American Airlines is revising internal procedures after it mistakenly flew an Airbus A321 without proper long-range overwater certification from Los Angeles to Honolulu last month, an airline spokesman told briansumers.com.
Twin-engine aircraft operating from the West Coast to Hawaii fly over the Pacific Ocean for nearly the entire flight, and as a result, they are required to carry more safety equipment than other planes, including oxygen tanks and a special fire suppression system in the cargo hold. With the special systems, these aircraft are certified to fly on one engine for as long as three hours. That is enough time to reach an alternate airport. The certification is called ETOPS.
Obtaining ETOPs certification is not difficult but it is a complicated process, and so there's no reason to certify aircraft that won't fly on long routes over water. As a result, American has two types of A321s in its standard first class and coach configuration - the A321H, which can fly to Hawaii, and the A321S, which cannot.
On August 31, American flew Flight 31 from L.A. to Honolulu with a A321S, spokesman Casey Norton said. This wasn't necessarily unsafe - both versions of the A321s are essentially the same aircraft and each has emergency life rafts required for a water evacuation - but this is a major violation of federal guidelines.
An American employee on the ground realized the mistake while the aircraft was well on its way to Hawaii, and American decided to continue to Honolulu, Norton said. The return flight was canceled and the aircraft was ferried back.
"When we noticed it, we immediately undertook an internal investigation, and we alerted the FAA," Norton said. "We are checking our internal procedures, everything that led up to the departure. We are going to figure out what we can do better. We have gone back and made some changes to software systems."
I asked a source with operations experience how often this happens. The source was surprised by the incident. This person did not even think it was possible for an airline to send the wrong A321, as most airlines have procedures to prevent such an error.
UPDATE: An FAA spokesman told me the agency is looking into the matter.
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