Guns, Politics, and Freedom
Airline Cost Cuts

Tool NaDangers of airline cost cuts

By F. Paul Valone
Special to The Observer

Posted: Thursday, Sep. 24, 2009


Against a violet sky, rotor clouds churning across the field left no doubt about the number and size of thunderstorms driving them. In all quadrants, lightning struck again and again. Among 60-odd other airliners, we waited on a taxiway, engines shut down, for the huge system to pass.

None of this impressed crews of two regional commercial jets bent on landing into obvious wind shear. As 45 mph winds blew dust clouds near the runway threshold, 300 yards from advancing rain bands, a landing light pierced the murk. Pitching and yawing in turbulence, the pilot slammed the aircraft onto the runway without serious incident.

The second landing was another matter. As the 50-passenger jet touched down, a gust jacked its right wing, bringing the left wingtip within inches of hitting the pavement. When the crew finally regained control, a voice squeaked to the tower, "We got some ... uh ... wind shear."

Behold the era of "low cost carriers," where regionals hire neophytes fresh from flight school and airline management scrounges new corners to cut. Passengers bemoaning baggage fees, knees-in-your-chest seating and being endlessly stranded on taxiways miss the point: Cost-cutting degrades not only service, but safety.

When Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, N.Y., long-overdue attention focused on pilot pay, training, experience and fatigue. The Bombardier DHC8, at night and loaded with ice, slowed for approach when the control column "stick shaker" warned of impending aerodynamic stall. Instead of reducing pitch and adding power, Captain Marvin Renslow yanked the nose up to a never-used 31 degrees, precipitating what graveyard aviation humor calls "stall, spin, crash, burn."

Renslow previously failed five "check rides." First Officer Rebecca Shaw commuted that day from Seattle, suffering a cold, to nap in Colgan's Newark crew lounge before reporting to work.

Predictably, Colgan blamed the dead: "...First Officer Shaw did not reserve adequate time to travel from her home to her base in order to ensure she was properly rested and fit for duty ... Flying fatigued or sick is not an option at Colgan." The airline avoided mentioning Shaw's $16,254 annual salary, which forced her not only to live with her parents in Seattle (forget renting a room in Newark), but to moonlight in a coffee shop.

Unsurprisingly, smaller airlines are most afflicted. I've watched regional jets sail across runway thresholds in high, fast, "unstabilized" approaches, and had a baby-faced "jumpseat" rider proudly announce he had the highest flying time in his new-hire training class ... 350 hours.

But lest you presume major airlines are immune, understand that one maintenance contractor forged citizenship documents to get mechanic certification for illegal aliens. A chilling Department of Transportation tome entitled "Air Carriers' Use of Non-Certificated Repair Facilities," describes major maintenance done by facilities never seen, much less certificated, by the Federal Aviation Administration in such bastions of safety as El Salvador.

Elsewhere, reduced parts inventories mean more aircraft released with inoperative components. As low cost carriers rack up maintenance violations for failing to complete required inspections or, more recently, hiring contractors using unapproved parts, the FAA buries its head firmly in the sand, leading the DOT Inspector General to cite "serious lapses in FAA's oversight."

Airlines exploit union contracts gutted by bankruptcies to keep crews on duty up to the 16-hour maximum made possible by "enhanced" FAA regulations. With rest periods based on scheduled rather than actual flight time, crews often endure 16-hour duty days, with perhaps 8-10 hours of actual flying, followed by an 8-hour "rest" before resuming duty. Given post-flight tasks and hotel transportation, pilots may get 3-4 hours of sleep. Combined with air traffic demands and airspace congestion, the resulting fatigue and task saturation produce potentially fatal errors.

Congress is equally unhelpful. Among provisions of H.R. 915, the pork-laden FAA reauthorization bill introduced by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., "studies" of pilot certification and fatigue might provide relief - in 10 years. Alas, even this inadequacy is mired in Senate bickering over, among other things, collective bargaining for air traffic controllers.

You should worry less about a "Passenger Bill of Rights" than about cost cuts you can't see. In 33 years and 23,000 flying hours, I've watched the world's best airlines adopt operational practices more at home in a banana republic.

Daniel Morgan, Colgan's vice president for flight safety, dismissed concerns about fatigue: "It's not an ideal way to work, but neither is working overnight in the post office." News flash for Morgan: A postal screw-up misroutes your electric bill. If I screw up, you end up in a big, smoking hole in the ground, and they identify you by DNA.

Former community columnist F. Paul Valone of Cornelius is a professional airline pilot;