air safety

Mar 13, 2013

Why Air France should be banned from non-EU skies

Had you been either inside this airliner, or watching from anywhere near the airport, you would have feared for your life or the lives of those on board. Unlike many of the breathless aviation scare stories that make it into the general media, this one would have been a genuine "I thought I was going to die" story.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

For an account of appalling flight safety standards in a major airline, a French air safety agency  (BEA) report into a seriously botched approach to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport by an Air France A340 a year ago today is hard to beat.

A lay translation as to what happened would be that the crew persisted in making an unstable and excessively high and steep descent toward landing which caused the aircraft at one stage to risk stalling as the nose pitched up in an excessively steep attitude while the speed fell away.

Had you been either inside this airliner, or watching from anywhere near the airport, you would have feared for your life or the lives of those on board. Unlike many of the breathless aviation scare stories that make it in the general media, this one would have been a genuine “I thought I was going to die” story.

This is a an Air France A340 dropping at 3300 feet per minute toward the ground at Charles de Gaulle airport at low altitude while the nose pitches up to an angle of attack of 26 degrees and the speed drops to 130 knots, which is so close to drop dead stalling its close to unbelievable.

The pilots are totally surprised by a situation they screwed up, flying for an airline which has one of the bloodiest histories in civil aviation, criminal acts such as bombings excluded.

And it happens 33 months after it lost an A330-200, performing AF447, between Rio and Paris, itself one of the most inexcusable stuff ups in the jet age, considering that the pilots were it seems at critical moments, disinterested in following the procedures set down to deal with transient air speed data loss because of ice up external measuring devices called pitots.

There is no excuse for such a situation to have arisen. The report makes a lame attempt to put part of the blame on the controllers in the CDG tower, but the inescapable truth for Air France is that it is responsible for the flying culture and safety standards of its pilots and that this flight tells us this airline has hadn’t found in 2012 the plot it lost in 2009 when AF447 went down.

Putting aside the appalling implications for Air France of this particular exercise in unprofessional flying and crap flight safety standards,  there is a broader issue here. The EU has a black list of banned foreign airlines, which included most Indonesia flag carriers between 2007-2009 and the Philippines until recently.

No reasonable person would argue against those bans in most cases, except that the EU has never taken any action against Air France, and there are a series of incidents and one recent fatal accident that reflect extremely poorly on the French carrier.

Having seen quite a bit of the chauvinistic, pompous and self serving posturing about foreign airlines in general in the European media, it is very much like the dog whistling that goes on in Australian politics, with generalised slurs against ‘people not like us.’

It is quite dishonest. If Europe is going to go about banning non EU carriers as unsafe, and even making a point of naming airlines that have neither the equipment, traffic rights nor inclination or resources to fly to Europe, it needs to address any unsafe carriers in its midst.

A starting point would be to insist that the French safety investigator, the BEA, reverse its refusal to release the full transcript of what was said between the three pilots in the cockpit of AF447 .

The concerns being expressed in some very main stream circles as to what happened in the cockpit of AF447 may prove baseless. Yet the peculiarities of the official report, which opens a narrative about human issues starting with the captain appointing the less experienced first officer as the pilot in command while he took a rest break, but then backs away from developing that part of its analysis, continues to encourage the speculations about pilots who may have detested each other more than they cared, until too late, about recovering control that was lost in a high altitude stall.

The full story needs to be told. This latest incident makes it the more pressing.



Leave a comment

25 thoughts on “Why Air France should be banned from non-EU skies

  1. comet

    The French BEA is behaving a bit like our CASA.

    Both like to slap around foreign-owned airliners (eg CASA and Tiger), while allowing domestically-owned airlines (eg Jetstar) to get away with equally bad, if not worse, offences.

    The cockpit voice recordings should never be hidden. They should always be released in the interests of air safety so that others can learn from what went wrong.

  2. Geoff

    Blaming air traffic control is a pilot sport all over the world. There is a simple response to impossible control instructions and it takes a variety of exiting forms but in basic language – “Sorry mate the aircraft simply cannot do what you ask, what’s the alternative?” And there will always be an alternative.

  3. johnb78

    The good(ish) thing here is that one day, the BEA will have to come out and crucify Air France.

    Because one day, it will come down to the wire between Airbus and AF as to which has failed, and the disgraced-and-near-bust carrier (whose incompetence and lies nearly destroyed the A320 at birth, it’s always worth remembering) will not be the one that is tossed to the wolves.

  4. comet

    Don’t forget that Air France is already responsible for the world’s only A340 hull loss, in Toronto.

    The report (above) shows that Air France almost did it a second time.

  5. johnb78

    *will be. That’ll teach me to use rhetoric.

  6. poncho

    Hello everybody
    As a french, it’s not that usual to read incident/accident reports in my native language

    So first one inaccuracy :
    No -3300 ft/min descend at all, plane is above the glide slope all the way to the threshold flown at 2700 ft ! before a Go Around
    It is in fact +3300 ft/min when the Autopilot caches a secondary lobe of the ILS from under

    Pitch was 26° max and 130 kt, but no stall alarm, no enveloppe protection kicked in. It’s not a confortable pitch, but not an extrem one airplane wise

    For sure, it’s not glorious for the pilots, nor for the ATC. For sure your headline isn’t glorious either.

