Ask the pilot

If an airline declares bankruptcy and its mechanics go on strike, is it safe to fly?

Published October 28, 2005 9:30AM (EDT)

That clearly audible thud heard yesterday afternoon throughout the offices of Salon was the sound of my editor's coffee mug slamming against his desk when he realized I'd written yet another article about JetBlue flight 292. For those of you lucky enough to have forgotten, that was the injured Airbus A320 whose Sept. 21 landing at Los Angeles International Airport became the season's most popular reality show -- and the subsequent topic of two (make that three) installments of this column. Having successfully begged the boss's pardon, I'll ask those of you aiming your cursors toward the BACK button to bear with me as well:

The media sell-by date for airplane accidents, especially minor scrapes in which not so much as a nose bleeds or ankle gets twisted, is blessedly brief, and I'm vulnerable to attack for perpetuating what I went out of my way to declare was, from the very start, a nonstory. After all, it was I who assailed Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect for giving "an already overblown story a second life," and later sent an ornery letter to Ira Glass, host of the popular public radio eries "This American Life." Earlier this month that show ran a segment describing the JetBlue Airbus and its errant tires as "a plane that might not make it back safely," conducting interviews with people who'd been aboard, including a man who wept as the plane circled. "Having portrayed a relatively minor problem as life-or-death," I wrote to Glass, "was insulting to pilots, passengers, and your audience alike. Such hype preys on people's ignorance and misunderstanding about airplanes, and disrespects the many truly hazardous situations dealt with by aircrews in the past." (If it's not already obvious, I can be irascible, and imagine my discomfort after Mr. Glass was gracious enough to personally reply. He not only apologized but admitted to being a regular reader of this column.)

At hand, however, in the guise of a minor event, has been a multilayered story presenting a curious trove of fodder, from the news networks' crude theatricizing of the landing to myriad technical questions -- none of which were adequately addressed by the major media. In many respects the saga of flight 292 wasn't about airplanes at all, but about us -- the American consumer as gullible viewer and insatiable voyeur. Those buckled in aboard the Airbus, meanwhile, were able to witness their own fates unfolding -- or so they were led to believe -- on live seatback television. As I wrote here on Sept. 30, transfixed passengers assumed they were watching themselves, when in truth they were watching us watch them.

My vetting of the fiasco brought in plenty of mail -- not all of it concordant or thankful. I was dressed down for bumbling the physics of deceleration, for underestimating the hazards of flat tires and for whitewashing the "imminent danger" of airline maintenance outsourcing. Most of this I knew might be coming, but one accusation that really hit me sideways was a charge of "pilot-bashing." This in response to my downplaying of the alleged heroics of JetBlue Capt. Scott Burke. Admittedly I've gone out of my way to sober up the public's notion of exactly what Burke, aka "Captain Cool," had or hadn't done, but I worry that my intent was misinterpreted.

"I can't believe what I'm hearing," says a reader. "Here's a pilot going out of his way to scoff at the professionalism and skills of another!"

Now wait a minute. To set the record straight, I'm a furloughed pilot, obliged to new and harsher duties in my role as online columnist and general curmudgeon-at-large.

Kidding aside, I've vouched for Burke's professionalism and skill, as best we're able to ascertain those things, and I'm happy to do so again. My exasperation pertains only to how those things have been co-opted and embellished by the media. Coming in with a twisted nose wheel simply isn't a revealing enough test of a pilot's mettle. That's not scoffing at the crew, it's to keep from cheapening the idea of heroics. As pointed out in my note to Ira Glass, any number of pilots have, with little or no public attention, battled and survived far more dire emergencies.

How about a total electric failure over the Andes at 3 o'clock in the morning? That's what happened in April 2004 to the pilots of United Airlines flight 854, a 767 flying from Buenos Aires to Miami. Under darkness, with their cockpit instruments dead or dying fast, including all radios and navigational equipment, Capt. Brian Witcher and his crew managed a successful emergency landing in mountain-ringed Bogotá, Colombia.

Or consider the predicament facing American Eagle Capt. Barry Gottshall and first officer Wesley Greene three months earlier. Moments after takeoff from Bangor, Maine, on a snowy afternoon, their Embraer regional jet suffered a freak control system failure resulting in full and irreversible deflection of the plane's rudder. Struggling to maintain directional control, they returned to Bangor under deteriorating weather. (Is there any other kind at BGR?). Visibility had fallen to a mile, and as the 37-seater approached the threshold, Gottshall had to maintain full aileron deflection -- that is, the control wheel turned to the stops and held there -- to keep from yawing into the woods.

