Letters to the Editor
Subject: Union Protection and Airline Safety
From: Capt. Rich Harwood firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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
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]
Robert J. Boser
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