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SAS Dumps the Q400, Should They Kiss and Make Up?

Judging from comments on previous posts in the last couple of days, I’m guessing many of you have already heard that SAS had yet another Q400 turboprop land with gear problems. This makes for an unbelievable third gear problem resulting in an emergency landing in less than two months. If you’d like to see the rather boring video of this landing, click here.

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Before anyone had time to figure out what happened, SAS came out saying that they were permanently grounding the plane type and selling their fleet of 27 as soon as possible. That would certainly imply that SAS blames Bombardier, the manufacturer of the plane, for this. But is it their fault?

I’m not really convinced of that. There are many other operators of the Dash 8 in the world, including Horizon Air here in the US. They operate in the Pacific Northwest in a damp, cool climate not unlike that of Scandinavia. Their fleet is also about the same age as that of SAS with most aircraft being delivered in 2001. So why hasn’t Horizon had a single problem thus far?

Bombardier’s Marc Duchesne did say, “We did an internal investigation that confirmed there was no systemic problem with the landing gear of the Q400.” That would certainly point to something going on with the aircraft’s operation specific to SAS, but of course we just don’t know yet. Bombardier has also said that this problem was unrelated to the previous gear problems.

So, should SAS be grounding these planes and selling them off? It’s not an easy decision, but I would argue that it’s too early to make that kind of decision. They’re estimating this will cost the airline anywhere from $47m to $62m. (Actually 300m to 400m Swedish Krona.) That’s a lot of money considering they don’t even know what the problem is yet.

I think back to the DC-10, an airplane that had more than its share of serious problems. Unlike the Q400, its problems actually caused many fatalities, and it was ultimately grounded by the US for a short time until problems were fixed. That was a situation far more serious than what SAS is dealing with today, yet major operators like United and American did not walk away from the plane and sell their fleets. The planes were fixed and ended up having a good safety record until their retirement in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Of course, it’s easy for SAS to say that this is the third landing gear problem they’ve had and their customers have lost confidence in the aircraft. They have to get rid of it. But what if it really is something that SAS was doing? In that case, getting rid of the planes will only cost them more money without measurably improving public perception. If it is their fault, they’ll take the hit regardless. And what if it is an easily fixable problem? Will it be worth it to ditch the plane entirely? I remain unconvinced.

I completely agree that they should ground the aircraft until they figure out what’s going on and have other airlines do the flying for them in the short run. But selling the planes off right now seems premature. Let’s just hope they figure out what’s going on quickly so that it doesn’t have the opportunity to happen again.

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