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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Because what's the lives of planeloads of people when weighed against airline profits?
Posted by Jill | 4:58 AM
Lately we've been thinking about the sleaziness of the oil industry and of an insurance industry that pockets huge profits while denying care to sick people. But when it comes to utter disregard for lives when it might interfere with profit, the airline industry is right up there.

This is an industry that WE bailed out after the 9/11 attacks -- before there was even a significant impact on its profits. And yet this industry regards the people it carries and the employees who operate its planes as completely expendable if their existence means a few less dollars in the pockets of its executives.

As I write this, Mr. Brilliant is on a plane crossing the Atlantic. In the next few weeks, I'll be taking a couple of planes myself. One one of my trips, I'm flying to a city two and a half-hours from my planned destination just to avoid the kind of regional carriers that fly ever-longer "short hops" these days. You know, the kind of regional carriers like Colgan Air, who pay their pilots less than an assistant manager at Hollisters. This is the kind of staffing the airlines would see system-wide if they could.

In the aftermath of the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo last year, Congress has passed legislation requiring that pilots have 1500 hours of flight experience in the type of plane they're required to fly. The airline industry is, of course, up in arms:
A Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel dominated by airlines, companies that employ pilots to fly corporate planes and university flight schools wants to reduce by two-thirds a requirement that airline co-pilots have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience — the same experience threshold that captains must meet.

The key issue is money, according to officials familiar with the panel's deliberations. Airlines worry that if the FAA raises the threshold for co-pilots — also called first officers — from the current minimum of 250 hours, airlines will be forced to raise pilot salaries and benefits in order to attract more experienced fliers, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Most airline pilots have far more experience than 1,500 hours. But industry analysts have forecast a pilot shortage if the economy starts to expand, which could create a premium for experience. The salaries of corporate and other private pilots are affected by airline salaries.

University flight schools are similarly concerned that if beginner pilots have to accrue 1,500 hours of flight experience before they can be hired by an airline, they'll skip expensive university training in favor of amassing flight time through per-hour instruction.

Using a provision in the new law that allows the FAA to give prospective pilots some credit for flight school training, the panel proposed allowing airlines to hire university-trained first officers with as little as 500 hours, according to a copy of the panel's recommendations.

The roles of airline captains and first officers have changed over the years. Today, both pilots are expected to be able to fly a plane equally well and to share duties.

The FAA formed the committee this summer just before Congress passed a far-reaching aviation safety bill, including the boost in required flight hours.

The law was prompted by a regional airline crash near Buffalo, N.Y., in February 2009 that killed 50 people. The flight's 24-year-old first officer earned about $16,000 in the year before the accident. She lived at home with her parents near Seattle but flew across the country in order to reach the airline's base in Newark, N.J., in time for the flight.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded the first officer and the flight's captain were probably suffering fatigue at the time of the accident. Neither had slept in a bed the night before — the first officer napped in a cockpit jump seat, the captain in a crew lounge where sleeping was discouraged. Pilots, particularly at regional airlines, often can't afford to live in the communities where they're based. Some share cheap apartments near their base so they can grab sleep before flights. Others simply nap wherever they can.

There are nights when I only get about five hours sleep. I can function one day with that little sleep, but by Day 2 I'm only barely functional, and probably shouldn't be driving. Imagine putting your life in the hands of a pilot making less than the guy driving the ice cream truck in your town (from an actual comment posted here) whose only sleep the last week is forty winks in a cockpit jump seat.

Flying a plane may require less actual effort than it did years ago -- when things go well. But when things don't go well, that's when you want someone who knows what he's doing at the controls, someone who's likely seen similar situations before and knows what to do; someone who's paid a fair salary under decent working conditions, who's awake and alert and experienced. I've been on a plane making an approach where the fog was so low that the lettering on the ground was just visible -- and the landing gear wasn't down yet. I've been on a plane making an approach in 50 mile an hour crosswinds. I've been on a plane caught in a downdraft flying over mountains in Jamaica. I've been on a plane flown by a tough little bantam rooster of a pilot with a Brooklyn accent who after telling us we were being diverted from Newark to Pittsburgh because there wasn't a gate at Newark, suddenly said there was a gate after all. I have no doubt that this guy made it very clear that he didn't have enough fuel to get to Pittsburgh.

Those are the kinds of pilots you want when things go wrong -- guys like Pilot Tough Guy, or Chesley Sullenberger, or the many men and women with thousands of hours of experience in all kinds of conditions who fly planes every day. Weekend Fun at the Flight School is no more a qualification to carry my life in your hands than volunteering at the local hospital qualifies you to do brain surgery.

There was a time when we believed as a nation that pay should reflect the value of the work. In today's race to the bottom for employees and race to the top for executives business climate, the lives of airline passengers and crew aren't worth a plug nickel to the airlines.


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Blogger jurassicpork said...
At first, I thought you were going to link to this story about Corporate Air, a story that just made me see red.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
You just haven't got your priorities straight. "Profits before people"--that's the mantra for these times.

Anonymous Orin T. said...
If the passengers "aren't worth a plug nickel to the airlines" then I guess that plaintiff's attorneys aren't doing a good job.

Blogger casey said...
Hello Jill,

Planes should only be repaired after the engines fall off, the rudder falls off, the skin of the plane falls off, the wings fall off or something equally horrible happens to the plane. Otherwise profits should climb sky-high. Thank you jurassicpork for the link to the Corporate Air story.