Northwest Airlines: Flight Risk

Northwest Flight 1652, scheduled to depart Washington National for Minneapolis at 6:36 AM this morning, left the gate on-time. But just as it turned toward the runway, a loud, hacking sound – kind of like a handsaw cutting through sheet metal – began vibrating through the cabin. From my seat – 14D -it felt like it was emanating from the right wing, and it continued for a solid five minutes before the captain announced that we would be returning to the gate so that a maintenance crew could cool off an overheating hydraulic pump.

Which we did, resulting in a roughly twenty minute delay.

Problem (presumably) fixed, the plane once again departed for the runway. And, once again, that loud, hacking sound coursed through the plane, lasting for roughly five minutes until the captain announced that the hydraulics were overheating again – possibly because they had been overfilled – and we were once again returning to the gate.

Once there, the captain announced that maintenance was going to replace the hydraulic pump with a new one. The replacement itself would require at least an hour – not counting the time necessary to find the part. Passengers were given the option to leave the plane, and several of us congregated outside, beside the gate windows, and watched as a two-man Northwest maintenance crew opened the right engine compartment and carefully removed the faulty pump. As they worked, a new pump arrived, and over the course of 90 minutes, the new part was installed. Below, a photo of the procedure (the two man crew was eventually supplemented by a third).

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Finally, two hours into the repair, a quality control inspector arrived to check the work of the maintenance people. An engine test was performed and at 11:00 AM, 4.5 hours past the scheduled departure, passengers were asked to board flight 1652.

At 11:15, the plane taxied toward the runway. And at 11:20, the hacking vibrations began again, only more intense than before. The pilot pulled to the side of the runway, and after a ten minute wait announced that the plane needed to be returned to the gate for further maintenance.

No surprise, flight 1652 didn’t fly on August 1. Instead, it was tugged from the gate at 3:00 PM, presumably for a more intensive maintenance session.

I’m sure that Northwest Airlines – if asked – would officially depict the delay and cancellation of Flight 1652 as a maintenance issue. Which it was. But it also highlights, in the most uncomfortable terms, the inability of the airline’s maintenance department to identify and fix an engine problem. In the simplest terms, Northwest’s maintenance team got this engine problem totally wrong, going so far as to replace a part that apparently had no role in the overheating that the pilots claimed to have sensed from the cockpit. This is akin to performing a kidney transplant on the basis of a misdiagnosed flu. For me, personally, it is both astonishing and frightening that Northwest would feel comfortable sending this injured plane back to the runway – three times over four hours.

Does this have wider implications for Northwest flights originating out of Washington, D.C.? Who knows? For sure, I wasn’t getting back on the 1652 plane (I took a later Northwest flight – and landed safely). But I can’t help but wonder if Northwest’s decision to hire replacement mechanics for its striking mechanics in 2005 is still consequential. Then again, the Quality Control supervisor who signed off on the botched – repair – is unlikely to be union or a replacement worker, so I might be wrong.

[UPDATE 8/6/07: I’ve received several emails pointing out that the maintenance workers in the photo are not Northwest mechanics, but are instead Northwest contractors. According to one of these emails, Northwest only uses its own mechanics at hubs (Minneapolis, Detroit, Memphis, etc.), and otherwise outsources. If I recall correctly, the maintenance workers in D.C. were wearing shirts emblazoned with “Swissport.” According to a quick google search, Swissport “provides passenger and ramp handling at over 110 stations world wide and serves 70 million passengers per year.” The Swissport website lists numerous services that it can provide an airline, but aircraft maintenance is not among them.

Perhaps a reader could comment on Swissport as a maintenance provider. Also, I’d be very interested to know how Northwest handles maintenance at its international operations, particularly in Asia.]

18 comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head “Northwest’s decision to hire replacement mechanics for its striking mechanics in 2005 is still consequential.” Northwest basically only has mechanics in its hubs. At all other locations it is outsourced. Your picture clearly shows mechanics not in a Northwest uniform.

  2. First of all, You have no idea what you’re talking about. These are machines and machines break. The fact that these were not Northwest mechanics has nothing to do with it. I’m an EX 22 year Northwest mechanic. Before Aug 19th 2005, many of Northwest stations in the USA had their own mechanics and problems such as this one happened then as they do now.Has nothing to do with the fact that the maintenance is outsourced in some stations.In fact MANY of these outsourced SWISSPORT mechanics are EX Northwest mechanics !! There are countless stations throughout the USA were maintenace is performed by swissport or others for major US airlines. Delta,United,Southwest,Continental…they all do it and have been doing it for Decades. Yes, you flight had an unfortunate delay and maintenance had a tough time troubleshooting the cause of the fault, but SWISSPORT or not, these are FAA licensed Aircraft mechanics. The old mechanics at Northwest airlines were represented by AMFA as their union. The chose to strike the company and the company replaced them. Not the best scenario for the American worker but dont think for one minute that the AMFA mechanics at Northwest Airlines are any different than the ones working for Swissport or any other contractor. Northwest mechanics in Japan work for Northwest. The rest of Asia is outsourced to contractors such as Singapore Airlines. One of the finest carriers in the world. The Pilots claim of htdraulic overheat can be seen in the cockpit.Its monitored by a computer and displayed on a screen. There are many components in the hydraulic system that if failed, can cause an overheat.

