US Airways Finds No Issues on the Flight Featured in Union Safety Complaint Ad

Labor Relations, Maintenance, US Airways

Remember that ad the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA) took out in USA Today claiming that US Airways was unsafe? There was a specific flight used as an example and that may be coming back to bite the union. According to a letter sent from the company’s flight ops group to the captain, the airplane was found to be working just fine. Hmm. This is like a soap opera.

According to USAPA’s website, here’s what happened that day:

  • When Tail and APU exhaust.pushing back from the gate, the auxiliary power unit (a backup source of electrical power) and the Hot Battery Bus (a critical source of primary electrical power) both failed – in other words, the plane had no electrical power and no radio communications. None.
  • After opening a window to verbally call down to the ground crew (the Captain’s only option), US Airways maintenance was able to restart the power unit, but offered no explanation as to why it failed or any reasonable assurance that it wouldn’t fail again.

So we have a couple issues here. US Airways did a thorough review to see what happened. According to the letter from the US Airways VP of Flight Ops that I’ve obtained, the airline tried to meet with the captain in person to discuss the review but she was unwilling. So they put the results in writing to her.

On the issue of the APU failing, no problem was ever found. The APU (auxiliary power unit) is like a mini-engine which provides power when the engines aren’t running. This is actually used to start the engines on the ground, but it’s not necessarily required for flight. If you’ve ever seen an engine started while you’re at the gate with a big generator nearby, then that’s probably a case where the engines needed an external start because the APU wasn’t working.

Back to this incident, the first entry in the logbook from the captain said “APU failed at gate, unable to restart.” According to US Airways, the mechanics did a test that found no fault with the APU and then proceeded to restart it at the gate without any trouble at all. The captain said she wouldn’t accept the aircraft unless the APU was fixed, but since the mechanics couldn’t actually find any problems that needed fixing, they deferred the issue as permitted by the maintenance program.

That was followed by a second entry from the captain saying:

After APU Auto Shutdown on gate with no external power connected, battery power lasted 3-4 minutes. Unable to restart APU or communicate on VHF [radio] #1.

So the APU failed and wouldn’t restart. US Airways pulled the Electronic Control Box (ECB), which the airline describes as the “brains of the APU.” The ECB records any abnormal events to help with maintenance. So the airline sent the ECB to Diehl Aerospace, which is described as “the repair subcontractor for Honeywell (the manufacturer of the APU).”

Upon review, no auto shutdown nor any failed attempt to restart the APU was recorded. Could the ECB have failed to record the incident? Unlikely. It recorded minor issues before and after the event so it was functioning properly. Diehl sent the ECB back saying no problems were found, and that ECB went back into service with no further issues. The APU apparently was working just fine.

But what about the radio not working? Was there an issue preventing that from functioning properly? Well, that assumes that the APU did shutdown. All we know for sure is that the APU didn’t automatically shut down. But as US Airways notes in the letter, “the ECB does not record a ‘commanded’ shutdown.” So maybe there was a commanded shutdown by someone on the aircraft? I have no clue because it’s not spelled out, but let’s assume that the APU was in fact shut down for one reason or another. What about those other issues that followed?

Apparently the airplane worked as designed. When on the ground, if the engines aren’t on, the APU isn’t on, and there is no ground power (basically, when the airplane is plugged in to a source at the airport), then the batteries will power many of the electronics. But there’s a catch.

To avoid completely draining the batteries while on the ground, the system will cut battery power when voltage drops below 23V for 16 seconds and the airplane is on the ground. When that happens, that VHF radio #1 won’t work. So that’s probably what happened here, and it worked as designed. Was the battery draining too quickly? Not according to US Airways. The airline says “the two main batteries were . . . tested by an outside source and have also been returned to the Company with no faults found.”

So the APU worked, the batteries worked, and the airplane in general seemed to work as advertised. The only thing I don’t see mentioned is anything about the “Hot Battery Bus” not working. The only mention of the hot battery bus in the letter is this:

. . . The [automatic battery shut off on the ground] will not disconnect the batteries when either one is discharged below 23V while in the air; they will continue to power the hot battery buses, DC BAT bus, DC ESSENTIAL bus, and the AC ESSENTIAL bus as long as possible.

So that seems to say that the bus (or buses), which provides continuous power to vital systems, was working. But no further mention is made beyond that. In short, US Airways says “this aircraft performed exactly as it was designed.”

