in the lifetime of this government.If it isn't completed by May 2015 it will have to start again. At the moment there is no sign of the required urgency. In the meantime the very well planned and orchestrated opposition lobby centred in the Chilterns ,through which all but 3.1 of  its 12.4 mile passage will be in expensive tunnels or cuttings, is steadily ploughing ahead and building opposition into a sort of dinner party fashion amongst public figures despite its objectives being primarily parochial even when wrapped in a respectable cover of national interest . The need for more track and line capacity is immediate and there are no real options .

Processes for transport projects are glacial and most are opposed and fought all the way. Even minor schemes face up to six years of planning processes, hearings, appeals and judicial reviews .Talk of building infrastructure and capacity for future generations cuts little ice in the Treasury or amongst opponents.

Very little other than filling in about £10 bn worth of potholes on the roads is immediately shovel ready . Even there money is squandered by botch filling rather than proper lasting repairs. Africa learned pothole repairing techology decades ago. First world UK doesn't yet seem to understand it.

As for major road strategy and development, a major programme of improvements has been announced . Much of it is along the routes Airnthere outlined on 1st July. It would focus more on upgrading single carriageway A roads to near motorway dual carriageway standards than building new motorways but it would do great things for the areas concerned. "Not so fast" retort the "Say No To.." groups. Any improvement anywhere near to a national park, the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads, the South Downs or "area of outstanding natural beauty" is claimed to be "devastating" it even if it just goes around the edges as do all of the projects concerned .The A595 doesn't cut through the lakes . It improves access to them but goes around the  struggling Cumbrian Coast . The A47 from Acle to Yarmouth  is already there , improves access to some of the broads country and especially to run down, drab Yarmouth . It doesn't wreck the Broads . Similarly the A27/259  runs to the north of the South Downs, improves access to them and benefits east-west coastal traffic, access to the Channel tunnel and gives a string of towns an economic boost.  It does nothing to the downs themselves. Unblocking the bottleneck to going to depressed Hastings by dualling its lst 20 miles is claimed to be destroying the Weald and ancient woodlands of Kent and Sussex. It would do nothing of the sort but would boost employment in Hastings. And so it goes on nationwide.  These and other depressed areas need all the help they can get to boost their economies, remove barriers to business and trade and to create large numbers of new jobs.  Many feet are though out to trip them up.

Unfortunately for the UK ,the opposing well heeled "Say no To.." groups, the tortuous planning processes and general inertia and lack of courage in Whitehall and Parliament all conspire to make even the opening of a village bypass a very long process. As result,despite some bold declarations of intent, promising billions to be spent ,not a lot of the big things are actually  happening. Fortunately a few smaller ones are. For  that we can thank pure dogged determination or ,occasionally, stealth. The biggest missing ingredients are political courage and Whitehall's abilty to do anything quickly and simply. It's just not part of the culture.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

UAV Lands on carrier,- Pilot's nightmare or not?

10th July saw the landing on an aircraft carrier of a US X47B drone. The pictures may have driven a shudder through the  global pilot community. Is the future moving from the cockpit to ground control rooms inhabited by a different breed of people?

Perhaps not,- at least on the airline side of the business. Here's why:

Scene: The Drone Control Room of MegaAir anywhere in the world.

Controller of a very large pilotless airliner:  "****. I've knocked my coffee all over the keyboard....Now where's 195 gone?"


"This is Al Quaeda Ops. We now have control".

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Life after Paris,- It's been busy.

Three weeks ago the Paris Air Show was drawing to a close after a predictably successful week. On the civil side of the business, the Big Two, Airbus and Boeing were well satisfied with their announcements of more big orders for the two cash cows which allow them to sleep at night whatever else is happening . Take a bow the 737 and A320 series. There were continuing successes too for the 777,787 and A350. The A330 is still pulling in business too, trading purchase price against future efficiencies offerered by its eventual successors. Only the lack an airline order for the A380 new, repeat, anything, will have disappointed Airbus. With over 100 now delivered, the order book for this aircraft really does need to start picking up. When will a US major crack and accept the inevitable and sign up, even if only for small initial quantities for slot constratined airports and routes? When will China be persuaded to add Air China and/or China Eastern to its customer lists, or to top up China Southern's fleet?  Cathay Pacific would be a nice catch too. Declarations of intent from leasing companies don't fit or pay the bill.