    By the way my english sucks, so I hope I didn’t cross any glidesplope “à l’insu de mon plein gré” CQFD

    Have a nice day

  7. Allan Moyes

    Well it is Air France and because the UK has always had a “should we be in, shouldn’t we be in the EU?” attitude (although it contributes quite a large part of the budget), France and Germany are to all extents and purposes the EU, so I doubt if any action would ever be taken against Air France.

    All the other countries are bit players and at the upcoming referendum, I wouldn’t be surprised if the UK pulls out.

  8. Harry Rogers

    A little naive expecting the French to be transparent and open. Its like asking TAP and Alitalia to run a business.

    Any frequent traveller knows clearly which airlines and airports to avoid if possible in Europe. Its like, what do they say, “an accident waiting to happen”

  9. Ben Sandilands

    I’ll plead guilty to being ‘rude’. Next time I would normally make an Air France connection in Paris I will catch a train instead, even though it means going to Montparnasse from Gare du Nord, as a confirmed cheapskate but which is the pits thanks to the mismatch between the stations and the metro.

  10. Merve

    I will assume the Fly By Wire protections saved the day.

  11. Achmad Osman

    I have international pilots as friends and apparently their biggest gripe at CdG is the Air France pilots lapsing into French in their radio communications. English is supposed be used so that all pilots get an awareness of what is happening around them.

    My five cent piece on the AF447 – the captain is the final authority in the flight deck- and that captain did not bother to assume command when he returned and saw the emergency. A proper captain gets into the left hand seat and takes control.

  12. Ben Sandilands

    What data and voice points were released in the report tell us that the captain remained standing at the rear of the cockpit to the impact. We do not hear him say anything which resembles taking command. But we do know he was in a position where he could have observed both side stick controllers and sighted all the relevant instruments, including the angle of attack display.

    By the time the situation is irretrievable and jet is well below 10,000 feet, engines turning, pitots working and so forth, the more experienced of the first officers who is not recorded as saying anything really material about the recovery, but rather about his failure to understand what was going on, finally says “I can’t believe it. We are going to crash.” That disbelief is spreading. This was a cockpit in which an incorrect response to an otherwise recoverable situation just lead to a situation where everything seems to have gone to hell.

    Air France and the BEA need to ensure that everything that was said and done in that cockpit is released for critical review. It will come out eventually, the sooner the better.

  13. dingus

    Dear MONSOUR COMMETT your blog should have read like this-
    Air France nealy caused the THIRD HULL LOSS as Etihad A340 was written with 0 hours on the airframe in France AS SOMEONE TURNED THE ALARM OFF AT FULL POWER OPPS AND THE AIRCRAFT SHOT FORWARD INTO THE BLAST SCREEN.

  14. comet

    I forgot about that accident involving the undelivered A340 at the Airbus factory in Toulouse.

    Anyone who wants to see it can Google the search terms:
    etihad a340 toulouse
    Then click on the ‘Images’ button.

  15. keesje

    If the AF447 pilot had simply fainted everyone would be ok?

  16. pit mit

    it was + ( PLUS ) 3300 ft/min … this kind of article is not worthy if your not even able to “copy” or read the report! You should try Hollywood next time…

  17. Ben Sandilands

    Pit Mit,

    You’re right about the minus/plus error. If you think that changes the seriousness of this situation, and the implications for flight safety standards at Air France, you are not just a fool, but a dangerous fool.

  18. comet

    Air France’s terrible crash record is all that is needed to question that airline’s safety standards.

    Europe was pointing the finger at Garuda but turning a blind eye on its own.

  19. Ben Sandilands

    No they had real licenses. I remember that when that post was published, right in the thick of the 787 groundings, there was about two hours of intense interest but then it died away.

    What the captain was doing in asking the more junior of the first officers he was about to delegate as the pilot flying or PF was to procedurally tick the company box that said ‘licensed to be in command’.

    This was an artifact of a situation in which pilots were being accepted as first officers by airlines in France having reached that level through different training regimens, some of them pretty unimpressive too, at least according to the discussions that followed that post.

    AF had a rule as to which first officers could be delegated PF, and which could only act in support as the PNF. The rule was comical in so far as large airliners were concerned but it was there to stop rostering stuff ups. (As if ….)

    There was no rostering stuff up on AF447. There was a totally horrendous flying stuff up.

