Earlier this week I noticed an oil leak from my car. To avoid an impending breakdown, my first stop was the nearest garage.It was nothing compared with my regular service centre but I figured they could at least identify and plug the leak with ease.
After a preliminary examination of the car, each of the three mechanics had their own gut feeling as to the cause of the leak.
The guesswork and theories they all had were least to say, petrifying. I knew it was time to get my car to safety when the leader of the pack returned with a final verdict that the car engine needed to be taken apart.
As I sped off, one thought came to mind; where would we be if aircraft technicians acted on gut feelings whenever a technical problem on an aircraft was reported?
You probably are one of those passengers who protest and even get agitated when a flight is delayed due to a technical problem.
What’s even more infuriating to many travellers is that after the “small technical problem” is noted and announced, it almost always takes quite a bit of time to get airborne.
In fact, most passengers get incensed when a technical problem is announced mid-flight and the aircraft has to return to base.
Unknown to many in the cabin, even in the absence of technical faults, there are rigorous mandatory pre-flight checks that are usually carried out by the flight crew before each flight.
When any anomaly is noted during such checks, laid down procedures as per aircraft manufacturer manuals and airline quality procedures are followed to troubleshoot and address the problem.
There are certain preflight anomalies that are usually addressed by airline technical crew while passengers are on board but there are those that require that passengers disembark.
Most airline passenger handling procedures require that if troubleshooting exceeds a certain time limit, passengers must leave the aircraft and return to the waiting lounge until the aircraft is ready for boarding.
Unlike other industries, airlines will only use licensed maintenance engineers to ensure not only that the aircraft is safe for the next flight but also to certify that all systems are in the expected state of maintenance.
Passengers need to realise that if technical problems are noted mid-flight, several factors lead to the decision to return the aircraft to the point of origin of flight.
Some of these factors could include availability of technically able engineers and equipment at the destination to solve the problem and likelihood of aircraft being grounded at destination due to local safety procedures.
After the technical problem on the aircraft is solved by a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer, a senior maintenance engineer is required check and confirm works done before a Certificate of Release to Service is signed— which is a legal statement taking full responsibility for the works done.
Such licensed engineers, are not just trained and specialised in various aspects of aircraft maintenance but also specifically certified on the aircraft type.
Hence a licensed Boeing 737-800 avionics engineer will not automatically work on and certify a similar problem on a Bombardier Q-400 unless he or she is trained and type rated on both aircraft types.
But even in the absence of technical faults and problems, each aircraft once released from the assembly line is immediately put under a manufacturer-approved maintenance programme.
Such a programme will require that aircraft checks are conducted strictly within stipulated periods and certain aircraft parts, even where no fault is detected, are replaced as per the manufacturer’s manual.
Regulatory authorities are always keen to confirm that all aircraft registered within their jurisdiction are kept in the recommended state of airworthiness as per approved maintenance programs.
It is of-course normal that every now and then an airline is allowed to operate an aircraft with some faulty equipment as long as these do not pose a risk to the flight.
There is however comfort in knowing that modern aircraft do have advanced monitoring systems that allow for early detection and automatic reporting of potential faulty systems.
Passengers should know that maintenance engineers are the gatekeepers of safety in an airline and play a significant role in determining smooth and continued flight operations as they must be ready for both planned and ad hoc technical issues around the aircraft.
Next time your flight is delayed due to a possible technical problem, before lashing out at the airline, try to appreciate that they, at the very least, have procedures in place that lead to early detection.
Remember that licensed aircraft maintenance engineer might be the only thing standing between you and an unsafe flight.
This post was earlier published in The East African Magazine January 21, 2017 Aircraft safety: No small technical hitch.