 Airbus initially stole the flying show by displaying first BA's and later on its own A380. Then, as predicted first by Airnthere, it capped everything with a flypast by its brand new A350, only a week into its initial flying programme. Without saying anything else this conveyed the message to challengers : "We are here,- now!"  That is powerful and will set Boeing wondering how it can bring forward its 777 development although as current orders and production rates stand, for anyone buying now there isn't much in it for actual delivery dates.

With Paris over, Airbus and Boeing got busy with high profile deliveries. Within days BA's A380 arrived at Heathrow to start working up to its real long haul introduction, now to Los Angeles on 24 September, three weeks ahead of the original plan. Before that it will appear, initially at least, unannounced on scheduled London-Frankfurt services to build flight and cabin crew experience. PR-wise an unspecified 380 is due to do a flypast in the company with the RAF's Red Arrows at the massive military International Air Tattoo at Fairford, UK on Saturday 20th July. If BA's PR team are on the ball there is no question of which aircraft it will turn out to be. It would not be required to join the Red Arrows in the rest of their display. That's a relief.

 Boeing were no slouches either.They are intent on getting their rather late 787 into the hands of as many  different customers and visibly into making money in the air as quickly possible, thereby also saying "We are here,-now!" to anyone whose hands may be wavering towards an A350 contract. With the show over, two were quickly sent to BA to trump the arrival of their A380 by days, while Norwegian and Hainan Airlines both received their first aircraft. Boeing's airline introduction support teams are clearly busy.

Despite the approaching holidays the pace was picking up and things were looking good.

And then..............

First a perfectly serviceable 777 landing in good conditions was written off by Korea's Asiana while landing at San Francisco. The "Who Dunnit? Let it not be us"  US investigation set off at the gallop amidst plenty of speculation, particularly about what may or may not have happened on the flight deck and why. Included in stones rightly upturned will be ones about operating procedures and cultures, primarily Korean ones. What may get less or even no attention is what US ATC proceedures, culture and style may have added to the mix. These tend to be regarded as beyond reproach . To many, especially home based crews, they may familiar enough and fine. There has to be a question though as to whether or not they take full account of visiting foreign crews who may not spend much of their lives flying in and out of US airports and airspace .It can be tough for newcomers especially at the end of a long haul sector. It's very pressured and everything happens very quickly and in a more rushed style than at other places in the world. Quickfire instructions, rapid descents and late turns are often part of the norm. Perhaps this gives an understanding to the buildup towards what happened on this flight.  Arriving at San Francisco from the north with mountains on its eastern side and sea on the western plus traffic on a close parallel and a conflicting crosswind runway is high workload anyway. It is not the same as approaching Heathrow with its very measured verbal interactions and instructions and its long terrain-free orderly approaches and no cross runways to keep an eye on. Other places are high workload and demanding too but there is the opportunity here to look at how the commonplace to local pilots looks and sounds to pilots from different backgrounds and cultures.

Next up,-or down,- Boeing had no sooner breathed a sigh of relief when it quickly became clear that the 777 itself was in the clear than an empty and inactive Ethiopian 787 started smoking on its Heathrow parking stand. That's not something that you see every day. Much of the media and speculation industry went into immediate overdrive as no doubt did, in an entirely different way, the UK's Air Accident Investigation Board.  There was more and very deep breathing of relief the following day when the lithium batteries were exonerated . The investigation continues and can be relied upon to be good, factual and non judgemental. As the Board's initial statement says, its task is to establish the facts. It is not in the business of identifying or apportioning blame. The outcome will be awaited with great interest by the industry, Boeing, the 787 customer airlines and the passengers themselves.