  3. THE BEST THING NORTHWEST COULD HAVE DONE WAS TO GET RID OF AMFA. WHAT A BUNCH OF OVERPAID LOSERS THEY WERE. As a retired gate agent for Northwest, I can tell you that Ive seen this back to the gate routine hundreds of times throughout my career. Only to have some smelly , ungroomed mechanic spew his testosterone and telling me he’ll let me know when its fixed. AMFA, WHAT A JOKE.

  4. Swissport provides maintenance for Airlines all over the world. In facy, many of the USA swissport mechanics are EX Northwest Airlines mechanics and from other Airlines as a result of massive layoff after 911. You talk about maintenance but know nothing about it. Hydraulic systems have many components that can cause a system overheat. Most likely these mechanics were using the Airbus A320 TSM troubleshooting manual. The manual will tell you what to replace based on the symptoms. Its not always correct as it cannot possibly account for every situation. This is not an everyday event, although it does happen.Planes do return to the gate after being repaired. Sometimes problems are intermittent and that makes it more difficult to diagnose. Again. many of the Swissport workers are EX Northwest that decided to cross their own picket line.

  5. AMFA PICKET LINE? WHAT PICKET LINE ? What a joke of strike and an even bigger joke of a union. You think your flights are delayed now…You should have been flying 3 yrs ago when AMFA was on the war path beating their chests. NOTHING flew on time. Pathetic

  6. Go to http://WWW.EXNWA.COM These are the morons that used to fix Northwest airplanes. They type like 4th grade children. Can’t spell and sound like the fools they are. AMFA, what a joke. AMFA will neglect to tell you that they managed to go from 10,500 mechanics at Northwest down to 900 SCABS. Almost half of the SCABS are ex Northwest mechanics that chose to take matters in to their own hands and not allow that joke of a union to lose their careers for them.

  7. TJ…AMFA NUTS.com Right up your alley. You’ll fit right in and luv their excuses. Trey…retired professional. No wonder there are so many complaints about those pricky gate agents. Happy landings dudes…

  8. Yea blame amfa. Have not been on property for two years. Went from #1 on time airline to what it is today. This is northwest’s program not amfa

  9. Not on the property? How about the 400 or so of your own SCABS that once paid dues to AMFA ? Their on the property alright.

  10. PLEASE NOTE:

    The comments attributed to “Art,” “SOSA,” “TJ,” “S,Abrams,” and “Daniel Rose” all originated from the same IP address, which is registered to an America Online Account.

    The other comments originated from distinct IP addresses.

    In the future, multiple comments originating from the same IP – but identified with an alias – will be erased AND the offending IP address will be published on this comment list. Whoever you are, and whoever you work for: consider yourself warned.

  11. I gave up flying on “Northworst Airlines” many years ago. I believe it is truly a rotten company. I fly on Sun Country, Frontier or American out of MSP and have been very satisfied with their service.

  12. After fixing airplanes for about 25 years, I thought I would qualified to comment. Yes, machines to break. Some times the first fix does not cure the problem. But from reading this story, no qualified mechanic would EVER let a plane leave after it came back in for the same problem unless it was fixed for SURE!(sorry for caps) As far as the TSM goes, most mechanics use it only for the more difficult problems. Otherwise it’s a guide for people that have no idea what to do. Surely after a plane comes back, Maintenance Control would be involved. But MC has a lot of mechanics who went there to avoid a strike. Not sure how much help they would be. Also The pilots have some blame to shoulder themselves. The thing about airplane crashes is that most times they hit the ground nose first. These pilots are taking their lives and the lives of passengers in their hands. This time it was only hydraulics, next time who knows. When I worked for Nwa, when a mechanic told the pilot the plane was good to go, their was no question. I would not want to be flying an airplane every day that I had safety concerns about. Pilots USED to be able to refuse a plane if they thought it was not safe. The only times that ever happened was for bad weather when some equpitment was not operational. Time will tell.

  13. <p>A thanks to ExNwa for leaving the comment above this one. It’s a good one, and very interesting for people – like me – who don’t have any background in airplane and airline maintenance. An additional thanks to the ExNWA website (www.exnwa.com)for linking to this post on its homepage.</p>
    <p>Over the weekend, this post became the most-viewed post in the history of this blog, almost doubling the previous record-holder. Most of the hits came on Saturday and Sunday afternoon – usually the time of week when I get the fewest hits. And starting Sunday night, a large percentage of the hits started coming from Europe and Asia.</p>
    <p>I don’t want to read more into this “ratings bounce” more than I should. That said, I’m a reporter by trade, and the fact seem to indicate that more than a few people are interested in how Northwest’s labor practices have impacted its safety record. And not only that, they are deeply interested. After all, why else would they bother linking to a blog that’s primarily concerned with Chinese business and religion?</p>
    <p>Anyway, thanks again to exNWA.</p>

  14. I work at the airport and I do believe those guys are from a company called “Flight Check” They do only aircraft maint. It is not that easy pinpointing a problem on such an engine.

  15. The airline that I fly for use Swissport at many of the destinations that I fly to. I have always found them to be proficient and have never had any problems. While I sympathise with your delay I do understand the pressure on these maintenance people to get the aircraft fixed as soon as possible. I for one would not like to have that job.

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