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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)

  • Andrew says:

    I’ve been given an operational upgrade to Club Europe before on a quiet flight for this very reason – equally you can’t have everyone sat down the back and no one at the front.

    • VinZ says:

      Same here! I was given an upgrade to Biz once because that cabin was completely empty. I was the only one… it was nice 🙂

  • Blaster491 says:

    Standard accident/incident/observation “swiss cheese”. I’m hugely surprised that the cabin crew did not pick up on the fact the back of the aircraft was literally empty.

    • Nick_C says:

      Perhaps that says something about the quality of the cabin crew on that airline.

      I hope it wouldn’t have happened on BA, but who knows.

      • Koment says:

        That’s a very generalised statement, I have never had an issue with the ‘quality’ of the Wizz Air cabin crew.

        Having said that, both BA Mixed Fleet and Wizz Air cc are in the same boat – underpaid and overworked.

        • Blaster491 says:

          You can be as underpaid and overworked as you like but when it’s your little pink body that will be in the wreckage too a certain level of due diligence is required.

      • Craig Vassie says:

        Unfortunately BA’s reliance on inexperienced “kids” in mixed fleet says it’s more likely to happen than you think. Far too many “legacy” pursers with years and years of experience have been forced out by a hostile management.

  • 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.

    • Chrisasaurus says:

      Well, no – that’s the point of the article, they’ll get the plane in trim by putting more luggage/freight toward the rear, where possible and move people if not.

  • Peter Taysum says:

    I’m such a geek. Knowing that no one was hurt I really enjoyed reading this article; thank you.

    • Chrisasaurus says:

      I read about it the other day but at the time the AAIB wasn’t naming the airline – do we know if that’s typical?I get the Budapest references rather gave the game away here, but that’s not always enough

      • Nick says:

        Yes it’s completely typical, the AAIB by default doesn’t name airlines. It’s to encourage an open and full reporting and learning process/culture, not finding blame.

  • Andrew says:

    This issue is of particular importance at LCY where there is much less margin for error.

    • Nick_C says:

      And yet on BA1, most passengers chose to sit at the front and the rear rows were empty. The last flight I did, 14 pax were in rows 1 to 4, two of us in row 5, and the rest empty.

      • Nick says:

        The collective weight of 14 passengers is much lower than the collective weight of 100 passengers. For an aircraft that is always lightly loaded (32 max of 120 theoretical capacity of an A318) but with a heavy fixed infrastructure (heavy seats) it’s going to be less of an issue. As an aircraft type change is never possible, the flight computer will always know the seating plan. If it ever looked like not trimming it would correct it.

        • Julian says:

          I’m generally far more interested to read this kind of article than yet another promo to apply for a credit card during the latest offer period.

          Although having said that the one for the Amex Preferred Gold card with 6 months to spend the £3,000 and 22,000 points on offer rather than the usual 12,000 was useful, although still looks like I’m going to have to put a few hundred pounds of credit with my energy supplier who take Amex for one off payments but not automated recurrent billing (which is direct debit only). In normal times I always spend at least £1,000 per month on cards so tells you how much lifestyles are changed at the moment when I’m only spending £300 to £400 per month.

          Re aircraft load distribution the vast majority of neurotypical family group types don’t self reseat and only the odd single passenger getting on last and faced with sitting in a full row up with others may do so. So the only real actual danger is as per here where the airline wrongly distributes the passenger load leaving many rows at the back empty.

          But the cabin crew absolutely should have spotted this lack of passengers in the rear (if they had been trained properly to monitor passenger load distribution before takeoff) so its perhaps no surprise that the airline to which this happened was Wizz Air……………….

          • Rob says:

            I recommend you read Simple Flying then Julian 🙂

          • Julian says:

            I learned indirectly via visiting there just now (where there was a mention of Air Belgium that I didn’t even know existed) that the magnificently named SABENA (Such A Bloody Experience Never Again as one of my father’s Dutch sugar industry colleagues and I believe many other people referred to it as) has gone and been replaced by the much duller Brussels Airlines as well as there also now being an Air Belgium.

            Anyway re your articles Rob many of them about aircraft cabins and service and destinations served and aircraft types involved are fascinating but one or two of those promoting the credit card or airline loyalty schemes do tend to come in to the Retread Category, although I understand why this happens from a commercial point of view……….

          • RussellH says:

            Re pax not re-seating themselves…

            I am an infrequent flyer and would agree that there has not been much, if any evidence of this on BA or LH.

            But I vidly remember a Monarch flight from Paphos to MAN when, as soon as the fasten Seat belt sign went off, half the cabin seemed to erupt from their seats and move to somewhere else. And the cabin crew seemed to be expecting this too. This on an old widebody plane, 767 perhaps?

        • Bagginsurrey says:

          As a child, when I first flew, I was terrified to even recline my seat or use the loo in case the plane tipped. I mentioned this to an ex-airline work colleague who’s husband was a ‘Red Cap’ (dispatcher) and it was then she told me how passenger loading did make a difference. So glad I didn’t have a pee on the Dan Dare Comet. Her husband regularly had to go on overseas trips with Heads of Government and Royalty as he was the only one who could still work out loadings with a pencil and paper.

          • Peter K says:

            Good old first principles. I’ve been to places where I’ve had to cobble up basic equipment that was missing from what else is available because I learned what they really were, not just how to use them.
            Likewise a crucial bit of basic knowledge at the right time is vital as compared to leaving it to automation (as shown by the 737 Max fiasco I suppose).

    • Alex W says:

      @Peter K the problem with the 737 MAX was the “basic knowledge” needed without the automated MCAS required the pilots to have simulator training which would have cost Boeing millions. They covered up the issue and it ended up costing them billions!

  • Doc says:

    Glad nobody was injured. This kind of thing has happened before such as the Air Midwest 5481 crash where abnormal loading and weight calculation (along with an maintenance issue) caused the aircraft to crash.
    I remember seeing a video a while ago where there was only a single passenger onboard an US commuter flight and it showed the loaders putting extra sandbags to balance the weight. Fascinating subject that most passengers are probably not even aware of.

    • Julian says:

      Once travelled on an Iberia flight (narrow body 150 seater effort but can’t remember the plane now) from LHR to BCN (en route to PMI) on a late Easter Saturday afternoon in the early 1990s where there were only four passengers on board. Of course it probably didn’t matter where the four passengers sat in those circumstances and only where the commercial freight was located.

      No wonder Iberia lost so much money back in those pre IAG merger days…………………….

  • LEWIS says:

    This incident seems to have nothing to do with passengers not being in their allocated seats. In fact if passengers had move from their allocated seat the this event may never have happened.

    • Julian says:

      Yes in this case the incident is clealry down to passengers being allocated to the wrong seats for the replacement aircraft type by the airline. As the newly created empty seats were all in the back of the plane unsurprisingly nobody nobody reallocated themselves there of their own accord.

      But the other side of the coin would be a large stag or hen party group travelling on an airline with unallocated seating and perhaps originally checking in separately as a number of groups all reallocating themselves to sit together in some previously expected to be empty area of the plane.

      Either way cabin crew should be monitoring this stuff but in this case they clearly failed to do so……….

  • cinereus says:

    That’s insane. Any cabin crew of pilot should be well aware of COG considerations.

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