File this one under “how the hell did that happen?” On August 31, American sent an A321 from LA to Honolulu that wasn’t allowed to fly that far from land. While I don’t think any passengers were really in any danger, it’s concerning that nobody caught this when there were so many people who could have. American has made some changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again, but that doesn’t lessen the severity of this issue.
The flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu is a long and lonely one. In fact, there is absolutely nothing for 5 hours straight, and that means there’s nowhere to divert if something goes wrong. Engine reliability has become so good over the years that airlines have been able to fly even twin-engine aircraft on long stretches like this with just a few conditions. They have to be ETOPS-certified (which used to mean Extended Twin Engine Operations but now applies to all aircraft), they have to carry special gear, and they have to have a ton of fuel (enough to lose an engine at the exact midpoint and make it all the way back to an airport). This is noted on the nose gear of every American aircraft that has ETOPS. (This photo below is a 777 because I couldn’t find one of the A321 since it’s so new.)
While the distance from LA to Honolulu isn’t much different than the distance from LA to New York, all the extra requirements mean that smaller airplanes haven’t been able to reliably make the the Honolulu flight work. All that extra fuel weighs a lot, and Airbus narrowbodies in particular haven’t been able to make the trip. But with engine improvements over the years, it’s now a possibility, albeit with weight restrictions in some markets. Virgin America announced it would fly A320s to Hawai’i and then American followed that with an announcement of its own using A321s. American started this in mid-August and it was just two weeks later that the wrong airplane was used.
See, American has 3 different versions of the A321 in its fleet (4 if you include the US Airways ones). It has the A321T which is the fancy airplane with a bunch of First and Business class seats. This is used almost entirely to fly New York JFK to both LA and San Francisco. Then there’s the A321S which is in a more normal domestic configuration. Lastly there’s the new A321H fleet which is ETOPS-qualified to fly to Hawai’i. There’s virtually no way to mistake an A321T for anything else since the onboard product is so different. What happened here was an A321S flew to Hawai’i instead of an A321H.
From the passenger perspective, these two airplanes are identical. They have the same interiors, the same number of seats, etc. So a traveler would never know the difference. It should also be noted that while the A321S isn’t ETOPS-certified, it is an overwater airplane. That means it has most of the extra gear you need for flying over water, including rafts and life vests. (This airplane is overwater-equipped because of Florida. It can fly routes from Florida to the West over the Gulf of Mexico and to the Northeast on the Atlantic routings.)
What is the physical difference between the A321H and the A321S? The A321H has an extra medical oxygen tank and extra fire suppression canisters in the hold down below. That doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, and in the end it wasn’t. They discovered this happened when the flight was slightly more than halfway to Hawai’i. So it continued on without incident and the return was canceled. (I asked if they put the returning passengers on a Delta flight….) American then immediately self-reported the problem to the FAA.
So why is this a big deal? There are rules, and this is a big one. The fact that American let an airplane fly to Hawai’i that wasn’t allowed to go there is bad, really bad, because it shows gaps in the airline’s systems. Just think of everyone that could have caught this.
- Maintenance personnel could have noticed the problem.
- Dispatchers could have seen that it was the wrong airplane being sent.
- Rampers could have noticed the giant “ETOPS” wasn’t written on the nose gear door.
- Pilots could have known this wasn’t the right airplane.
I was going to throw flight attendants on to the list, but a spokesperson from American confirmed that while the flight attendants do check the medical oxygen supplies, they don’t count the bottles. I guess it would have been pretty tough for them to catch this, but it’s incredible that everyone else missed it.
According to American, they’ve already updated the software in dispatch so that it will automatically catch if the airplane being flown isn’t the right one. They’ve also stepped up communication to employees to hammer in that this can’t happen again. There are no other fixes planned at this point, but as they continue to investigate, they’ll see if there are other things they can do.
For me, this particular incident wasn’t that scary. It’s the fact that nobody caught it in the regular process of preparing to fly that I really don’t like.