Passengers sue airline after jet runs out of fuel

'Miracle escape' is soured as truth about Airbus's leak over Atlantic emerges.
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The Independent Online

In the annals of aviation lucky escapes, nothing beats what happened to Air Transat Flight 236 from Toronto to Lisbon two weekends ago. The huge Airbus A330 ran out of fuel over the Atlantic. Yet its two pilots were able to glide the plane for a full 18 minutes, catching warm-air updrafts, and successfully performed a "dead-stick" landing on the Azores, a mere speck of land 900 miles short of Portugal.

It was a feat that prompted awe and amazement, not least from the 291 passengers. When the aircraft slammed down on to the runway at Lajes airport at dawn on 24 August, they took just 90 seconds to evacuate using the emergency slides. Once on their feet – about 10 were hurt in the scramble – they turned back to look at the crippled plane and broke into applause. They were alive.

Today, however, celebration has given way to recrimination. Air Transat, a long-established charter carrier with 24 aircraft, admitted last week that mistakes were made when the plane's right-side Rolls-Royce Trent engine was replaced five days before the incident. On Thursday the airline was fined US$165,000 (£113,000) by Canada's civil aviation authorities, the largest penalty ever imposed on a Canadian airline.

Meanwhile, the captain, Robert Piché, has suddenly gone from hero to scoundrel. This follows revelations in the Canadian press that he served 15 months in prison in the early 1980s after being arrested in the US for trafficking marijuana from the Caribbean in a small plane.

Then, at the end of last week, lawyers in Toronto announced they were filing a class-action lawsuit against Air Transat, the pilots and Rolls-Royce, claiming US$20m (£14m) in damages. So far, only three passengers have joined the suit, but more are expected to follow.

Portuguese investigators intend to complete their preliminary report into the incident – one of the most serious in aviation history – within the next three weeks. Already, some elements of the story are clear, but others remain murky. The plane, we know, ran out of fuel after springing a leak. Probably, the fuel was lost from a low-pressure fuel line in the right engine that broke open after chafing against a nearby hydraulic pipe. We also know that the pipe and the line were not meant to be so close to each other.

Since the start of the jet era, a commercial jet has never run out of fuel over the Atlantic. Indeed, the chances of an airliner like the super-modern A330 shutting down in mid-flight because of fuel starvation had been calculated at a billion to one. Gliding is not a required skill for pilots.

Records indicate that at 5.36am the two pilots noticed a strange imbalance of fuel between tanks in the two wings. Investigators want to know whether they responded by pumping fuel into the right wing. If so, they may inadvertently have guaranteed that the plane would eventually be reduced to empty. "Even with a serious leak in its right-side engine, the plane should not have lost all its fuel unless massive amounts of fuel were pumped from the undamaged left side to the right-side engine," noted Federico Serra, the lead Portuguese investigator in the Azores, where the plane is still grounded.

At 6.13am, the right engine suddenly stopped. At 6.26am, by which time the pilots had put out a mayday call and diverted towards Lajes, the left engine gave out, too. They were 84 miles from Lajes without power, with 306 people on board. All they had left was an emergency propeller that had dropped from beneath one wing. It drove a generator to power the hydraulics for the plane's rudder and flaps.

Most of the passengers were asleep. Those still awake were shocked by the sudden silence when the second engine died. There were whispered exchanges until a flight attendant made an announcement. "The pilot is experiencing difficulties. Put your life jackets on right away." Fernando Dos Santos, who was in seat 10C, asked one attendant what was going on. "I'm not sure," she replied.

At first, the passengers were told to brace for a water landing. The cabin was eerily calm. One man's life-vest inflated accidentally. Many of the passengers vomited as the updrafts caused the plane to buck and fall repeatedly like a roller-coaster. The lights flickered. "I was looking out of the window and I thought that was it," Mr Dos Santos told Canada's National Post. He took no notice of instructions to put his head between his knees. "If this is the way it's going to be, I'm going to go with my eyes open."

But at 6.46am, the miracle happened. Travelling at 300mph, the Airbus smashed into the runway, bounced off again and bumped back down. The normal landing speed is about 125mph. Eight tyres exploded and passengers saw sparks and flames from the landing gear. But the jet eventually came to a halt.

The focus now is on Air Transat's maintenance department in Montreal. The airline confirmed that problems arose when engineers found that the replacement engine from Rolls-Royce had arrived without a vital hydraulic pump. A supervisor, now on paid leave, told them to scavenge a pump from another Trent engine that was not quite the same model as the one being fitted – something Rolls-Royce had advised all its customers against doing. A spokeswoman for Rolls-Royce on Friday declined to comment while the investigation is continuing. She said the company had not yet received formal notification of its part as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Air Transat agreed to pay the fine and abide by new restrictions on its twin-engine operations across the Atlantic. (They will have to follow routes closer to dry land.) Some passengers were unimpressed with the fine. "They almost killed 300 people," said David Fernandes, who took the flight with his father.

Many questions about what went wrong still need to be answered. But it is what did not happen that makes Flight 236 so extraordinary. It did not crash when the engines sputtered out; it kept going. Most of us didn't know that was possible.