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Monday, 12 November 2012

Why airliners report much more defects and failures on the way back to home-base (inbound flights) than on outbound flights! In-depth interview with the secretary-general of the Aircraft Engineers International community, Fred Bruggeman!

According to the Dutch Aircraft Groundengineer and Secretary-General Fred Bruggeman of the Aircraft Engineers International (AEI) community (, there is a strange phenomena occuring in the aviation industry:  In the flight logbooks of airliners, structurally more defects and failures have been reported on return-flights to homeport (i.e. inbound flights), than on outward flights to non-home destinations of these airliners (aka outbound flights).

The ‘best’ airliners (i.e. those with the least difference between inbound and outbound flights) showed in their logbooks a defect ratio between inbound flights and outbound flights of 75% vs 25%, but much worse results have occured.

This meant that the number of reported defects and failures on inbound flights would be three times as high as on outbound flights. That is very hard to believe, especialy as these were only the best airliners. One would expect that the ratio between inbound and outbound errors should be 50%-50%, within a certain deviation.

This was the reason for Secretary-General of the AEI Fred Bruggeman, who works in daily life at Schiphol airport, The Netherlands, to step to the press and report this seemingly fraudulent and potentially life-threatening behavior of airliners.

After Bruggeman had spoken with Dutch Business News Radio (, I had the pleasure of having a personal, in-depth conversation with him on this topic. I present an almost integral version of this interview for the benefit of the readers:

Ernst: Is there a dangerous situation around Schiphol airport, Amsterdam as a consequence of this behaviour by airliners?

Fred Bruggeman: No, the danger should not be exaggerated. In the ‘low hazard zone’ around Schiphol live about 10,000 people. In comparison: in the same low hazard zone around O’Hare airport at Chicago, Illinois, live 1.5 mln people. The chance that a crashing airplane hits people is 150 times as big in the Chicago region, as at Schiphol, The Netherlands.

Still, I have worries about the occuring situation: defects have not been written down at the moment they occured, but at the time that suited best to the airliner. That means in practice: on the way back to home-port.

This led to airplanes flying around with defects, that should not have flown without taking the proper actions.

This practice happens in serious numbers: around the thousands.

My colleagues of the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA) have reported on an investigation at Qantas, that 92% of the defects written down in flight logbooks occured at inbound flights and only 8% at outbound flights.

Ernst: could you say that the 8% of the defects that actually has been reported on outbound flights was more serious than the other reported defects?

Bruggeman: that is hard to say. In aircrafts most systems have been created redundantly. There are often one, two or three backup systems that can take over the tasks of failing systems. So there is not an acute problem here. However, sometimes defects have not been written down that should have been written down.

A bigger problem is when failing systems were not shut down that should have been shut down. This is what happened with Turkish Airlines, flight 1951 on February 25, 2009.

Explanation: A defected radio altimeter that operated the autothrottle (an autopilot that steers the engine power), thought that the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 plane already had landed at the moment the plane was still airborne. It had misinterpreted the altitude of the plane. The misinformed autothrottle reduced the gas to idle. When the pilots would have seen this malfunction during the landing procedure, there would have been no accident.

However, the pilots had their attention somewhere else and noticed the malfunction too late to take decisive action. Later, the news was spread that the altimeter had malfunctioned before and should have been shut down. Then one of the redundant altimeters could have taken over its function.  Alas, this didn’t happen.

Ernst: Do you think that airliners deliberately not report incidents?

Bruggeman: Yes, I do. Clear incidents have been discussed at a congress of our community. There is photographic evidence and evidence of reports to the authorities. In spite of the fact that very serious cases have been reported, the authorities didn’t take any action to it.

Bruggeman: Concerning Ryanair, it worries me even more what has not been reported. When we announce serious problems at the authorities, we hear that we don’t have evidence. It is like you call the police to announce a murder case, only to hear that the police doesn’t show up without proper evidence in advance.

Even if we lay the evidence on the table, than it remains hard to get the authorities in motion. Aviation authorities don’t want to have monkeys on their back.

Ernst: That is why you sought the publicity?

Bruggeman: Exactly, sister organizations of ours have signalled huge problems with outsourced maintenance of Quantas in Singapore, Malaysia and Hongkong. Planes return with a large number of malfunctions after such a maintenance  operation. This is not good.

