One of my favorite apps for air travel is Flightradar24, While not the best app for checking flight schedules and gates – for that I like FlightAware – its greatest attribute is showing the status of all planes flying in real time on a map. It lets you view all of the planes in flight all around the world. You can also point your phone to the sky to identify a plane flying by. Flightradar24 is available as an app for iOS and Android and as a web client.
I happened to be using the iOS app this past Monday while waiting for my flight to San Diego (SAN) at Oakland Airport (OAK). I was to take the plane arriving into OAK from Portland OR. I found it on my screen by typing in the flight number and airline (WN1568) and watched it on the small screen approach the airport, slowly and steadily dropping in elevation from over 10,000 feet to under 2000 feet. I watched on the screen as the plane reached the runway. But instead of stopping, the tiny plane icon kept moving over the end of the runway and the water beyond. While over the runway, its altitude began to increase, What I had just witnessed was an aborted landing. I checked the app’s graph of elevation and speed and, sure enough, it displayed clearly what had just happened. Slowing speed, lower altitude, then speed up and increased altitude. I captured the image from my phone at the head of this post.
Some thoughts on Southwest, the company
I’ve been a big fan and loyal customer of Southwest Airlines for more than twenty years and have flown the airline on about 80% of all my flights. That’s amounted to about 50 to 75 flights a year. They’ve carefully nurtured their brand to be consumer friendly, avoiding the change fees and surcharges for luggage. I’ve always felt an affinity for their employees who usually are friendly and competent. Yet I can’t help but feel that they made a huge error in dealing with the fallout from the Boing Max 8 accidents.
CEO Gary Kelly refused to stop flying its 737 Max 8 jets after the 2nd accident, stating that he trusted Boeing and the FAA and insisted the plane was still safe. I took issue with that at the time, because as a design engineer, I understand that defective designs can suddenly occur without warning, and it’s important to pay attention. When there are two catastrophic accidents that were remarkably similar, prudent action is to stop flying the aircraft because it will take weeks or months to know what really happened. And clearly these two accidents were highly unusual, unlike anything else in decades.
Instead Kelly, while saying that the safety of his passengers is his most important priority, contradicted that immediately. He praised the FAA and Boeing, and kept the planes in service. The more prudent action would have been to really demonstrate that he puts the safety of his passengers (and employees) first and stop flying the troubled aircraft immediately after the 2nd accident.
It was just too great of a coincidence for two planes to suffer the same fate within months of each other, as later evidence proved to be the case. And based on what’s now being disclosed by employees of both the FAA and Boeing, the confidence Kelly has given these organizations may not be deserved. We are learning that there were problems with software, the altitude sensor, and a failure of Boing to disclose changes from previous models. They also charged extra for features that added to safety and failed to provide appropriate training.
Unlike previous incidents, this one will not go away and may lead to a shakeup at Boeing. A new survey shows a large percentage of fliers will not fly a 737 Max for at least a year after it returns. And, most significantly, some travel apps are adding a filter to identify those flights using a Max to help travelers avoid them. This feature will proliferate through most of the travel apps, adding to Boeing’s problem.