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Airbus whistleblower faces prison


Last Updated: 1:08am BST 19/10/2005
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Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reports from Vienna on the storm surrounding an aerospace engineer who raised safety fears on the A380

Joseph Mangan thought he was doing Airbus a favour when he warned of a small but potentially lethal fault in the new A380 super-jumbo, the biggest and most costly passenger jet ever built.

Airbus A380
The A380 is the world's most ambitious aircraft, a joint effort by the French, Germans, British and Spanish.

Instead, Europe's aviation giant rubbished his claims, and now he faces ruin, a morass of legal problems, and - soon - an Austrian prison. Mr Mangan is counting the days at his Vienna flat across the street from Schonbrünn Palace, wondering whether the bailiffs or the police will knock first.

An American aerospace engineer, he has discovered that Austria offers scant protection to whistleblowers. Bankrupt, he is surviving with his wife and three children on gifts of food from fellow Baptists in Vienna. Having failed to stump up a €150,000 (£100,000) fine for breaching a court gag order, he now faces a year behind bars. His troubles began in September 2004 when he contacted the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), claiming that the cabin pressure system in the A380 might not be safe, and that this had been concealed.

Mr Mangan's message was not one that Europe wanted to hear, least of all from a garrulous American who jabbers aviation techo-babble at machine-gun speed. The A380 is the world's most ambitious aircraft, fruit of a joint effort by the French, Germans, British and Spanish. A double-decker giant, it can carry up to 856 passengers at 42,000 feet. "The symbol of what Europe can achieve," said French President Jacques Chirac as the aircraft completed its faultless maiden flight this April.

Airbus has overtaken Boeing, snatching 57pc of the big jet market. It employs 52,000 staff, a fifth in Britain where the wings are built.

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Not everybody is convinced that Airbus is wise to stake so much on a project loaded with new technologies. The A380 uses glass laminates for the plane's fuselage, and questions have arisen as to whether the material might degrade under ultra-violet radiation. Airbus insists not. But any hint of hubris in one area spreads doubts about others, which is why Mr Mangan's saga is so unsettling. His role in the A380 story is no more than a bit part. He was recruited from Kansas in September 2003 to take charge of the aerospace team at TTTech Computertechnik, an Austrian firm supplying Airbus components. He has accused the firm of "intentional non-compliance" with safety rules. Public court documents in Vienna record his allegation that TTTech conspired to "keep certain information secret from the certifying authorities".

Mr Mangan alleged "human lives could be in danger", according to the document - an injunction by a Vienna judge.

TTTech denies the allegations, calling him a disgruntled ex-employee who never fitted into the team, and is now bent on revenge.

Mr Mangan claims a defect in the outflow valve control system could lead to an abrupt loss of cabin pressure, leaving passengers unconscious in as little as 20 seconds. "Normal oxygen masks don't work properly above 33,000 feet. Anybody over forty or over-weight is at a high risk of embolisms," he said.

It would take two and half minutes to bring the aircraft down to the survival altitude of 25,000 feet. Pilots would have little time to act. In the worst case, the plane could crash. "The A380 uses a set of four identical valves that could all go wrong at the same time for the same reason. The typical jet has three different systems to eliminate such a risk," he claimed. Glitches had arisen using the same operating system in February 2004 during a test in Phoenix for the Aermacchi fighter trainer, which he had helped to fix, he claimed. There were 160 cases of emergency loss of cabin pressure in Europe last year. Investigators suspect it played a role in the crash a Helios Boeing 737 flight over Greece in August, killing 121 people.

Airbus dismissed fears about the A380 as baseless. "We have examined this internally and found absolutely no reason to be concerned. The scenario made up by Mr Mangan does not exist," said spokesman David Voskuhl.

But officials at the air safety watchdog EASA said they took the concerns "extremely seriously". An EASA source told the Telegraph that the agency was "able to confirm certain statements by Mr Mangan".

A probe - conducted by the French authorities for EASA - allegedly found that TTTech was "not in conformity" with safety rules and had failed to carry out the proper tests. The key microchip was deemed "not acceptable". EASA instructed Airbus to sort out the problem before the final certification of the A380 next year. It is unclear whether this has now been done. EASA has refused to comment publicly on the details of the dispute, prompting concerns at the European Parliament. Eva Lichtenberger, an Austrian Green MEP, wrote an "urgent" letter to the agency last month demanding "prompt and extensive information on the matter".

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