Authorities execute audits only once per two years: they look if the procedures are on paper neatly. As if… 

You need to actually see what happens. Don’t believe the good stories on paper. Talk is cheap. There are enough procedures, but what if they aren’t used? How people work in reality, that is the main story.

Authorities are afraid to damage their relations with the airliners. We, the maintenance personnel, have the right to demand maintenance information if we are suspicious. However, if we demand it with evidence in hand, the authorities answer they can’t give it, because ‘it would hurt the relation with the airliner’. This is bad for safety. We want to disclose this, instead of sweeping it under the carpet.

The authorities don’t want to disclose it, as they have difficulties sanctioning the national airliners. These airliners can make mischief, but walk away from it without sanctions and penalties. If you hit them where it hurts, you get a change in behavior. As long as this doesn’t happen, nothing will change.

Ernst: Is it the fear of disturbing the good relations between the aviation authorities and the national airliners? Or are they afraid to spoil the reputation of aviation safety?

Bruggeman: It’s a combination. If the authorities acknowledge there is a problem, they have to act. They are accessory when they acknowledge problems without acting to it. If they deny having problems, they don’t have to. The sad fact is that the air engineers can show logbook after logbook.

One airliner showed 88% problems inbound against 12% problems outbound. The worst airliner showed 98% problems inbound, against 2% outbound. What should happen before a problem is written down in the outbound log?! Only engine malfunctions are written down in the outbound log. That is worrying us. There is NO airliner where the logbook is balanced out between inbound and outbound flights. The ‘best’ we saw was 75% inbound vs. 25% outbound.  

Ernst: Is there not a whistleblower protection when these kinds of fraud are reported?

Bruggeman: We have numerous examples. On paper there is protection for whistleblowers, but in reality they are on their own. The authorities state:”you have to take care of yourself”, when you have a problem with your employer. In The Netherlands it means, when you lose your job as an air engineer, that it is very, very hard to get a new job in the same line of business. That effectively stops whistleblowers in these trying times.

We have colleagues that trust us, but don’t trust the authorities. When an engineer announces serious defects on an airplane in a letter to the authorities, these authorities visit his superior with his letter. They state: “your man is stating this and that’. The poor guy loses his job afterwards!

Another problem is that audits are announced in advance weeks before they are executed. You know what that means, right?! Everything is spic and span when the auditors appear… It would be a different story when they would drop in at Friday afternoon unannounced and asked to inspect the logbooks. That doesn’t happen, however.

Everybody that denies the problems, we dare to pick one day at one airport at random and check the first three planes that drop in at 16.30 h (4.30 pm) and the first three planes at 17.00 h (5 pm). We are happy to do so together with the airliners, the ILT (Dutch aviation authority) and us. We will tally the scores of inbound and outbound defects in the logbooks of these planes.

When it is better than 60%-40% inbound vs outbound, I’ll gladly apologize. But there is no airliner, nor the ILT, that dares to do this investigation with us.

Ernst: Do airliners still use inferior spare parts?

Bruggeman: No, this one is under control. With each and every spare part it must be possible through a badge to trace it back to the moment of arrival, the supplier and the manufacturer.

Ernst: Also in the Far East?

Bruggeman: They have the same processes. However, one of the problems is: the authorities that execute audits there, are not well-trained enough. When my colleagues walk with these authorities as representatives of their company during a large maintenance operation, they see whole different things than these authorities.

Our colleagues in Australia received an airplane from a large maintenance operation in the Far East. A very large inspection had been executed. When the plane came back, there were still 400 (!) defects in it. They were neatly mentioned on a separate list, but were not processed in the logbooks.

Ernst: Were there serious defects on this list that make the airplane less airworthy?

Bruggeman: Yes, they were definitely there. Companies cheat with the quality of education and personnel. The FAA enters once per two years and checks one page of the company’s logbook from A to Z. This is OK, but what about the rest of the book?

Authorities focus on paper procedures and not on reality. Their personnel often lacks the inside knowledge. We spoke with Dutch ILT people; you would expect that they have an aviation background, but they don’t. People from waterworks went to the aviation authority and vice versa. These greenhorns execute audits and are looking like ‘an ape to a Swiss watch’. Say goodbye to experience.

Such an inspector fails when he has to ask difficult questions: he doesn’t understand the answer he gets and therefore cannot assess it. I’ve seen this happen.

Ernst: To me it seems very hard to balance the high costs of maintenance with the low profits or even losses that airliners make nowadays?!

