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Wizz Air near miss shows why you aren’t allowed to move seats before take off …..

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The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch has just published its report into a potentially dangerous take-off by Wizz Air at Luton Airport.

We don’t usually cover this sort of topic on HfP because it is a little outside our core focus. However, I thought this story was worth sharing because it explains why it is so important that passengers sit in their allocated seats for take off.

Back in January, a Wizz Air flight from Luton to Prague experienced an anomaly at take-off that almost prevented the aircraft from getting off the runway in time.

The aircraft, an Airbus A321, was not responding to the normal pilot control at the point of rotation. That means the aircraft did not take off at the expected speed.

To counter the issue, the captain and first officer responded quickly by increasing the engine power to full thrust for takeoff and almost full aft side-stick.

In plain English (!) the pilots increased the pitch and thrust of the aircraft beyond the normal take-off requirements for an A321, eventually creating enough lift for the aircraft to clear the runway.

Whilst the aircraft landed safely in Prague with no passengers or crew injured, it triggered a full investigation. It’s obviously not good news if an aircraft finds that it cannot get airborne with the end of runway getting ominously close …..

Wizz Air cabin

The problem was caused by an imbalance of passengers

157 passengers boarded the 230-seat A321 and were assigned seats in the forward three cabin zones of the aircraft. Nobody was seated in the fourth, rear, cabin.

This meant that the aircraft was forward-heavy. Normally, passengers are carefully balanced across the full length of the aircraft to ensure that issues like this don’t occur.

Oddly, neither the cabin crew or dispatcher realised that there were no passengers seated at the rear of the plane.

With excess weight at the front of the aircraft, the pilots struggled to leave the ground.

So what happened on this particular flight?

In its assessment, the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch noticed that a last minute aircraft swap meant that the larger A321 with 230 seats replaced the originally scheduled A320 with 180 seats.

An aircraft swap normally sends an automated email to both the operational and passenger services departments.

The operational team is meant to re-calculate the load based on the updated A321 aircraft. There would be a requirement to seat passengers in all four zones of the aircraft cabin, from front to back.

In the case of this particular swap, a technical fault meant that the messages were not sent.

Only the operational team at Luton were informed of the change. Unfortunately, the passenger services department was not told and did not revise the allocated seating for the flight. Passengers took the same seats they were allocated for the smaller A320, which meant that no-one sat at the back as those rows did not previously exist.

When cabin crew say you can only change seats after take-off, this is why

Ultimately, the positioning of passengers is a carefully controlled part of balancing an aircraft for take-off. This is why, even on virtually empty flights, you might find yourself sat at the back of the plane.

Cabin crew aren’t being mean spirited when they ask you to wait to swap seats until the aircraft has reached its cruising altitude!

The full AIB report can be read here. Amusingly it chose not to name Wizz Air as the airline responsible, but the report then makes numerous references to the airline’s control centre being in Budapest …..

Comments (67)

  • Martin says:

    It’s standard for AAIB reports to not mention the operator – but they do tell you the aircraft registration, and a few seconds Google will usually reveal who owns it.

  • Anuj says:

    But ironically if passengers weren’t restricted from sitting somewhere else, they would have spread themselves out and it wouldn’t have happened

    • Craig says:

      But not necessarily in a predictable way.

      • haasha says:

        They would, people are very predictable when it comes to seating. Remember that low-cost carriers had “grab your seat yourself” for quite a few years?

        • Craig says:

          But they also blocked the front and back rows if the load was below a certain number. If the aircraft is close to full then it’s not a problem, with the very low load figures we have now it’s a really serious issue. This isn’t the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last.

        • Tom says:

          On my BA flight last week over 50% of the passengers were in business and I suspect that is not uncommon at the moment.

          So I expect many planes are heavier towards the front.

          • Craig says:

            Indeed and if given the choice most passengers would sit near the front to speed up their exit after landing. If it’s know about in advance it can be countered by placing most of the baggage in the rear holds.

    • haasha says:

      Maybe yes, however sometimes you need to put heavier cargo to front/ back and then you counter balance with passengers. Load control always has to inform the involved crews (pilots, cabin, loading) what to do (and expect) and stick to that at least until after take off, often for landing too.

      • Craig says:

        Isn’t that what I said? Hopefully I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been doing it for 33 years!

  • Tony says:

    I was on a lightly loaded Wizz Air flight to Warsaw early this year and the cabin crew were actively encouraging passengers to move into the empty rows before take off. Although I’m sure it was mostly within each cabin zone so I guess this wouldn’t create the same issue.

  • Nerock says:

    I’m not an expert but reading this makes me think, if this is so important how come a multi million dollar aircraft doesn’t have sensors to indicate this to the pilots in the cabin?

    • Craig says:

      IIRC then larger aircraft do have sensors built into the landing gear, 747,777,787 and the wide body Airbus. The cost of the system and the weight it creates makes it less attractive on smaller passenger aircraft.

  • mradey says:

    Email is not a suitable protocol for critical messages.

    • memesweeper says:

      … unless your procedures including a human replying with an acknowledgment, and the acknowledgement checked.

