Do we need an “open container law” for the cockpits of Airbus planes?

For the benefit of readers overseas, most localities in America have so-called “open container laws“, forbidding the presence of opened bottles or other containers of alcohol in many public places, usually including vehicles in motion.

In the case of Airbus airliners, I’m referring to open containers in the cockpit holding any liquid, not just alcohol, because they seem to have a problem with spills affecting their electronics.

Airbus and Rolls-Royce are investigating two incidents in which A350s experienced uncommanded in-flight engine shutdown after drinks were spilled on controls situated on the cockpit centre pedestal.

. . .

One of the incidents involved a Delta Air Lines A350-900 en route to Seoul on 21 January, which diverted to Fairbanks after its right-hand Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine shut down, while a similar event occurred to another carrier in November last year.

Some 15min before the Delta shutdown, FlightGlobal has learned, a drink was spilled on the centre pedestal between the two pilot seats, primarily on the integrated control panel for engine-start and electronic centralised aircraft monitor functions.

The right-hand engine shut down and the crew attempted a restart, which was unsuccessful, and the crew chose to divert, subsequently landing safely in Alaska.

. . .

The previous incident, on 9 November 2019, occurred about 1h after tea was spilled on the centre pedestal, FlightGlobal understands.

This also involved the in-flight shutdown of the right-hand Trent XWB engine, and while restart was attempted the powerplant would not remain operational for any length of time.

. . .

A350 operators have been advised that both incidents involved “liquid spillage” on the centre pedestal but the root causes of the in-flight shutdowns are still under investigation.

UK investigators probed an incident last February during which a Thomas Cook Airlines Airbus A330-200 was forced to divert to Shannon after a coffee spillage in the cockpit led to significant radio communication problems.

There’s more at the link.

The old saying (modernized and popularized by Ian Fleming’s James Bond) warns us that “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action”.  In this case, I don’t think it’s enemy action:  but three incidents in which spilt liquids are followed by electrical/electronic problems certainly gives one pause for thought.  What’s more, the cost of those incidents (measured in terms of added flight hours, diversion and landing costs, extra fuel, repairs, etc.) probably runs into at least five figures every time, and possibly six.

I would have expected Airbus to engineer its flight deck consoles to be proof against such spills, but perhaps they thought pilots and flight crew would exercise a higher standard of care.  Be that as it may, I hope they’re urgently looking into this.  It’s something that might affect an aircraft’s ETOPS rating.  Besides, I don’t want to hear the pilot say “Oops!” next time I fly, and see sparks coming from beneath the cockpit door!



  1. I got to look around an Airbus A300 at the ramp about 20 years ago. The guy told me that the plane had a $50,000 Christmas light. He touched one button, and every warning light came on, one at a time.

    I went under the cockpit into the electronics bay, and that same guy complained about the differences compared to Boeing products.

    I shudder to think what the cost of those repairs were. Not cheap, I'll reckon.

  2. There's a variation, for people to whom Stuff Just Keeps Happening: "Three times is bad life choices."
    In this case, it might be: "Three times is bad engineering choices."
    You'd think that resistance to environmental hazards would be kind of a priority design consideration in this sort of safety-critical application, but apparently this was not the case. Perhaps it's engineering-by-bean-counter: "Making everything spill-resistant would add $1000 to the unit cost of this $317,000,000 airplane, so let's not." (See also: Boeing's non-redundant option for MCAS. Which I don't think actually cost any less to build, but lowered the list price of the plane by some trivial amount.)
    … And now I'm wondering if the Navy's fancy new control systems, aside from the pathological user interfaces, might also be vulnerable to silly things like getting wet…?

  3. So, I'm guessing they need to force Airbus engineers and all A350 pilots to watch Fate Is The Hunter ten times, and then have the pilots write "I am not allowed to put beverages on the flight controls" on a blackboard 1000 times, before they're cleared to fly.

    Farking morons.

    You expect commercial air transport pilots to have a bit more common sense than teenagers drivers texting in traffic, and then they prove you wrong.

  4. An open container ban won't prevent things going flying during turbulence – which can hit without warning – and thus things getting wet when the container breaks open and leaks. And that container might be a person – think about turbulence happening when one of the pilots isn't seated.

    But this reads like alarmism. A whole two flights have been affected out of how many? Thousands? Millions? And nobody died; nobody was even hurt.

    Yes the electronics should be protected as much as reasonably possible, but the key word is reasonable.

  5. Murphy appears in many places, but with airplanes, his appearance can mean sudden stops at hundred of miles per hour.

  6. I'm not surprised; I've seen what seem to be a series of poor design choices by Airbus in little stuff that mean I am not surprised when they make similar mistakes in big stuff.
    A little stuff example: I was on an Airbus 320 about a decade ago and the toilet, the door, and the changing table conflicted with each other and as an experienced mechanical engineer I couldn't figure out how to actually lower and use the changing table.
    A big stuff example: The Air France flight that crashed in the South Atlantic several years ago – if the computer didn't like the inputs the sensors gave it, they didn't show them to the pilots. The control sticks are not connected together, so the pilot and co-pilot don't know what the other one is doing or if they are fighting each other.

    Airbus should not have any where near the market share they do – in many ways their aircraft are not as good as Boeing, but European rules, marketing, and retaliation have intentionally pushed them over Boeing (who this last year has been surprisingly stupid, but that's another subject). For example, some new Boeing aircraft have not received safety approval to fly in Europe until they increased the number of European made parts in the aircraft – which has NOTHING to do with safety!

  7. Hey Peter;

    Few things, any parts involved in an airplane is expensive, if it cost $1.25 for a car, once it gets that FAA/PMA stamp, it will cost $125 bucks if it goes on an airplane. The airbus A350 is a totally new airplane,as is the engines, total fly by wire. ETOPS is "Extended Operations" Normal FAA rules is for any 2 engine airplane to be no longer than 120 minutes away from any airport rated for that type in case there is an engine failure. ETOPS allows an airplane to fly farther away from land, it is a higher maintenance standards, for example if I work the fuel system on #1 engine, I can't work the fuel system on #2 engine, and normally it requires a SSE(Second set of eyes) sign off requirements. I think it is more than "spillage" causing the problems. When a totally new airplane is brought to market, there are "teething" issues with a new plane, stuff that doesn't show up during testing and certification flights. That is why there is a "Warranty" period on airplanes, where any thing that can be attributed to any design flaws are corrected as the plane is used and the "fixes" are incorporated into the production line.

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