Does that mean the captain fabricated what happened? I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. The only clue we have is from the US Airways letter which says “there is no discipline contemplated” after reviewing this incident. US Airways says it just wants to “put closure on the incident.”

It seems to me that if a pilot fabricated a maintenance problem, and it was proven conclusively, then that would be grounds for discipline of some sort, right? So since there is no disciplinary action here, maybe they’re chalking it up to a misunderstanding or confusion about the situation. Either way, it puts a serious hole in USAPA’s ongoing campaign to question the airline’s safety procedures.

[777 (not an A330) APU exhaust photo via Flickr user Robbie 1/CC 2.0]

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23 comments on “US Airways Finds No Issues on the Flight Featured in Union Safety Complaint Ad

  1. What’s the end game for all of this? It seems like one issue after another keeps popping up between US and the Pilots Union…when does all of this finally come to a head and the pilots either get a new contract or they lose and it’s over?

  2. It won’t until a legal ruling is made in favor or against the USAPA and the ‘binding’ seniority arbitration ruling that was made. Remember that US Air asked for a legal opinion on the matter which has yet to be made.
    The company is obligated to bargain in good faith but can’t break a legal binding agreement. That means that management either risks a lawsuit by the USAPA (easties) or westies if they agree to something other than the seniority agreement already made. Rock and hard place for management.

  3. I wasn’t there and I don’t know all the finer points, but this does sound a bit like what I see in some of my computer users. Every once in awhile the software does something they don’t expect or performs an action in a way they aren’t used to seeing it. They make the assumption that there is something wrong with the software, but in truth it is operating as designed. It happens to even the most senior users, and as complexity increases (at least in our software) this is seen more and more. Perhaps the captain just had one of these software/hardware moments.

    Of course this doesn’t excuse the USAPA’s posturing.

  4. I was reading on a pilot forum visited by many USAirways pilots and apparently the A330 has wierd quarks like this. Lets also not forget that computers aren’t perfect, just as we saw with Air France 447 as it plummeted to the earth without the computers OR pilots realizing it (same type as the plane involved).

    I do not agree with the pilot going on a tangent over the PA system, but I do agree with her for not accepting a plane that isn’t in good working order, especially for a trans-atlantic flight.

    The posts on the other site even mention the relief crew tried to test the batteries and they too only lasted 3-4 minutes, instead of 30 minutes.

    So when you combine everything else going on at the airline, it just provided for a perfect storm of issues where I don’t think there is just “one item” that caused a fault.

    But unfortunately we’ll never know if Captain used her best judgement or not…. :/

    1. The letter also mentions that there is no rule for how long the batteries are supposed to last on the ground. And it’s not 30 minutes in the air but rather 21.5 minutes. There’s no reason to think this wasn’t being provided.

      But this also goes on to say that after the engines and the APU fail, the backup is the Constant Speed Motor/Generator powered by the Ram Air Turbine. Only if that also fails would the battery be used.

  5. Glad I came back to see if the comment option had been open. Brett was that a WordPress hic-up this morning…

    “”””….the airline tried to meet with the captain in person to discuss the review but she was unwilling””””

    There is your answer to the whole thing, if she wasn’t willing to talk to her employer who pays her salary about this, then she knows she was in the wrong, making it all up, or trying to make the airline look bad.

    1. Yeah, I had some more thoughts in bed last night, so I went on my mobile phone to make a couple changes. I forgot that for some reason, when I use my mobile, it always flips off the comments. So annoying.

      There was another issue this morning with some heavy spamming going on that slowed my site down and did at one point grind it to a halt. Not cool.

  6. As usual, USAPA and their goons do anything they can to hurt the company so they can push their baloney. They don’t seem to understand that they are hurting themselves, they get paid less than AWA pilots and they agreed to binding arbitration. They can’t win, and they can’t pull their baloney for long. Its not the 70?s or 80?s, union actions don’t work any more and no one cares about their endless cries for victimhood. USAirways should have died and went Chapter 7, it would have been better for the industry. Sounds cruel, but the entitlement culture out east is beyond control. There needs to be mass firings of the pilots that are lying, malingering and trying to ruin their airline. They won’t be missed.

  7. CF, remind me in my next crazy run on the airport ramp to get you a picture of a US APU. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for this.) Air Canada? It is a nice looking tail though.

