An incident that went largely unnoticed recently occurred when a software glitch resulted in runway tail strikes for two Alaska Airlines Hawaii flights just moments apart. It was severe enough that the airline implemented an immediate nationwide ground stop preventing all Alaska Airlines flights from taking off until the issue was evaluated and a resolution implemented.
Alaska Flight 887 departed Seattle on January 26, bound for Honolulu at 8:54 am and returned to Seattle at 9:45 am. Just minutes earlier than that, Alaska Flight 801 departed Seattle for Kona at 8:48 am and returned to Seattle at 9:26 am. That according to flight tracker Flightaware. One of the planes was a 737 MAX 9, while the other was a 737-900.
Upon takeoff, it was reported that both pilots and flight attendants heard a scraping sound or a bump caused by a tail strike. That’s when the tail of the aircraft strikes the ground. Tail strikes are unusual, and having two within minutes of each other led to great concern. Alaska’s Director of Operations pulled the plug on all flights at that point. We recall that Hawaiian Air suffered a tail strike in September 2021 on an A321neo. That incident occurred on landing from San Jose.
Once the cause was determined and the issue rectified, flights were allowed to continue normally. The ground stop only lasted a total of 22 minutes. Kudos to Alaska Airlines for how efficiently this was handled!
Minor tailstrikes may not be dangerous, but the plane may be weakened, and a thorough inspecttion and repair, if needed, is indicated, which can also prevent future issues with the same aircraft.
Technology reliance sometimes fails even airlines.
We often think of two things (among many others) that the airlines are great at. One is marketing, and the other is technology. But technology can backfire on anyone and did remarkably in this situation.
Software used by the crew to determine critical takeoff weight sent incorrect data to these flights. It is believed that as many as 30 flights received incorrect weight data but that only these two Hawaii flights suffered tail strikes.
Alaska determined that the error was related to takeoff weight, which led to the software being held responsible. They immediately went to a backup scenario so that they could immediately resume flying while the software fault was being addressed.
That could be because planes bound for Hawaii tend to be heavier regarding passengers, fuel, and cargo. In this case, the weight discrepancy is reported to have been between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds.
While the problem was being repaired, Alaska told pilots to manually check and double-check the data entered into the flight computer. The software was repaired promptly the same day.
Too many close calls for Hawaii flights.
This incident comes in the midst of a rash of problems related to flights to Hawaii, among others. The FAA said this week that they would convene an airline safety summit next month in light of a vast number of incidents, too many of which narrowly escaped being fatal.
Just this week, we reported on the Honolulu airport runway issue in which a United Airlines flight at Honolulu entered a runway while another plane was landing. There was also the United Maui flight that narrowly missed hitting the Pacific Ocean in December. And, largely unrelated, there was the severe Hawaiian Airlines turbulence incident that impacted a wide-body flight on the very same day as the United loss of altitude. That resulted in dozens of injuries to passengers and crew.
The summit is set to address safety in an industry that has gone two and a half decades without a fatal crash. At the same time, issues related to staffing shortages and lack of experience both at the airlines and at the FAA have become well-known and are concerning.
Software in question.
The software from which the problem emanated is from DynamicSource, a Stockholm-based company whose products are widely used in the airline industry. The company says it allows “pilots to quickly enter the required inputs for a Takeoff or Landing calculation. By the click of a few buttons the application will present the key data to the pilots.” That data provides engine and speed calculation needed for takeoff, taking into count a number of factors. Data from there is entered into the aircraft flight management computer system.
With such a significant planned vs. actual weight discrepancy, the planes would have taken off earlier, with less thrust and at a lower speed than was optimal. Alaska said that it determined, in conjunction with pilots, that the aircraft took off within approved safety limits despite the issues.
This incident was first reported in the Seattle Times.