The crash of Helios Airways flight 522 is one of the most unusual and shocking aviation accidents of the 21st century. It involved a Boeing 737 that came down near Grammatiko in eastern Greece. But what exactly caused the crash of this so-called ‘ghost plane’?
The flight in question
Helios Airways was a low-cost airline based in Larnaca, Cyprus. From 1998, it operated both scheduled and charter flights from the Mediterranean island nation to various European and North African destinations, stretching from Dublin to Cairo.
One of Helios’s scheduled destinations was the Czech capital of Prague, and it flew there from Larnaca under the flight number ZU522. This flight also featured an intermediate stopover in the Greek capital of Athens. Its scheduled departure time from Larnaca was 09:00 local time, and, on August 14th, 2005, it took to the skies just seven minutes late.
How did the accident begin?
Just five minutes after takeoff, the aircraft’s cabin altitude warning horn sounded, prompting the crew to halt the climb. At this stage, the plane was passing through an altitude of 12,040 feet. However, the sound was identical to that of the takeoff configuration warning, and the crew disregarded it, believing it to be this alarm instead.
As such, they were unaware of the loss of cabin pressure currently occurring onboard. Seven minutes into the flight, the pilots reported an air conditioning problem, and contacted the airline’s operations department. Meanwhile, oxygen masks had deployed upon reaching an altitude of 18,000 feet.
By the time the operations center made its last contact with the crew, at 09:20 (13 minutes into the flight), communication with the pilots was becoming increasingly difficult. This was because they were beginning to experience symptoms of hypoxia as a result of the loss of cabin pressure. The aircraft eventually stopped climbing at 34,000 feet at 09:23.
Upon entering the Athens flight information region at 09:37, the aircraft began circling on autopilot as the further loss of pressure had incapacitated the crew. With the pilots continuing not to respond to air traffic control messages, two Greek F-16 fighter jets were dispatched to intercept the flight. They took off at 11:05, and located the plane at 11:24. The fighter pilots reported a curious scene in the cockpit.
Specifically, the captain’s seat was empty, while the first officer was slumped unconscious over the controls. They then witnessed a flight attendant enter the cockpit with a portable oxygen supply at 11:49, who, along with his partner, attempted to control the aircraft. He even acknowledged the F-16 pilots with a wave, but, shortly afterward, the plane’s left engine flamed out due to fuel exhaustion, causing it to descend.
The crash and the cause
While the flight attendant, Andreas Prodromou, was unable to regain control of the plane, he was heroically able to turn it away from Athens during the descent, preventing ground casualties. However, the fate of the aircraft’s 115 passengers and six crew was sealed, with all 121 occupants losing their lives when Helios Airways flight 522 crashed into mountainous terrain near Grammatiko, Greece, at 12:04.
But what was the root cause of this tragedy? It was found that an engineer had carried out a pressurization leak check on the aircraft earlier that day. However, this had involved the engineer setting the pressurization system to manual to avoid running the engines for the check. Upon completing the check, they forgot to reset the pressurization system to auto, which ultimately led to the loss of pressure that incapacitated the flight’s crew.
The aircraft involved
The plane that crashed in this tragic accident was a Boeing 737-300 with the registration 5B-DBY. According to Planespotters.net, the aircraft had originally been delivered brand-new to German low-cost carrier Deutsche BA as D-ADBQ in January 1998.
In 2002, the airline rebranded as simply DBA, and altered the plane’s configuration. It went from seating 122 passengers across two classes (40 business class and 82 economy class) to a 136-seat all-economy configuration.
Helios then began leasing the aircraft from Deutsche Structured Finance in April 2004. As such, the aircraft had only been with the airline for just over a year at the time of the crash. All in all, it had been in service for just over seven and a half years.
Helios Airways rebranded itself as Ajet and withdrew from scheduled operations in March 2006. Despite this, it eventually permanently suspended its remaining charter flights in November that year, and ceased to exist as an airline thereafter.
United Airlines Uses The Crisis To Diversify Latin American Network
Latin America has been a strong performer through the recovery. With the big three US airlines and smaller peers heavily contesting the geography, passengers have no dearth of options when it comes to choosing a flight itinerary. Sensing an opportunity, United Airlines has used the crisis to diversify its Latin America network.