    What I find kindof interesting is that initially this came down to one union employee’s observations, versus another union employee’s observation. I’ll give the pilot the appropriate deference for not accepting the plane. If I ever find out I’m flying with her I’ll be sure to “accidentally” trip just as I’m walking past the cockpit door. Hopefully that day I’m wearing a spiky hard hat. Childish? Very much so. In middle school, I once “accidentally” stepped on a school bus driver’s foot because he annoyed me.

    If you want to be treated like a professional, act like a professional. This pilot, and the leadership at USAPA need to learn that.

  8. Bottom line: There was no noticeable issue with the aircraft that required maintenance, ergo no maintenance was performed. Meanwhile, the aircraft in questions returned to (and presumably has remained in) service without falling out of the sky. So, I’d say it’s safe to assume there’s nothing wrong with the plane.

  9. Maybe US isn’t taking disciplinary action because it really doesn’t need any more friction than it already has. It also may feel it’s better to concentrate on its pending lawsuits that address the overall pilot integration and alleged slowdown issues instead of getting distracted by in a single incident.

    1. Agreed. They don’t need any more friction then already exists. US Airways is a decent organization and apart from the pilots, the rest of the group seems to be working fine.

      It’s sad that employees from the same company can’t even talk to each other and have to resort to writing and official business communication if for nothing else a fear of lawsuits. When it’ll be fixed who knows. Just be glad US Airways is a for-profit corporation (unlike Air India).

  10. The days of unions actually helping the worker is over. Now they just make matters worse for both parties. Unions have run their course.

  11. WHAT A RELIEF, that aircraft was air-worthy.

    Now, what happened here on some THIRTY aircraft:

    “Pilots and flight attendants alike have been sent to the hospital on multiple occasions. Some remain in the hospital,” the spokesperson said. “We have pilots who have lost their FAA certificate because of exposure to these toxins. So it is certainly a concern we have.”

  12. So you’re basically saying that the pilot was wrong because the airline said so. Doesn’t sound very convincing to me. I’d believe it if this thorough review of the incident had been done by a neutral party, but when it comes from the airline itself, what exactly did you expect?

    1. Given that several parts went to their manufacturers for inspection, I consider that to be a neutral party. They’re not going to put their name and liability on the line to paper over a labor issue

      1. “no auto shutdown nor any failed attempt to restart the APU was recorded.”

        This by Diehl Aerospace. Not US Airways.

        I find this to be the most damning piece of evidence, especially the part about no restart attempts were recorded. The pilot says she was “unable to restart APU.” It didn’t auto shutdown and no restarts were tried. Interesting.

  13. As an airline employee I am not surprised US Airways has claimed that the aircraft was fine. I have experienced numerous incidents where an aircraft is performing below FAA and/or mtc standards and the company attempts to force us to operate it. Furthermore, having a pilot removed because she feels it is not safe is plain unprofessional. Many people may think that pilots rally together to protect each other but many time each pilot has his or her own opinion and more then likely would like to see the problem him/her-self. So hearing that several other crews refused the aircraft assures me that it needed to be taken offline for further testing. Of course US Airways ran these tests after the aircraft left its international destination which dumbfounds me. What is something was truly wrong and that plane didn’t make it? What would we all be commenting on then? US Airways should have listened right? I think its important to remember that pilots are well trained and typically well experienced, give them the respect they deserve. It could very well save your life, or may have saved it already. My last words, if people only knew what really occurs in the industry they would never fly on another jet again.

    1. David, I’ll give them the respect when they exercise their professionalism properly. Airing your airline’s dirty laundry over the PA in front of a large number of passengers isn’t professional. (Yes, the airline thinks its clean, the pilot thought it was dirty.) That being said, I’m sure there is an FAA safety violation number they can call..

    2. The ECB and the main batteries were replaced to apease the pilots, even though bite testing on the aircraft showed no faults with either. David, sending out the ECB and the aircraft batteries to there respective vendors for testing could take weeks. Are you suggesting that eveytime we change a part we need to ground the aircraft until the unservicable parts are tested? As far as the several flight crews refusing the aircraft, there we six different mechanics on two shifts that worked aircraft 278 that night certifing that the aircraft was safe and airworthy. I am one of them.

    3. Well, if you played “what if” on every flight, no flights would leave. Facts are facts, the plane was fine, FAA said so too. The pilot was either clueless, or pulling a stunt for her fake union. Then she went inappropriate on the PA. I’d feel safe being a passenger on that plane, but that captain? Not so much.

      Binding means binding.

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