Airbus redesigned a key part of the A350 jet cockpit after spilled drinks caused two midair engine shutdowns

Airbus A350 cockpit
After spilled drinks caused a pair of midair engine shutdowns, Airbus has redesigned a crucial cockpit system in its flagship A350 wide-body jet.

 

After spilled drinks caused a pair of midair engine shutdowns, Airbus has redesigned a crucial cockpit system in its flagship A350 wide-body jet: It has made the center control panel, which sits below a console that pilots often use as a makeshift table, liquid-resistant. 

The redesign came after two incidents in which an engine unexpectedly shut down in the middle of a flight, after drinks were spilled onto that control panel.

The cupholders in the Airbus A350 are smaller than those found in other planes, and pilots have tended to use the center console as a makeshift table for their drinks. And as anyone who's nursed a hot beverage while flying must know, putting a cup on a flat surface in midair is a good way to prompt a spill.  

An Airbus spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider that a new, liquid-resistant panel was certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency in July, and that it was being introduced to customers now. World of Aviation first reported the redesign. New planes will be delivered with the new panel in place, while planes currently in service can have the panel installed during routine maintenance. Airbus has introduced a removable, spill-proof cover for the center console in the interim. 

The Airbus spokesperson did not say why the company focused on mitigating the effects of a spill rather than reducing the odds of one — with, say, bigger cupholders. But in the world of aviation, when what may seem an easy change can be a major undertaking. First, there's not exactly a lot of space to work with. Just about every square inch of a cockpit is already occupied by something more important than a cupholder. Second, every single thing in a plane must be approved by regulators, and it's entirely possible a simple replacement cover for a panel is easier to get certified than new cupholders would be. 

One of the shutdowns was on a Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit to Seoul, South Korea, on January 21. The plane was above northern Canada when the engine turned off. The flight diverted to Fairbanks, Alaska and was eventually canceled, according to data from FlightRadar24.

According to reports at the time, someone in the cockpit spilled a drink about 15 minutes before the engine shut itself down. The liquid ended up on the center pedestal between the two pilots, near a panel which is used to start and control engine functions.

After the right-hand engine shut down, pilots tried, unsuccessfully, to restart it. That was when they decided to divert to Alaska.

Aviation publication FlightGlobal reported that an analysis of the flight-data recorder, or black box, showed "the electronic engine control had commanded closure of a high-pressure shut-off valve after inconsistent output from the integrated control panel."

The other incident occurred on November 9, 2019, about an hour after a cup of tea spilled on the same pedestal of an A350-900. The operating airline was not identified, but appears to have been Asiana, a South Korean airline. Similarly to the Delta mishap, the right-side engine shutdown and the crew could not restart it. The flight data recorder showed a similar high-pressure shut off valve closure.

It is likely that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency will issue an airworthiness directive mandating A350 operators to install the new panel. (The agency did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment.)

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