United has diversified its Latin America network
Speaking on the airline’s first-quarter earnings call, Andrew Nocelle, Chief Commercial Officer at United, discussed the carrier’s international network. While long-haul demand has been largely depressed, Latin America has proven strong for the airline, as he stated:
“As we look forward to our capacity levels in most parts in near-Latin America are now above 2019 levels. Wherever we look in Latin America or Europe, where access is permitted, we see leisure demand in 2019 levels or greater.
One bright performer has been Mexico. Mr. Nocelle stated that, after the US announced it would institute a mandatory testing requirement for inbound international travelers, United feared a drop in travel demand for Mexico. So, the carrier cut capacity, expecting the reduction. However, the airline was wrong and had to go back and add capacity to the market again.
Latin America is also a realm of new opportunities for United. Mr. Nocella discussed how the airline was responding to travel demand for Latin America:
“This summer, we’re planning to be at our 2019 levels already and there’s very few parts of our airline where we’re at that level. We have a great Latin American franchise. However, it’s been historically very Houston-centric and we’ve taken the opportunity in the recent months and going forward to diversify that portfolio to now include more out of Los Angeles, Washington and New York and our intention is to keep that.”
United’s Latin America expansion
This month, United is operating more flights to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America than it did in May of 2019. Much of this came from both resumptions in existing Latin American routes and new additions to the carrier’s route network.
This includes a significant expansion from hubs like Denver, Los Angeles, and San San Francisco to points in Central America, such as Belize and Costa Rica. Washington D.C. received additional service to the Caribbean, as did Newark, which United uses as its New York City gateway.
United has also brought back much of its long-haul international flying. This includes returning flights to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago, among other cities. Note that not all of those flights are operating with the same pre-crisis frequencies.
Improving Latin American revenue
In the first quarter of 2021, United took in $392 million in revenue from Latin America, as defined by the US Department of Transportation (DOT). Delta took in $381 million, while American Airlines received $482 million in revenue from Latin America.
In the first quarter of 2019, United took in $975 million in revenue from Latin America. Delta received $964 million in revenue from the region. American Airlines, historically a powerful player in Latin America, took in a whopping $1.4 billion in revenue from Latin America.
Now that Delta Air Lines has a partnership with LATAM, that airline will be a much larger force to contend with in Latin America. With partners in Copa, Azul, and Avianca, United has also been a growing force in the region. However, it has maintained a relatively limited network there, funneling most passengers through Houston.
American has a robust Latin American network, with flights running to several countries out of Dallas and Miami. After rebuilding its network and gaining new partnerships, other hubs like New York and Charlotte are also seeing increased services to points south of the US.
All of this indicates that United believes it needs to diversify to compete more effectively. Much of the added new routes out of other hubs like Denver, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Newark are short- and medium-haul flights to points in Central America and the Caribbean. Many countries in these regions have been open for Americans since mid-to-late 2020, which is why United has pointed more of its planes there.
Ultimately, diversifying its hub network to Latin America means more itineraries that the airline can offer and compete against its network peers in the region whether all of these new routes are still around when Europe, Australia, and Asia open up remains to be seen.
Do you think United made the right choice in diversifying its Latin American route network? Let us know in the comments!
Allegiant Air Is Not Concerned About Breeze Airways
Highly-anticipated startup Breeze Airways has revealed few details about its anticipated operations. However, when it finally launches operations, Allegiant Air’s executives are not concerned about the added competition from the carrier. Instead, the airline is focused on its expansion plans and emboldened by a strong balance sheet.
Allegiant Air is not worried about the competition
On Allegiant’s first-quarter earnings call, CEO Maurice Gallagher was asked about the growth of low-cost competition in the US. In his comments, he specifically spoke about Breeze Airways:
“While we’re certainly going to pay attention to people, that’s not [the] first thing we look at this point in time. With the Breeze side of the house, they have an ambitious growth schedule, but with their airplane size and some things, I’m not terribly concerned about flying against a 110-seat airplane, which they’ll start with. The A220 is a good airplane, but they claim to be interested in longer-haul thinner markets. So, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
John Redmon, President of Allegiant, followed up with his own thoughts on branding:
“I think when you look at it, we’ve never been afraid of competition. But, financially, where we stood some time ago versus where we stand now, Maury stated in his comments, we all kind of alluded to it, but we’ve never been stronger with a stronger balance sheet in history of the company, frankly. So we’re well-positioned to take on anyone. When you look at the start-ups, they – literally – don’t have a brand. No one knows that brand in the marketplace. So, they’re coming in as a brand that no one’s ever heard of, and as Maury points out, maybe with a plane type that’s not as cost effective as ours in some cases. So, I think we’re very comfortable with where we stand, going forward.”