Bruggeman: That is a problem. When you don’t filter out the misfits among the airliners, they pull everybody down. Sadly, I can’t mention names to you as this could cost foreign colleagues their job. We are not protected sufficiently. We would like to do naming and shaming. We have pictures and evidence. We use this evidence. We sit around the table with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regularly. Then we put our evidence on the table. Not for copying, but for looking at it. But at this moment, it is everything that we can do. If we publish our evidence, we don’t have control upon it anymore. If we show it to the EASA we remain in control.

Ernst: Could things go wrong in The Netherlands, again? Like with TA-1951?

Bruggeman: It is calculation of probability. The chance for a plane crash is still much smaller than the chance for a car crash. We like to keep it that way.

A worrisome development is currently, that safety systems like check-and-recheck are abolished at maintenance companies, in order to reduce costs. There is less and less supervision by well-trained/well-educated  people in the hangar. Then you get lesser quality.

Check-and-recheck was introduced for security reasons. Now it is cut away, as it costs money: more people in service, more people educated. When these kinds of safety systems are abolished, it is waiting for an accident to happen again.

Ernst: Are the pricefighters (Ryanair, Easyjet etc.) not in a way responsible for the diminishing revenues of airliners?

Bruggeman: When you allow pricefighters to your airport and you don’t check the things they do, then things go wrong. Our checks are a very good indicator for what happens at a company. When you check fifty logbooks and of those, 85% of defects is at inbound flights and 15% is at outbounds, you know that something is 'fishy' in their operation. The only ones that can influence these logbook data at an outpost are the pilots, who execute their preflight check.

When you suspect logbook fraud by an airliner, you could say: I see this happen. Now I want to compare the logs with the Flight Data Recorder (FDR – one of the black boxes in a plane).

Pilot X reported a problem with the aircondition / pressure system, but recorded it only on the way back to homeport. I can see at the FDR that – for instance - the airconditioning already had been switched off during the outbound flight. Such a malfunctioning system delivers warning signals and the procedures advise the pilots to switch it off. This can be seen at the FDR. When this doesn’t correspond to the logbook, you have detected a case of fraud.

This means that you have to know your business as an authority and you must have the guts to penalize company x, where large political interests can be at stake.

Ernst:  When all airliners tamper with their logbooks, you have to penalize them all? 

Bruggeman, Yes of course. It has come to this. When no airliner gets penalized for tampering their logs, nobody changes their behavior. When the FAA executes an inspection in the USA and you didn’t execute a certain inspection XYZ, you get a $6000 fine.

However, when you didn’t execute this inspection for one hundred times, you get one hundred times this $6000 fine. On top of that you are mentioned negatively at the FAA website. That hurts!

The European EASA doesn’t have the possibilities to administer such fines. They can only revoke the whole license of the aviation company. What would happen if the EASA revoked Lufthansa’s aviation license, for instance? Hell would break loose and the inspector in question could kiss his job goodbye.

Still, the only way to change behavior among airliners is to penalize them with ever heavier fines and penalties, when the misbehavior remains. Then you change those companies.

For the record, BNR spoke with Director Aviation Edwin Griffioen of the ILT (audio link in Dutch). He said that the ILT didn’t recognize the problem. Here is a translated snippet of this interview:

Director Aviation Edwin Griffioen of the ILT (Inspection for Living environment and Transport) doesn’t recognize the problems. ‘We invited Mr. Bruggeman 1.5 years ago to visit us. He addressed the same problem at that occasion. We took this very seriously.

The ILT started an investigation themselves, according to Griffioen. “We informed also at co-authorities if they recognized this problem. There was a Danish investigation and an EASA investigation. From all three investigations we found out that it wasn’t true. We can’t find the assertions of Mr. Bruggeman in the data.”

I’m not an aviation expert. The only thing I know is that I talked with Fred Bruggeman for more than half an hour. In that half hour he made an expert impression on me and the impression of someone who is genuinly worried about the safety situation in the air. He doesn’t seem the kind of person that creates a media hype to attract attention to him and his Air Engineers International community.

I consider him absolutely credible and I’m almost certain that his conclusions are spot on.  Unfortunately, politics will probably only react when another plane comes crashing down, as a consequence of faulty equipment or lacking maintenance.

Until that dreadful day, it will be business as usual. That is sad, but true.

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