Sun, Jul 24, 2016 - Page 15 News List

Coffeemaker problems may be delaying your flight

By Annalyn Kurtz  /  NY TImes News Service

Sometimes it is not stormy weather, security holdups or late cabin crews that delay flights.

Instead, it could be trouble with the galley coffeepots.

If one of the US$7,000 to US$20,000 coffeemakers on the plane is not working, the ground crew needs to make sure there is not an electrical problem that could cause a fire or other hazard. Once that is ruled out, it is a matter of the airlines choosing the lesser of two evils.

“If it fixes the coffeemaker, there’s a delay; but if the flight leaves without a coffeemaker, the passengers will complain there’s no coffee,” said Ronald Carr, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Carr is a former pilot for American Airlines, which is particularly intent on improving its departure time ratings.

In a recent podcast for the airline’s employees, American Airlines chief of operations Robert Isom said that an “inordinate amount of coffeemaker problems” were causing short delays.

Isom came to American as part of its merger in 2013 with US Airways, where he had helped achieve one of the industry’s best on-time records. However, American’s on-time performance — measured in part by the percentage of flights departing within 15 minutes of schedule — is only middling.

At 83 percent in this year’s first three months, American ranked behind one of its main competitors — Delta Air Lines, at 86 percent — but before another, United Airlines, at 81 percent, the US Department of Transportation said.

In trying to improve that score, Isom is tackling not only coffeemakers, but also other seemingly mundane nuisances, like spills on cloth upholstery, that can delay the ground crew’s ability to prepare the cabin for the next flight. (If you start seeing more synthetic-leather seats in economy, their superior ability to be wiped is why.)

“One delay at the beginning of the day can impact hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers and their belongings,” Isom said.

“It’s not only the most customer-friendly; it’s also the most financially sound way to run an airline,” he said.

How can something as seemingly minor as a balky coffeepot delay a flight?

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires coffeemakers to have safety features like circuit breakers and insulation around the wiring to protect from electrical fires. So when a coffee machine starts misbehaving, maintenance crews must inspect it to ensure there is no fire hazard.

In some cases, a broken machine can be quickly replaced by a spare from a maintenance warehouse, but if the coffeemaker cannot be easily repaired or replaced, mechanics will disable it by turning the water off, shutting down its power source and recording it as inoperative in the aircraft’s logbook.

“You can’t just put Mr. Coffee in an airline,” said Jeff Lowe, president of Aviation Fabricators, a certified repair station in Clinton, Missouri. “You have to do all kinds of engineering and analysis and provide test results to the FAA to get approval.”

Other special features include latches and locks to ensure that the coffeepot does not shake loose during turbulence, as well as special electrical circuitry that is compatible with an airplane’s power source. All those elaborately engineered features mean there is more that can go wrong.

Because they operate at higher altitudes, aircraft coffeemakers must also be designed to heat water to a lower boiling point than household machines. Even the water is complicated in an airliner.

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