Breeze Airways versus Allegiant
Breeze Airways is the brainchild of David Neeleman, who is best known for setting up JetBlue. The airline plans to fly point-to-point using Embraer E190/E195s to start and then move toward the Airbus A220-300.
Breeze is looking at a plethora of routes and markets. It wants to focus on point-to-point, low-cost travel between secondary cities. Allegiant also flies a similar model, with a focus on connecting leisure passengers. As an ultra-low-cost carrier, Allegiant has focused on offering a no-frills product and selling ancillaries to its customers.
Breeze Airways has yet to detail its full model and slate of offerings. While it wants to be low-cost, that model comes in many different varieties.
Allegiant and Breeze likely will not compete too much. According to Mr. Neeleman, 80% of Breeze’s routes will have no competition this summer. Of course, those routes have yet to be revealed, and plenty of airlines have made new route announcements since his statement.
Allegiant is focused on its low-frequency, low-utilization model that has helped it be successful. It sees plans to grow and is stepping on the gas in 2021 as most of the larger airlines in the US focus on repairing their balance sheets, rebuilding their schedules, and reactivating their aircraft.
The interesting play in the market
Mr. Gallagher’s airline is in a great place and has big plans moving forward. For him, the more interesting play is the big three US airlines, as he stated:
“I think the really interesting play is how do the Big Three react […] they’ve got a ton of debt. Their cost structure is twice what any of ours are. I just don’t know how those guys kind of come down the hill – not to say they won’t – but long term.”
He went even further, stating:
“I think you’re going to see the ULCC side able to really gain a lot of market share, potentially, over the next couple years. And that’s what we are so bullish on because we can really stand alone in what we do and how we’ve done it.”
The big three in the US refer to American, Delta, and United. The three major network airlines have all taken on new debt since the crisis started to shore up liquidity, and they have a lot of work to do.
Allegiant does not traditionally compete heavily with these three airlines. However, as all airlines are mainly oriented toward capturing leisure travelers, there is more and more overlap between the airlines. Allegiant has so far held its own, and it believes it can hold its own moving forward.
Whether it be Breeze Airways or the big three US airlines, Allegiant Air is ready to face the competition, and it believes it will win.
What do you make of Allegiant’s view toward Breeze Airways and the big three US airlines? Do you think Breeze Airways is a threat to Allegiant? Let us know in the comments!
How Azul Has Managed To Recover Despite Brazil’s COVID Crisis
The Brazilian airline Azul Linhas Aereas ended the first quarter with 109% of its domestic capacity than its pre-pandemic levels. While Azul still posted a net loss of US$509 million, the airline seems to be on track for a recovery, surpassing its domestic peers, GOL and LATAM Brazil. But, how has Azul achieved this bounceback? Let’s investigate further.
Azul’s unique route map
Azul is a point-to-point airline. It doesn’t have a true hub, like GOL or LATAM. These last two airlines mainly fly from Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport, the gateway of Brazil. Meanwhile, Azul flies out of everywhere.
For instance, in June, Azul will operate nearly 18,200 flights out of 83 Brazilian airports, according to the Cirium database. Its largest hub will be the Campinas International Airport (VCP), with 3,709 flights and over 500,000 seats offered. Compared to that, Guarulhos International will only have 518 flights and 83,020 seats.
GOL will have 11,152 flights out of 54 cities, and LATAM will have 9,092 domestic flights out of 46 airports.
During its first-quarter investors’ call, Azul’s management said nearly 80% of its routes have no competition. Azul’s connectivity has no parallels in Brazil, as it is already serving 115 destinations and plans to increase to 135 within the next six months. John Rodgerson, Azul’s CEO, said,
“Our disciplined recovery strategy is focused on our strength, which is our main hubs. Thanks to our broad network, our demand base is diversified and less dependent on a single region. As a result, we are able to access and collect demand when others cannot, and create unique opportunities for network recovery.”
Azul’s passenger numbers and fares
2020’s first quarter was a complicated one for the Brazilian airlines. The country suffered the second wave of COVID-19 infections, which led to new travel restrictions and a slowdown in travel demand recovery.
