The “One Level Of Safety” Charade: It Isn’t Just Pilots

The “One Level Of Safety” Charade: It Isn’t Just Pilots


With all the clamor over the issue of pilot fatigue, resulting from the Colgan 3407 crash, the FAA and industry were able to divert attention away from the consequences of hiring the cheapest pilots they could find. PBS FRONTLINE produced a wholly accurate depiction of the consequences and conditions of the emerging “lift-contracting” model being pushed by the major airlines. In “Flying Cheap,” PBS FRONTLINE and Miles O’Brien uncover the dark truth: there is not a uniform level of safety in the piloting profession, despite the industry and FAA telling us there is.

The facts don’t lie – that’s what executives are for.

“One level of safety” exists only in the rhetoric, and everyone in the FAA, airline management, and skilled airline employee ranks knows it.

The statistical anomaly in the US airline safety record of the past 15 years, along with declining ticket prices (subsidized by forced pilot concessions), has mollified the traveling public. This has prevented the FAA, Congress, and airline executives from being forced to answer uncomfortable questions about the structure of the United States air transportation system. Colgan Air 3407 and US Airways 1549, less than a month apart, provided a glorious opportunity to finally address the underlying rot within the system, but those sounding the alarm over the future of the piloting profession were applauded, and then promptly dismissed.

Airline executives fought the increased minimum qualifications for part 121 new-entrant first officers, arguing that watching PowerPoint presentations in a classroom is far more valuable than “towing banners above the beach.” Airline executives callously assured the surviving family members of Continental Connection 3407 that “they had fixed the problem” regarding piloting aptitude – when they had not. It was just an empty bromide to quiet the inquiry into their own malfeasance.

The new fatigue mitigation regulations (part 117) did nothing more than codify the wish list of airline management, regarding pilot pushing, and developed a sinister method of chipping away at what safety protections pilots have won over the years of collective bargaining (FRMS). Pilots will now be forced to fly longer days, more hours per week, and longer periods over their “window of circadian low,” by sleeping in crew rooms – the very practice the FAA/NTSB insisted resulted in fatigue for Colgan Air 3407. Pilots will be forced to “certify” they are fatigue-free, but given no protections for declining an assignment.

What did the pilot associations do? Nothing, except write letters, act proper, and “work within the system.” That is exactly what politicians and executives want them to do.

When we insist that airline management does not care about your safety, we are on solid ground. The record of just the past three years is sufficient to sustain that charge.

Executives DO NOT care about your safety. They have lawyers, insurance, and politicians to cover that contingency. They are only interested in extracting concessions to gain control over the operation and looting the substance of the company out of sheer avarice.

This pathology is not limited to the piloting portion of the operation. They have already outsourced safety in the maintenance of the aircraft to the lowest bidders on the globe, in places far away from the watchful eyes of the FAA and third-party investigators.

Once again, PBS FRONTLINE covered this in its feature entitled, “Flying Cheaper.” It shows how United Airlines maintains its aircraft in Communist China, which keeps “inspections“ scripted and sterile. Even contract maintenance within the United States is shown to be engaged in shoddy maintenance practices, falsifying records, and eschewing accountability.

One would think the FAA would crack-down on such practices, but the FAA responds in the same fashion they do when they KNOW airlines are falsifying records, and using unrealistic scheduling practices to skirt FAA regulations – silence. The imperative is not to upset the outsourcing / “lift-contract” model being pushed by the industry. No Congressman wants to answer to voters that may have to pay an additional $40 for a family of four to see teenagers dressed as Disney characters…as they countenance the sweeping of 50 bodies under the rug. If a grown man injects steroids to assist in swatting baseballs over a fence, the wrath of Congress awaits, but willfully endangering the flying public, looting the industry, and stealing from lifelong employees…nothing but crickets.

KIRO news, in Seattle, investigated this facet of aviation and uncovered the same thing PBS FRONTLINE uncovered in its investigation. The response by Congress and the FAA will be the same, as airline executives insist this practice is necessary to remain competitive.

Gone are the days of heavy maintenance being done by FAA licensed mechanics within the United States. American Airlines is the last holdout of US-based maintenance, and with the bankruptcy filing of its corporate shell, it is absolutely certain they will be sending their fleet of airplanes to far-flung jungles, to be maintained by $2/hr labor.

$2 per hour…that’s 1/4 the rate to assemble hamburgers at Jack-in-the-Box. The barista that prepares a $6 “tall-skinny-extra hot-peppermint-mocha-latte-decaf-hold the whip” at the airport Starbucks makes 5 times what the crew maintaining the machine that will fly at 83% of the speed of sound across the ocean makes, so passengers can save $5 .

You know its bad when Robert Crandall, former American Airlines CEO, holds the position that all heavy maintenance should be repatriated in the interest of safety, accountability, and the US employment base.

As KIRO news reported, the commonality between all the offshore maintenance facilities is “cheap, cheap labor.” This maintenance is also done in an environment where the military, government, port authority, and the company work together to keep journalists out and employee opinions confined. Guns and badges enforce the secrecy of El Salvador’s AEROMAN maintenance company. Communist China also keeps prying eyes away and garners 40% of United Airlines‘ maintenance.

