MIAMI — As analysis continues on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder found on Air Asia Flight 8501, questions continue about the flight conditions before the crash, how weather may have played a factor and how effective aviation safety is in the region. But an airline pilot warns people not to make generalizations on what may have caused the crash.
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers, and Reflections. He said he doesn’t like comparing airlines to airlines and countries to countries when it comes to aviation safety.
“It gives the perception that certain airlines are unsafe. Some regions are safer than others when hashed out statistically. But less safe doesn’t mean unsafe from the air traveler’s perspective,” said Smith. “Yes, Indonesia has dealt with safety issues in the past 10 years, but how the Air Asia accident fits into this, I’m not sure. Air Asia runs a tight ship. They’re not a third-tier Indonesian airline. Before this, it had a perfect safety record.”
But because the Air Asia crash happened in the same region as Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, people are extrapolating and making it part of the same conversation, said Smith. “And that’s not fair because these are very different incidents that just happened to have happened in the same region of the world,” he said. “But it’s a busy region and it’s not statistically impossible that it could have happened to two European or North American airlines. It’s more important to look at these accidents on their own merits rather than lumping them together.”
Weather is being investigated in Flight QZ8501. The region is part of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a band of latitude known for powerful thunderstorms, said Smith. “But it’s a zone that goes across the circumference of the earth, not just in Southeast Asia,” he said. “There’s something pilots call local knowledge. I have a friend who is a pilot for Garuda Indonesia who says weather, the airport approach and local terrain can be tricky, but that’s true in other parts of the world too.”
With local knowledge, pilots are familiar with dealing with this local weather, said Smith. “It’s also true that storms in this area tend to be more powerful, so they are easier to see and avoid because they are localized,” he said. “I find it hard to believe that the crew would have willingly flown into a thunderstorm. But could they have inadvertently been there? Yes.”
Air Asia is a very large airline that’s not a household name here, said Smith. “But in Asia they’ve been around awhile and have never had any safety issues associated with their name. I’ve flown on Air Asia myself, and the experience was no less professional than any airline in the world,” he said.
Questions have also come up about the number of flight hours accumulated by pilots at the growing numbers of Asian low-cost carriers, which is worth a discussion, said Smith. “In this case, the captain has 18,000 flight hours so there’s no red flag there,” he said. “The first officer had very low time compared to what’s seen in U.S., but it’s not unusual.”
According to Air Asia, he captain in command had a total of 20,537 flying hours of which, 6,100 flying hours were with AirAsia Indonesia on the Airbus A320. The first office officer had a total of 2,275 flying hours with AirAsia Indonesia.
But how that is relevant is part of a bigger conversation, said Smith. “You still have to go through an airline’s training program,” he said. “The total numbers in a pilot’s logbook is only part of the story. It doesn’t take note of talent or skill. You can argue there are bad pilots out there with lots of hours and good pilots with fewer hours.”
As an update, Air Asia said Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (BASARNAS) has confirmed to have recovered a total of 48 remains of which 34 have been identified, with 14 still being identified.