For instance, GOL Linhas Aereas carried 4.49 million passengers, a 46.1% decrease compared to 2020’s first quarter. LATAM Airlines Group has not yet provided its first-quarter results. Nevertheless, Brazil’s Civil Aviation Authority has. LATAM carried 3.9 million passengers between January and March, the lowest number among Brazil’s big three.
Meanwhile, Azul carried 5.2 million passengers, a 20.2% decrease compared to 2020’s first quarter.
Azul’s average fare dropped 24.6% between 2020 and 2021. The air ticket for Azul cost 304.3 reais (or US$54), which is the highest among the top three.
Financial results and cargo boost
During Azul’s first quarter, the airline posted a US$509 net loss, unlike 2020’s fourth quarter when it had a net income of US$104 million.
The airline ended the quarter with solid liquidity, with 3.3 billion reais in cash ($US632 million). Azul’s management also reduced the cost per available seat-kilometer (CASK) by 5% compared to December.
But maybe the best news for Azul was that its cargo division is soaring. John Rodgerson said,
“Azul Cargo continues growing and outperforming every quarter, with another 62.8% increase in revenue year-over-year, in spite of 23% less capacity in our network. Our unique door-to-door logistics capabilities combined with the broadest network give us the ability to transform logistics in Brazil like no one else.”
What do you think of Azul’s performance so far? Let us know in the comments.
Air Canada Eyes The A321LR As More A220s Set To Be Delivered
by Jake Hardiman | May 7, 2021
While Air Canada does fly the Boeing 737 MAX series, most of its narrowbody aircraft belong to Airbus families. These include the five-abreast A220 series, of which the airline is set to receive a further 15 examples by the end of 2022. Interestingly, the Canadian flag carrier has also revealed an interest in Airbus’s long-range A321LR model.
Four A220s delivered in Q1
Air Canada announced today at its first-quarter earnings call that it has continued its short-haul fleet modernization despite the industry’s present challenges. The Airbus A220 is leading the way in this regeneration, with Air Canada favoring the A220-300 variant.
This next-generation narrowbody has won favor among both employees and passengers for its enhanced efficiency and comfort levels. According to Planespotters.net, Air Canada presently has 19 137-seat A220-300s in its fleet, of which 17 are active. Of these, more than 20% arrived in Q1 of 2021. Indeed, the airline confirmed on the aforementioned call that “we took delivery of four Airbus A220 aircraft in the first quarter.”
These four first-quarter arrivals came in the form of the following aircraft.
- C-GNAM, delivered January 29th.
- C-GTZH, delivered February 19th.
- C-GNBE, delivered March 25th.
- C-GNBN, delivered March 26th with a retro Trans-Canada Air Lines livery.
Next 15 deliveries also secured
The introduction of the A220 has played a significant role in the regeneration of Air Canada’s short-haul fleet. The type will replace its remaining A319s, which have an average age of 24 years. Amid the pandemic, it has not been unusual to see carriers defer orders. However, regarding its remaining A220s, the airline confirmed that:Advertisement:
“In March 2021, Air Canada concluded a committed secured facility totaling US$475 million to finance the purchase of the next 15 Airbus A220 aircraft scheduled for delivery in 2021 and 2022.”
Potentially a place for the A321LR as well
In the longer term, Air Canada will be hoping that it can resume its longer-haul services to transatlantic destinations such as the UK and mainland Europe. However, ongoing uncertainty remains regarding different countries’ restrictions and vaccination rates.
As such, it may not see the demand levels that it had become accustomed to before coronavirus. With this in mind, the airline is open to trying new aircraft types in order to adapt to market fluctuations. For example, it stated that:Advertisement:
“We’ve done a pretty good job covering ourselves for growth beyond our expectations, but certainly also for even further fine tuning. (…) That gives us the opportunity to then potentially step into new types of aircraft. Like the A321LRs, for example, that we like, and that certainly have a potential place in Air Canada’s fleet as we go forward.“
Of course, the carrier would not be the first Canadian airline to deploy this long-range version of the Airbus A321neo series. Indeed, Air Transat, whose merger with Air Canada was recently canceled, has operated the type since 2019. Last October, Air Transat even set the record for the world’s longest flight using the aircraft.
This saw it fly non-stop from Montréal, Canada to Athens, Greece. This represented an impressive distance of 7,600 km (4,100 NM), although it has since been beaten by Azores Airlines. Nonetheless, with the aircraft being an ideal fit for ‘long thin’ transatlantic markets, Air Canada’s interest is understandable.
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