Southwest Airlines’ recent grounding of 79 older 737s for possible skin fatigue after a piece of fuselage broke away from a jet in flight is only the latest example of cracks rupturing the U.S. airline industry today. While researching changes in the industry since 9/11, I interviewed hundreds of airline pilots and reviewed dozens of government documents and accident reports. There’s ample evidence that hidden industry fractures have been widening for years.
Consider the two Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) whistleblowers who testified before Congress in 2008, charging that the FAA knowingly allowed Southwest to operate unsafe aircraft. These inspectors had tried to warn the FAA for years about the need for increased surveillance of Southwest, yet their efforts were repeatedly undermined by management. Several other FAA employees also reported how difficult it was to bring action against airlines because their FAA administrators appeared to be “too close to airline management”. Many feared retribution—that is, if they received any response at all. Some didn’t even bother to bring airline violations forward because they knew management wouldn’t do anything. Inspections of Southwest are hardly the only example.
Still, inspired by previous whistleblowers, another FAA safety inspector came forward, voicing safety concerns in the post-9/11 period. His job? Monitoring operations at Colgan Air, the regional airline whose plane crashed outside Buffalo killing 50 people. This inspector described numerous safety violations at Colgan, dating back to 2005—four years before the fatal crash. Yet, similar to other complaints, any effort to bring enforcement action to Colgan met resistance: “(Colgan Air President) Mike Colgan is a friend of this office,” FAA management explained.
Many cite as the core problem an antiquated aviation regulatory system, which can’t possibly keep pace with today’s complex, globalized industry. And, in some ways, regulators agree. A 2005 internal memo noted with concern how the FAA had retreated from the proper exertion of its authority and relaxed into a level of coziness with airlines, settling “for winks, nods, verbals, and emails” instead of proper business protocol. Yet, with only about 3,600 aviation safety inspectors, the FAA knows its manpower is inadequate to oversee all aspects of flight operations and aircraft maintenance under its jurisdiction. To offset this shortage, the FAA developed partnership programs that encourage airlines to self-report violations. We’ve seen how well that has been working.
The bottom line is regulators have put airlines in control of their own aviation safety, and passengers are strapped in for the ride. Contrary to the FAA’s claim that this is the “golden age of safety, the safest period in the safest mode, in the history of the world,” we are entering a period of unprecedented global risk.
Airlines want us to believe that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 caused the aviation industry downturn, justifying their fees for everything from soft drinks and pillows to ticket changes and checked baggage. Yet informed insiders knew the aviation industry was long overdue for an adjustment. September 11th handed the already struggling airline industry a popularly accepted excuse to restructure. Like a clever magic trick, airlines distracted the public by blaming their industry’s slump on war, recession, terrorism and travel scares such as SARS, while pointing to rising fuel costs, greedy employees, aggressive labor groups and frugal consumers to explain their insolvency. Meanwhile, airline executives quietly pocketed millions of dollars. In the past decade alone, U.S. airlines have made nearly $9.8 billion in profits.
Will we soon see a major airline disaster? Nearly every pilot I interviewed agreed it’s likely. Ninety-six percent reported witnessing increased stress on the pilot workforce due to post-9/11 cost cutting measures; seventy-eight percent reported this as a daily occurrence. Ninety-eight percent of pilots interviewed witnessed mistakes or distractions on the flight deck because of airline cost cutting and work rule changes; sixty percent saw this on a daily or weekly basis.
Examples of the repercussions of this stress and distraction are readily available. Take for instance the United and Delta jets, transporting a combined 300 passengers, which came within 100 feet of colliding in Fort Lauderdale; or the Northwest pilots who, out of radio contact for an hour, overflew their Minneapolis destination by 150 miles with 147 passengers onboard; or the Delta crew who landed their 767 with 194 passengers on a taxiway at their hub airport, Atlanta-Hartsfield International, instead of their assigned runway. These types of mistakes have become more common as pilots’ struggle to cope with the drastic changes that have befallen their profession.
Although airlines have returned to profitability, airline employees continue to give up more than $12 billion a year in wages, benefits, pensions and other concessions. Nearly 200,000 airline employees remain out of work and more than 14,000 pilot jobs at major air carriers have disappeared, many outsourced to questionably safe carriers like Colgan Air. Of the pilots I interviewed, 92 percent would not recommend an airline career to a young person today. Many worried that pilots make their job look too easy and the apparent rarity of aviation deaths has caused passengers to become indifferent, regulators lackadaisical, and airline management complacent about air safety. Seventy percent said it’s likely that a major airline accident will occur in the coming years due to post-9/11 airline cost cutting.
Who should we believe? Is this the “golden age of safety,” as regulators and airlines would like us to think, where airfares are inexpensive, airline executives are well paid, and airline employees—now earning half as much while working more, if they are lucky enough to still have a job—are competent, experienced, rested and safe? The 118 Southwest Airlines passengers on the damaged plane must have thought so, as every one of them boarded a replacement 737 and continued on to their destination. Or is this another post-9/11 managerial magic trick, where seemingly low accident rates and miraculous near-misses distract Americans from the cozy airline-regulator relationships and the real price of their $99 ticket?
Dr. Amy L. Fraher is a retired U.S. Navy commander, naval aviator and former United Airlines pilot. She is also a crisis management expert and a member of The Washington Post’s On Leadership panel, and is currently completing a new book, The Next Crash: How Profit-Seeking Trumps Safety in Commercial Aviation.
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