The law of unintended consequences and airline passenger compensation

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The EU just passed a law requiring airlines to compensate passengers if their flights are delayed for more than five hours. A blow for passengers' rights against inconsiderate airlines, right? Well, maybe not:
BRITISH AIRWAYS jumbo jet carrying 351 passengers was forced to make an emergency landing after an 11-hour transatlantic flight with a failed engine.

The fault occurred on take-off from Los Angeles but the pilot declined all opportunities to land in the US and instead continued on three engines for 5,000 miles to Britain.

The incident happened three days after a European regulation came into force requiring airlines to compensate passengers for long delays or cancellations. Under the new rules, if the pilot had returned to Los Angeles, BA would have been facing a compensation bill of more than 100,000.

Balpa, the British Air Line Pilots Association, gave warning last night that the regulation could result in pilots being pressured into taking greater risks for commercial reasons.

The regulation requires airlines to refund passengers the full cost of their tickets as well as flying them home if a delay lasts longer than five hours. Passengers must also be put up in hotels if the delay continues overnight.

The BA flight departed at 8.45pm on Saturday and the airline admitted that the delay would have been well over five hours if it had returned to Los Angeles.

BA initially claimed that the engine had failed an hour into the flight. But the airline admitted yesterday that the problem had occurred a few seconds after take-off when the Boeing 747 was only 100ft above the ground.

...

The Boeing 747 was unable to climb to its cruising altitude of 36,000ft and had to cross the Atlantic at 29,000ft, where the engines perform less efficiently and the tailwinds are less favourable. The unbalanced thrust also meant the pilot had to apply more rudder, causing extra drag.

The pilot realised as he flew over the Atlantic that he was running out of fuel and would not make it to Heathrow. He requested an emergency landing at Manchester and was met by four fire engines and thirty firefighters on the runway.

BA, of course, denies a financial motivation, but that's a bit implausible given their incentives and their dishonesty about when the event occurred:

BA said financial concerns had played no part in the decision. Captain Doug Brown, the senior manager of BAs 747 fleet, said the only consideration had been what was best for passengers.

The plane is as safe on three engines as on four and it can fly on two. It was really a customer service issue, not a safety issue. The options would have been limited for passengers [if the plane had returned to Los Angeles]. He said the pilot would have had to dump more than 100 tonnes of fuel before landing at Los Angeles. The authorities would have had words to say about that.

A customer service issue, huh? I'm sure that being diverted to Manchester and being met by four fire engines was extremely convenient for the passengers.

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4 Comments

Wow - choose to fly over water with one engine down. I find this story almost hard to believe. Will be interesting to see if more comes out of this. I think this would make my books as serious pilot error. Would be interesting to find out if the pilot informed ATC and ground maintenance at BA of that decision - radio logs will tell.

I'm not sure I agree with your assessment. I have vague recollections of flying "one engine down" once or twice (probably United, though I can't say for sure) and the planes involved didn't divert after the first engine failure (though I don't remember whether they were overland or overwater). And, of course, United in the past would have been facing nothing like the EU compensation regulations. My impression is what the airline claimed: that it is safe to keep going as long as you have more than one engine (and here the BA 747 had three functioning engines). So I wonder if this is typical and a lot of the scrutiny is just related to the timing (vs. the new compensation regulation).


On the other hand, my experiences probably were with planes further along in flight - intuitively, it seems like a place that has just taken off should just go back (or land nearby) rather than fly 11 hours.

first off if they landed in LA they would still have been met buy fire trucks duh any time they declear an emergancy they have to be met by fireengines/cops/ambulances expecialy if it is commercail to cover there Butts in case some one sue's.

umm lets see dump 100 tons or fly to manchester instead of makeing a huge ecological mess.

Anytime an engine on a passenger jet fails, a prudent pilot lands at the nearest airfield that can handle his aircraft. Flying from LA to London on three engines was an unnecessary risk. What if the airplane had lost another engine over the middle of nowhere? Until this is investigated thoroughly, and reforms adopted, I'm not flying on British Airways.

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