Another potentially most interesting and certainly vital issue lurks here and needs a thorough examination and statement. This is the repairability of carbon fibre structures, especially ones which come in very large sections as per the 787 ,rather than as a collection of panels fastened to a conventional structure(A350). The most common damage will be of the familiar catering truck meets fuselage variety.  These affect relatively small areas in a fairly predictable way. Extensive burning/smouldering and any resultant distortion or other damage is a very different thing. A significant area of the rear fuselage has been affected by the heat, shows scorch marks and what appears to be the outline of a substructure. How much will the heat have affected the strength of the area and its supports. Where will stress distribution patterns run before and after repair? Can a large area be cut out and a new one bonded in and how will the relative strengths of the new area compare to the old ?  Presumably as in any structures a perfect match is required? Some experts in carbon fibre structural repair may be finding that their dreams of a summer holiday are fading fast. Quite apart from aircraft deliveries, it could be a busy August in Seattle.
Here we are then, three weeks on from the heady days Paris and some of the drawing boards are coming out again. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

UK Spending Review :Transport Sector gets a boost,- or does it?

At first sight the British Government's 2015-2020 spending review announced by Chancellor George Osborne on Wednesday and the subsequent more detailed , if cliche ridden, statement on Thursday by Danny Alexander looked like reasonable ,if not spectacular, news for at least the country's surface transport sector. In intention it is . Delivery in a reasonable timescale is less certain. On the plus side the transport budget has at least held its own at a time when other areas of public sector spending are being cut back. £70 bn is earmarked for transport infrastructure spending over the period. It's not an increase .It is much the same as in the previous five years but at least it's not a cut.

The Government is to press ahead with HS 2,originally a Lord Adonis Labour project. This is the much needed boost to already squeezed track capacity to the north of England and ultimately Scotland (although it is less squeezed north of Preston in the west and Newcastle in the east). It is proceeding with approximately 900 track miles of electrification of existing lines to the west (Bath and Bristol), South Wales, and the the Midlands (Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield) as well as Lord Adonis' northern triangle covering Liverpool,Manchester,Preston and Blackpool and the trans pennine route between Manchester, Leeds and York. A few other assosciated connecting lines will also be wired up. On the roads there will be be an upgrading of the seriously limited A14 which links the large and growing port of Felixstowe to the midlands, although it seems that just going for it and making it into a strategic east-west motorway is not the plan, an indication that much thinking just isn't yet big enough,-and may never be.

Costwise,10 billion has been added to HS2 as a contingency fund. This is music to the "Say no to.." campaigners, one of whose largely unspoken objectives has been to drive its costs up by demanding very expensive additional tunneling and digging of cuttings for both real and ostensible environmental reasons.  Their thinking is that the higher they can push the costs the more they can excite public resistance and thereby eventually secure a loss of political nerve. Fortunately currently the leaders of all three parties agree that it is essential to push this capacity building project forward, albeit at a relatively slow pace. The construction timing is designed to mean that the start of the £2 bn a year building costs dovetails with the end of a similar current annual spend on London's Crossrail project. Life will never be easy for the scheme as it is too easy to set it up against arguments of  "Why don't we spend the money on other things" and the ongoing fashionable ones around " Videoconferencing etc will reduce travel." That one has been around for years ever since telephones or even morse code transmitters were invented. It will run and run and always sound like the future. It isn't. Nothing will replace person to person, face to face contact for either business or pleasure. Not for the winners anyway.

