NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — As United Flight 731 climbed out of Newark with 107 people aboard, the pilot and first officer were startled to find screens that display crucial navigational information were blank or unreadable and radios were dead.
They had no way to communicate with air traffic controllers or detect other planes around them in the New York City area’s crowded airspace.
Within minutes, first officer Douglas Cochran and the captain had turned around and safely landed the Airbus A320 at the Newark airport. Cochran later told investigators that clear weather might have been the only thing that saved them from a crash.
The January 2008 emergency was far from the first such multiple electrical failure in what is known as the Airbus A320 family of aircraft, and it wasn’t the last, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.
More than 50 episodes involving the planes, which first went into service more than two decades ago, have been reported.
And it could be another few years before the last of the thousands of narrow-body, twin-engine jets in use in the U.S. and overseas are modified to counteract the problem.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued an order in 2010 giving U.S. airlines four years to make the fixes. The FAA’s European counterpart did the same thing in 2009.
While no accidents have been blamed on the problem, the pilots union in the U.S. wanted the FAA to give airlines just two years to comply, but the FAA rejected that.
Aviation safety consultant Douglas Moss said the FAA should have acted a lot more quickly.
“These things cost money and the industry is in bad shape, so you have the economics thrown into it. But if the end result is higher airfares and higher cost of transportation, then that is the price we have to pay to ensure a safe transport system,” said Moss, a California-based commercial pilot with 34 years’ experience, including 14 years flying Airbuses.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator said long time frames for fixing problems are not uncommon, because of the inconvenience involved in grounding planes for repairs. And FAA spokeswoman Allison Duquette said the four-year window was determined by the estimated 46 hours required to fix each jet. Safety regulators put the cost at $6,000 per plane.
It isn’t known how many of the 633 A320-series jets operated by U.S. carriers are flying without the required modification because airlines do not have to notify the FAA about each.
About 2,400 of the planes in service with non-U.S. carriers are required to make the modification, according to Airbus.