  20. status07

    Things are so bad at AF that Airbus got so bloody fed up that they sent Top Guns from the Estérel Squadron who fly
    the A340-211 F-RAJA and F-RAJB to re-educate, re-habilitate and re-indoctrinate AF instructors since over a year.
    The recent events of AF stalls/near stalls by yet having wrongly applied the procedures prove that there is real problem and simply the spineless DGAC should ground AF until proper remedial training attains satisfactory levels.
    AF is a disgrace.
    It should have an home-turf advantage.
    Airbus is made in France, the language is French and so is the logic.
    AF and Airbus really hate eachothers’guts and have been at eachother’s throats ever since the F/E got the chop with the advent of the A320.
    This uncivil war has been going in for the last 25 years and things will flare in 2014 when the AF447 case to court.
    AF/IT have lost ever case against Airbus so it will be no surprise that AF do not have no cat in hell’s chance.
    Rather than AF fighting Airbus, they would have been better off working in harmony in order to improve safety rather than 228 lives squandered over ego.
    Safety has not improved since AF447 chez AF because the over-politicsed, overpaid and underwork unions do not give a brass monkey’s.
    I suspect that more than 80% of AF crews are useless because there has been too much grieving blood that has splattered not just an airline but a nation’s pride.
    Ben, on personal note, you are better off on rather that which have some rather churlish characters if you need a platform.

  21. John Smith


    For your kind information, herve labarthe was fired from air france in 2004 for lot of impropers behaviors as pilot. Moreover he was condemned 3 times for defamation by court in France. [edited] ….. Another journalist is françois nenin who also was condemned by court when he wrote a book (to make money and to frighten in a ridiculous way passengers) on air transport. According to court motivation (which condemned françois nenin) it was ” lack of serious inquiry ” of the author. An other one (on a major french newspaper) who also pretends to be an expert while writing in english on AF 447 drama wrote (do not laugh) “peach control” instead of “pitch control”. May be he did not understand at all what a pilot solely tried to explain him about planes and flying. [Edited] …..

    It is unfair to spoil pilots of AF447 (dead) as some journalists (pretending experts) do. May be they (AF 447 crew) made mistake but behind their desk it seems that the ones (journalists and bloggers) who smashed pilot’s memory did not even understand the problem of stall warning (it was a “low speed” one). Stall warning (after sounding) became silent while joystick was pulled (nose up) and start again (cricket sound and so on) when joystick was pushed forward (nose down). This is a major point (everyone can read the actual complete report either in french or english) on BEA website. Why this ? the answer is clear by now and everyone can understand the reason. This is a major point in the drama synopsis.

    Things in aeronautics are never as simple as some journalist (who are not, for most of them, the experts they pretend they are) try to explain. On internet since 1 june 2009 (AF 447 crash) everyone can read thousands of stupid things written on this drama. On this point Internet is perfect as it keeps record of comments (and who wrote them) and the absolute stupidity of lot of them through years. I wonder how (of the so called expert) have actually fly on fl 350 or higher which remains to fly on the “corner of the coffin”.

    I am amways astonished by the author of a threat who mixed up a sinking rate of some 3 000 thousands feet by minute with a climbing rate (in their comments) of 3 000 thousands feet by minute and who wrote, when someone make a remark about it that it is a minor and have a very unpleasant answer.

    Of course (cdg landing which is the threat) there was mistakes (ATC and crew). It was treated as a ” serious major incident ” by french authorities and published. I will say just one thing (I am retired and some 70 years old by now) I made (and lot of pilots through years too) mistakes. It did not ended as a drama but lot of us were lucky some days while we made a mistake but that nothing else was going hardly wrong at the same time.

    [Edits have been made to this comment to keep out parallel disputes about various personalities. My own position is clear. On its record Air France is in serious need of a total change of flying and safety culture, and this discussion needs to keep in mind that 228 people were killed in the AF447 crash and several hundred lives were at risk in the totally unprofessional behaviour of the crew making the CDG approach in a 777. This is unacceptable. AF has to publicly take responsibility for the situation and pledge to bring about change. If the EU can ban Indonesian carriers for lapses in standards it ought to similarly ban Air France until it gets its act together. Banning carriers that don’t even have jets capable of flying normal long haul services to Europe from Indonesia was just a political stunt pandering to prejudice about non-European operations.]

  22. Eliz52

    Well, did you see 60 Minutes on Sunday night? The transcript has been released…and it’s very concerning.
    There are so many things that could have prevented this tragedy, for a start, avoiding the bad weather instead of flying right into it “and staying there”…and then leaving the junior pilot in charge etc. The captain returned late to the cockpit, all too late.

    I believe some (hopefully, most) pilots would have changed altitude or their flight path to avoid the bad weather. (or get away from it) Ice apparently pelleted the Air France flight as it flew through the bad weather and it’s believed this froze the speed sensors. Add junior pilot error stalling the plane, the Captain’s late return to the cockpit etc = disaster.
    My experience with the airlines I use – they avoid or get out of bad weather. This happened recently with Qantas, our flight was near Singapore and we hit some unexpected bad weather. The pilots moved the aircraft into a safer airspace. (and it was more comfortable for passengers) If Air France had done that, perhaps, this disaster might have been avoided.
    It sounds like remaining in the bad weather set up a series of events that led to disaster.
    So I’ll stay with my preferred airlines, ones that put safety first.

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