Ahhh…the sweet smell of the “free market” at work.

Loose-lipped employees are threatened with termination, in a Third-world nation where $2/hour is a good job. Why are they threatened with termination? Because the American people may not appreciate paying money for passage on airlines where street urchins perform aircraft maintenance, correct or not, and send the airplane back to service, even if the work isn’t completed. After all, there is always another non-English speaking 18 or 19 year old willing to jump at the chance for $20 per day, and plenty of US airline executives making mid-8 figures willing to pay them to keep their mouths shut.

Compliance over experience and judgment…where have we heard that before? Yes, it is also the model of next-generation pilot recruitment and retention.

The paperwork says everything is safe, and the FAA proclaims “one level of safety.” The American public swallows it and is grateful for saving a few dollars. Ignorance is truly bliss.

Both shared safety concerns that they believe could affect the airworthiness of some passenger jets, starting with what they called “rush-rush” mandates which don’t always allow time for proper repairs. They say Aeroman goes strictly by the book to ensure turnaround time. If the repair manual says grinding down, then filling in a scratch should take two hours, that’s the maximum time limit, whether it’s done properly or not.

They tell KIRO Team 7 Investigators, they personally witnessed dangerous fixes go out the door.

Interpreter for Aeroman Employee #1: “A unit can arrive with a dent, a computer for example. Somebody with no experience can just push it through, not knowing that it’s actually faulty equipment. Those are the errors he sees.”

Interpreter for Aeroman Employee #2: “He says yeah. It concerns him to the point. He said he knows that some of these new guys come in and sometimes for the fear of losing their jobs, (shortcuts) could go unreported.

There is documentation to back those concerns up. KIRO Team 7 Investigators uncovered some recent reports of sloppy repair work connected with Aeroman in El Salvador. In 2009, a US Airways jet had to make an emergency landing in Denver after Aeroman employees installed some door components and seals backwards. And we confirmed at least two more recent serious errors, both dealing with mixed up wiring.

You can read the entire KIRO report HERE.

Why is this important to an effort to change the regulatory paradigm for pilot labor? Isn’t this essential to freeing up money to pay pilots? The airline executives insist they are just trying to scrape up the money to attract good pilots.

Interlaced within the endless droning-on about how “safety is their number one priority,” airline executives are implementing their next-generation model for airline operations – outsource everything. Fire career, US-based FAA licensed mechanics and hire 18 year old, non-English speaking “helpers” in far-flung jungles and Communist dictatorships. Issue pink slips to thousands of former US Navy fighter pilots, US Air Force tanker/transport pilots, and highly experienced corporate pilots so as to start up mal-regulated, shoddy, and dangerous “regional airlines” staffed by problematic, poorly trained, under experienced, and overworked 24 year old pilots living in employee parking lots.

“One level of safety,” says the FAA.

“Safety is our number one priority,” say the airline executives.

“What’s the cheapest fare to Orlando?” asks the American people.

Why is the issue of outsourced heavy maintenance important to OPERATION ORANGE? Because it shows where the priorities truly are. It conclusively shows how it won’t take much for the airline executives to look at the impending dearth of new US commercial pilot applications (a problem of their own creation) and lobby Congress to allow foreign pilots and foreign carriers authority to operate point-to-point within the US.

Someone has to stand up to them. Mainline pilots are the last line of defense in management’s quest to kill thousands in the name of cost containment.

It is time for the various pilot associations to realize this is a coordinated attack by airline executives with the cooperation of the FAA, Congress, and foreign aviation corporations. No pilot group is immune, regardless of how things look today. Being “the last to fall” does not serve the membership of any pilot association, and they had better act in unison to repel this wholesale destruction of a vital national resource. Any pilot association with the goal of being “the last to fall“ should ask the American Airlines mechanics if it is worth it. In the end, you still fall.

Please write your elected representatives.

For more information, please visit

The life you save may be your own. The career you save may be your own. The dignity you retain may be your own.

4 Responses to The “One Level Of Safety” Charade: It Isn’t Just Pilots

  1. M says:

    Also noted in a 3-part series on NPR in October, 2009. Similar conclusions, yet nothing appears to have come of it.

    Perhaps the link should be noted as a secondary report with similar/identical conclusions for added impact?

    With luck, we’ll fix this *before* the Tombstone Agency (FAA) gets around to it . . . .

  2. A D says:

    Great work here! Glad you point out the pilot associations lack of response to these issues. They should promote Safety Stand downs to focus on these problems. No strike, heaven forbid, just a day to “reflect”.

    • The pilot associations are AWOL on the issue. They have had 30 years to try to attempt to change the direction, but have not. They are still myopically fixated on the very tactics that have been flanked by the airlines and courts.

      They will go to guns on you if you miss your dues payment, but when it comes time to saving the profession? They are content to provide “hospice care” for a dying profession.

      We deserve better.

      Operation Orange has its finger on an exposed nerve with the various pilot associations, and we don’t plan on letting up unless they show an interest in defending the profession in a wholesale, global manner.

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