That Sinking Feeling At Airbus

Sweaty-palmed airline passengers have fresh cause to feel nervous: A rash of crashes has sent the global air-death toll soaring--topping the level for all of 1993 in just over six months (chart). Three jets fell from the skies in the first three days of July alone: an Airbus test plane in France, a Fokker jet in Mauritania, and a USAir Inc. DC-9 in North Carolina.

Although chance may account for this year's accident surge, it could spell trouble for Europe's Airbus Industrie and the airlines that fly its planes. Three of them have crashed, and a fourth burned on the ground. Bigger rival Boeing Co., meanwhile, has suffered only three major accidents in 1994. Some are again questioning the cutting-edge technology that's an Airbus trademark. "We're very concerned that [such technology] may have gone too far," says Hans Krakauer, an official of the International Airline Passengers Assn.

That issue has dogged Airbus since 1988, when it delivered the industry's first "fly-by-wire" airliner--an electronically controlled jet whose computer can overrule pilot maneuvers it considers dangerous. But critics claim this safety system may cause accidents, if it malfunctions or if ill-trained pilots try to override it. Now, fly-by-wire is a critical issue for Boeing as well. More conservative than Airbus, the U.S. giant is only just now set to deliver its first computer-run plane, the 777.

TOO RISKY. Rightly or wrongly, the latest Airbus accident on July 1 in Toulouse is fueling such worries. To test a new engine on its new A330 jumbo jet, Airbus' chief pilot was simulating an emergency. On takeoff, he cut one of the two engines and put the plane on autopilot. That maneuver is too risky to try even on a plane that is not computer-controlled, says David Learmount, safety editor of Flight International magazine. It proved too risky on the Airbus as well. The plane failed to climb as it should have. The pilot took back manual control too late to avoid crashing. All seven crew members and passengers died.

Although the accident's precise cause isn't yet known, some see ominous similarities to two other Airbus crashes. In April, an Airbus jet flown by China Airlines crashed in Japan when its pilots decided to override the autopilot during a difficult landing. And in 1988, an Airbus A320 crashed in France when its computers were unable to help it clear a forest.

For its part, Airbus is convinced that pilot error is to blame for the 14 crashes since its first model entered service in 1974. "So far, we're fortunate that no accident is directly attributable to the airplane," says a spokesman for the four-nation European consortium. He may be right. None of this year's accidents has been fully explained.

Despite the spate of accidents, the safety record of Airbus planes over time compares favorably with that of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas Corp. An executive of a U.S. airline that flies Airbus planes doubts computer control is to blame for the accidents. But "Airbus is going to have to be very careful and forthcoming," he says, to convince airlines and regulators that automation isn't at fault.

Even skeptics of fly-by-wire admit there's no solid proof it's unsafe. "It may cause some accidents, but it may prevent others--we just don't know," says Geoffroy Bouvet, an official of France's pilots' union. Boeing aims to temper the risk of confusion between pilots and computers in its new 777, which United Airlines Inc. will start flying next May. Crews will be able to override the computer more easily than in Airbus planes.

Airplane designers clearly seem committed to computer control. Some engineers even think planes will be able to fly without pilots in a few years. But before computers can fly solo, accident investigators must prove beyond doubt that today's fly-by-wire jets are safe.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.