Letters to the Editor

Subject: Union Protection and Airline Safety
From: Capt. Rich Harwood rharwood@mindspring.com

I agree that it would be difficult to quantify some sort of direct correlation to poor pilot performance and low non-union wages.

(see Pilot Safety vs. a Predictable Distraction and Inherent Biases & Unions)

Overall, I think the past record shows that airline travel would be much more dangerous today if there were no unions.

In a recent example of a low-cost carrier, that was eventually shut down for a period of time due to safety violations, it was obvious that pilots were making poor decisions as to the acceptability of aircraft, based on pay.

Most if not all union airlines have a clause, that if a flight cancels due to mechanical failure, the pilots still get paid for that flight just as if it had gone. In the low cost carrier, the pilots had no such protection, and thus had tremendous pressure on them to accept marginal aircraft.

One such incident involved taking an aircraft with the air-ground sensing switch inoperative. Almost any pilot knows that a seemingly simple system like that has far reaching implications on many aircraft systems and thus is unacceptable for passenger operations. In this case the pilots elected to take the aircraft and use the circuit breaker to simulate the air-ground sensing. When the breaker was reset on short final to prepare for landing, the ground spoilers deployed resulting in a short landing and tremendous airframe damage. The layout of the field allowed the aircraft to come up onto the runway and prevent loss of life but we all know airports when such a landing would result in multiple deaths.

I think that you cannot find a direct correlation between pilot pay and safety performance, but I know for a fact that union protection is vital for the best safety margin.

This is even more important now that all carriers are trying to cut corners on maintenance, aircraft loading, and weight and balance calculations. Only when a pilot knows he/she has someone standing behind them, can they make decisions based on what is best for their customers and not over fear for their job.




I certainly agree that no pilot should ever suffer a financial penalty for making any safety-related decision. To the extent that any union contract prevents such a penalty, it is a positive and favorable to airline safety. However, union contracts should not be perceived as the only possible source of such protection.

The FAA, through its rule-making process, could install a new regulation (FAR) that requires all employers to ensure no pilot suffers any financial penalty as a direct result of any safety-related decision. If pilot unions were to commit the same amount of resources (read -- campaign donations) to the achievement of such a regulation, as they do to ensuring labor laws support their ability to force employers to capitulate to pay, work-rule and jurisdictional demands, then such a rule would be forthcoming in short order.

Captain Harwood's reference is to the Valujet DC-9-32 accident at Nashville, Tenn. on January 7, 1996. He seems to imply the pilots flew that plane knowing that the air/ground sensing switch was inoperative. That was not the conclusion of the NTSB:

"During his preflight inspection of the DC-9, the captain of flight 558 observed that the nosegear shock strut appeared to have normal extension. However, according to Douglas representatives, visual inspection for proper nosegear strut extension by flight crew members cannot be relied upon to detect underserviced/underinflated nosegear struts…"

The Board went on to conclude that more frequent and detailed maintenance inspections of that strut were the only way to ensure adequate inflation and thus, proper air/ground sensing-switch operation.

Capt. Harwood's implication is core to his assertion that the pilot made a bad decision (to fly a plane he knew to be unairworthy because he didn't want to lose any pay). If the captain had no reason to suspect the strut was underinflated, then he could hardly be accused of making a bad decision motivated by economic incentive.

Further, the NTSB discussed ValuJet's pay and bonus schedule, to determine if it was a factor in the crew's decision to continue the flight to its destination, rather than to return to Atlanta, after the irregularity occurred. The Board did not find any such negative incentive. Indeed, it concluded its discussion on that issue with the statement:

"The Safety Board recognizes and supports ValuJet's efforts to provide an improved pay and bonus schedule for it employees."

However, in the Allegheny Airlines flight 485 crash at New Haven, Conn. on June 1, 1971, the Board did find a negative incentive in the bonus pay provisions of the union contract, as it tried to understand why the captain intentionally violated the minimum descent altitude during a non-precision approach, killing himself and 28 trusting passengers in the process. That union contract was negotiated by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and provided for extra pay hours for a pilot if he could reduce the actual flight time from the published schedule flight time. Thus, the captain had a perverse economic incentive to try and bust the legal and safe minimums on a bad-weather approach, because he wouldn't get the extra pay if he made a missed approach and went into a holding pattern, or to an alternate airport.

In its recommendations to avoid such future accidents, the Board:

"…also recommends to the Air Transport Association of America and to the pilot labor organizations that: they review existing wage agreements [for] any clauses which provide any form of monetary reward to the pilot for a faster than scheduled flight operation to assure that they do not derogate safety."

The Board also noted that ALPA contracts with other airlines contained similar bonus pay provisions, which it considered to be a negative incentive that could work as a derogation to safety.

Finally, the Board sent a letter to ALPA and APA (Allied Pilots Association - which represented the pilots at American Airlines), requesting them to establish peer group monitoring and disciplining programs, to intercept the kinds of pilots that display such unprofessional and dangerous behavior (as did the deceased captain in this accident), before they killed another plane full of trusting passengers. Over 5 years later, in another accident report, the Board noted that neither of those two pilots' unions ever responded to its request.

I wonder if this is the kind of "…past record [which] shows that airline travel would be much more dangerous today if there were no unions," that Capt. Harwood had in mind?

[All emphasis in this reply, is that of the editor]

October, 1998

Robert J. Boser    

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