It would make an interesting slogan: “BA, now flying on three of four engines — and perhaps getting you there.” A lot of people (including the FAA) are wondering if financial considerations have trumped safety, after flying long distances over the arctic and water in a Boeing 747-400 with a bad engine has apparently become an acceptable practice for British Airways. Twice in a week, the same plane lost the same engine early in a long flight and the flights headed for their destinations rather than the closest suitable runway (one flight reached its destination of London). The trend began days after a new European Union rule came into effect guaranteeing compensation for passengers facing long delays or cancellations. The airline denied any link between the new rule and the engine-out procedure. “The plane is as safe on three engines as on four,” Capt. Doug Brown, BA’s senior manager in charge of the 747 fleet, told reporters. “It was really a customer service issue, not a safety issue.” FAA spokesman Greg Martin told AVweb the agency is looking into one of the incidents, which began in Los Angeles.
On Feb. 19, the plane, with 351 passengers aboard, took off from LAX and tower controllers saw sparks shooting from an engine. The crew shut the engine down and circled over the Pacific for 20 minutes while consulting with the airline. Rather than dump fuel and return to LAX (and triggering $150,000 in compensation claims), they set the rudder trim, poured the coal to the remaining three engines and climbed to 29,000 feet for the polar flight to Heathrow — and almost made it. The lower altitude, headwinds and the drag of the offset rudder burned up the fuel load faster than normal and the pilot had to make an emergency landing in Manchester, about 160 miles short of their destination. A few days later, with a fresh engine, the plane made uneventful flights to Melbourne and Singapore. Three hours into a 14-hour flight from Singapore to London, the same engine was shut down because of oil pressure problems. The crew pressed on and landed at Heathrow about 15 minutes behind schedule.