There was no mention of aviation in either statement. That is partly because normal airport development itself is a private, not public, sector activity and partly because the question of adding more capacity to London's airports is a political hot potato needlessly self made by the Conservative Party prior to the 2010 General Election. The location of development is at this stage a planning rather than government spending policy issue and  has been kicked into the very long grass by Mr Cameron. It could be resolved quite quickly but the initial interim report of the Davies Airport Commission is not due until later this year. After that the brief for the final submission is that it MUST NOT be made before the 2015 General Election. It is expected that in his interim statement Davies will do not much more than produce a list of options, something that a half intelligent undergraduate armed with an atlas could probably do in an afternoon. We certainly could. On the list will be an assortment of Thames Estuary Boris,Olsen and other islands, all on the wrong side of the capital and hugely expensive in required supporting infrastructure including new towns. Unlike the airport itself these would require huge public investment. £100bn would be a realisitic start point. There will also be mention of Heathrow itself,  probably in a sort of "We know we don't want to do that" way, along with  possible expansion of Gatwick and/or Stansted and a few other green field sites. White Waltham and Haddenham have been mentioned but allegedly dismissed. Back in 1973 Roskill pinpointed Wing, north of Aylesbury . Wing hasn't moved geographical location since then and the case for it if there were to be an entirely new airport on an entirely new site is as valid now as it was then. It originally died a death due to the upheld objections of one local (Conservative) Commission member. The choice moved on to the bleak wastelands of Maplin Sands on the basis that if nowhere else will have it there's always Essex. Even this featureless and remote site far from everything and everybody was eventually ditched in favour of "Do Nothing". This time around, the money is probably on "Do Not Very Much" which would  probably mean an additional runway at Gatwick and /or maybe one at Stansted. Given a decision in 2016/17 actual concrete is unlikely to be laid and operational before 2023/4. By that time Heathrow and indeed London's global aviation hub status will have long gone and moved both across the Channel and to the Middle East  and Turkey. Already Heathrow is meaning less and less both to provincial UK, increasingly well served through other and more user friendly hubs, and to long haul leisure travellers deterred by the UK's very high and ever increasing Air Passenger Duty and visa fees.

Possibly the airport debate will eventually get back to where it started. The reason why we have all this trouble finding an better alternative to Heathrow is that there isn't one. It has been the right place all along, and still is. Those canny folk back in the early 1940s spotted the obvious, had Heathrow built without any great scrutiny as being for essential military purposes when they knew it wasn't and then turned it into London's civil airport with an eventual  plan (in 1947/8) for six runways plus 3 more between the A4 and where the M4 is now. They were true visionaries, got it right and went for it. Very un-British. That's why the big vision was scrapped in favour of "Make Do" in 1953. After all, air traffic was never going to grow that much.

While infrastructure projects are trumpeted as the quickest way out of recession ,in reality they take a lot of time to get started. Only road repairs and electrifying existing railways are relatively easy to get under way and even some of the latter have their problems and objectors. The UK's approvals and planning processes ensure that very little is "shovel ready" . Major road, rail and airport projects, even if already planned and designed, face a good five years to go through the laborious planning processes and appeals. Most of those on the 2012 go-ahead list and whose orgins go back well before that, are still grinding through further evaluations, design, and other processes.  Essential developments to the sclerotic road system need big bold strokes, not endless micro analysis by endless civil service departments (who must surely be bored senseless).

For roads, take a map and the big answers are obvious. The areas of congestion and depression are clear. There is congestion in and up the middle of England ,depression around the edges and especially in the poorly served coastal towns. East to west communications are generally dire. Take a pen and draw some big bold strokes. Make the A14 a motorway from Felixstowe right through to the M1 where it joins the M6. Ditto Newcastle to Carlisle( A69) and Newcastle to Edinburgh( A1) Build a south coast motorway from Portsmouth to Margate. Convert the A roads to Hastings,Eastbourne, Lowestoft, Gt Yarmouth, Cheltenham into dual carriageways. There are other candidates but that would be a good start and certainly keep at least the planners going until the end of the decade.

The reaction to last week's announcements, mainly restatements and repackaging of previously announced schemes has to be one of relief that capital spending on transport is not being cut back but disappointment that there is no action at all and only time wasting delay on airport runways, very little yet on roads and just a bit on the railways (wiring going up on the northern triangle and around Reading station). The government has expressed some good intentions but it hasn't broken out of the Whitehall/Westminster culture of lethargy. Maybe it doesn't understand the delaying effects of the machinery around it.  It and UK Plc urgently need to break out and go for it.