  • Simon says:

    I know this is true but I am still amazed it makes so much difference given the weight of the aircraft, cargo, fuel etc.

    • Phillip says:

      I guess if the pilot is aware of that to begin with, they would just reassess their inputs etc and it wouldn’t be a problem. They planned their take off process based on certain assumptions. The same with incorrect cargo calculations which have been known to cause similar (if not worse) issues.

    • HAM76 says:

      Because it‘s not about weight but balance.

  • Jon says:

    I think it’s good that you’ve posted this article, Rhys. Appreciate your point that it’s not really HfP subject area, but anything that helps passengers understand the whys and wherefores of safety is no bad thing, I think… Especially as so few seem to bother watching the safety videos these days 😉 Then again, perhaps if the videos explained the reasons behind the rules – but I suppose that would make them too long. And scare people, maybe 😉

    Always amazes me how many people, for example, take off their shoes as soon as they’ve sat down after boarding, or recline their seat during takeoff, or leave bag straps sticking out from under their seats, or stand up immediately after landing while still taxiing, etc etc. I find myself wondering whether people are unaware of the risks to themselves and/or others, or just don’t care. Worth an article, perhaps? “Things you might not know, or might have forgotten, about aircraft safety”… Consider it a public service 😉 You have a huge audience after all (although perhaps mostly frequent flyers who hopefully already know this stuff – or maybe not… 😉 Would people care enough about their safety to bother reading it? 😉

    • Phillip says:

      Don’t get me started on how many people still don’t listen to Covid-related clear and explicit instructions on flights at the moment…

      “You must always wear a mask and please avoid coming to the galley – press the call button”
      3 champagne bottles later, woman gets up without a mask and heads to the front galley wanting another bottle! No attempt to use the call button!
      “After landing don’t get up even to retrieve luggage until we call your seat row number”
      Man gets up before the seatbelt signs are off to retrieve his bags.
      “You can take off your mask to eat and drink but you mustn’t keep your mask off for extended periods of time”
      Man next to me nurses his champagne for 2 hours on a 2.5 hour flight!

      The list is endless…

    • Callum says:

      Given the risks you mentioned are negligible, and we all encounter much bigger ones in day to day life, I’d wager they just don’t care.

      Don’t get me wrong, I hate when people don’t follow rules (when it has an impact on others, anyway), but there can be a lot of hysteria on this topic.

      • Phillip says:

        Mere observations. No different to people getting out of their seats before seatbelt signs are off or trying to board before their group is called pre-Covid. The common denominator is people who don’t stop to think of anyone else, but I wouldn’t consider it hysteria related to this topic alone. And that forms a big part of the world’s greater problems. A little consideration can go a long way!

      • Jon says:

        I suppose the analogy I’d use is travelling by car – on the vast vast vast majority of your journeys, your seatbelt will make no difference whatsoever – until the one time it does, and it saves your life. But we don’t get worked up about the need to wear them.

        I don’t think I’d agree that the risks are negligible – I’d say they’re very unlikely to arise, but if they do then the consequences could be severe (eg your shoes could be the difference between being able to run away from a burning aircraft, through/across debris, and surviving, or… not). But I am inclined to agree with you that people just don’t care. I also agree with Philip, consideration (or lack of) is one of the big problems these days. I wonder how many of the people who stand up almost as soon as the wheels touch the ground stop to think about what would happen to them if the aircraft braked suddenly and they flew forwards into a bulkhead, or worse, to another person they fell onto…

      • cinereus says:

        This. It’s a simple risk-reward calculus.

    • Alex Sm says:

      A new thing that I have noticed in the last couple of years is the explicitly announced warning about NOT wearing a seatbelt while on the ground

  • Cheshire Pete says:

    Reading the headline, I thought this article was going to be about a passenger moving caused the anomaly! There’s obviously a big difference between that and what this went on to detail, which is an operational oversight, which had nothing to do with a passenger asking to move seats!

    • AJA says:

      I thought the same thing although the point is that you are allocated your seat to balance the aircraft. On a related note does any airline operate by allowing you to choose your own seat on boarding? I may have got the wrong impression, but i thought in the early days both Ryan Air and Easyjet started off that way but having never flown either airline maybe they never did. But i could see the danger of allowing passengers to do this. Also does BA still block the last couple of rows on the Neo? I seem to recall an issue with unbalanced planes since the densification of the planes.

      • Scandinavian traveler says:

        Southwest Airlines does not have reserved seating and passengers are free to choose whatever seating is available when they board the aircraft.

        • Doug M says:

          They still do that? I flew them years ago and they had a very strict queuing system, with numbered poles, 1-5, 6-10, etc. I think right up to 60. You then joined the section based on a number on your boarding pass. People seemingly adhered very strictly to joining the correct section of the queue.

      • Nick says:

        Ryanair used to have unassigned seating BUT they also had very high seat factors which meant they knew every row would be taken. If loads were lower than average they solved this by blocking entire rows for trim. Finally crew were trained to ensure a reasonable spread of passengers, in the unlikely event they hadn’t managed it themselves.

    • Peter K says:

      I didn’t read it that way and i thought it a good headline. I suppose we ask read things differently and have different expectations based upon that.

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