Neither of these events garnered headlines on Fox or MSNBC, but the crews were duly honored at a recent Air Line Pilots Association awards banquet. (The American Eagle incident resulted in the forced inspection of more than 800 Embraer jetliners around the world. None was found defective.)

Last but not least, and while not to prolong the agony of our JetBlue hangover, readers should pay a visit to one of the most interesting air travel blogs on the Internet, Joe d'Eon's Fly With Me. D'Eon is a pilot for an undisclosed carrier. His podcast series on airline life is thoughtful, entertaining, and crisply produced. "Fly With Me" was recently showcased by Slate magazine's Andy Bowers. Dare I recommend it be your second stop for air travel insights on the Web?

Earlier this month d'Eon was able to post some remarkable audio of the in-flight conversation between Capt. Burke and JetBlue maintenance technicians during flight 292's melodrama. The tape provides a fascinating glimpse into exactly what the airline and crew knew -- and didn't know -- of their predicament as they attempted to decipher the A320's high-tech diagnostic software. Say the mechanics at one point: "We're confident the nose wheel is straight."

"You were right in saying that there was nothing heroic in the landing, and it was probably nearly routine," d'Eon says of my own reporting on the mishap. "But what this event underscores is the fact that the captain is the last line of defense against all the variations of Murphy's laws conspiring to make a good news day for CNN. He's also (usually) the first person to get the blame when metal gets bent. This is something I'm sure you understand, but the general public doesn't quite grasp this concept. When a pilot does what's expected of him in an irregular event, the public sees it as heroic. It's just easier that way."

Earlier this fall, only days after Northwest Airlines mechanics began striking, one of the carrier's jets blew four tires on landing. This struck me as a too-eerie coincidence and I considered canceling an upcoming trip with the airline. Then I read your column about landing gear snafus and realized the incident probably wasn't the smoking gun I assumed it was. No sooner had I calmed down when I stumbled across this scary-sounding exposé. So, I give up. How serious are the effects of labor troubles at an airline -- and a bankrupt airline at that?

At heart, this is two questions -- both of them popular of late in the traveling public's consciousness: 1. Is it safe to patronize an airline that is operating in bankruptcy? 2. Is it safe to patronize an airline that is missing a key component of its operational workforce?

My answer to both questions, including a combination of the two, is yes. It's a conditional yes handicapped by an asterisk or two, but it's still a yes.

If you're ticketed on a bankrupt company and have reservations, as it were, remember for starters that air carrier reorganizations are nothing new. Three of the world's 10 largest airlines, including two of the top three -- Northwest, United and Delta -- are currently operating under court protection. Looking back 20 years or so, each of the following mainline carriers also underwent the trauma of Chapter 11, some more than once: Braniff, Pan Am, Eastern, Continental, TWA, America West, US Airways. Add to that list a score of smaller and midsize contenders, from Midway to Hawaiian to ATA. Not all of these airlines emerged alive from the bankruptcy tunnel, but neither did any of them suffer a serious fatal accident while reorganizing.

The Federal Aviation Administration ratchets up the oversight of any struggling airline, dispatching extra inspectors and subjecting the company to stricter and more frequent safety audits. And it's imperative to bear in mind how much an airline stands to lose should an accident occur. Crashes are damaging enough during times of boon and profit, but exponentially so when the red ink is running; a disaster attributed to negligence or malfeasance could demolish a carrier's reputation and all but seal its fate. The destruction of flight 103 over Scotland in 1988 is widely cited as the beginning of the end for the fabled Pan Am. In 1996, the crash of a ValuJet DC-9 into the Florida Everglades was traced to the illegal transport of oxygen canisters, mistakenly loaded aboard by a subcontracted support company. ValuJet was so vilified that it had little choice but to reinvent itself, at great risk and cost, and begin again as AirTran. For household names like United, Delta or Northwest, such maneuvering would be immensely more challenging and unlikely to succeed. The specter of a crash is not taken lightly, and while the tangible effects of insolvency might manifest themselves through the disappearance of onboard snacks and pillows, you'll have to trust me that all the proper screws, fasteners and inspections are accounted for.

As one might expect, a bankruptcy filing can impart a severe blow to employee morale, but even the most demoralized workforce typically retains enough dignity to not play fast and loose with other people's lives. No employee, unless he or she is a sociopath to begin with, is apt to let labor relations get in the way of safety. At least intentionally; the rotten karma that tends to metastasize in such circumstances makes this one of those things that are impossible to quantify.

In 1994 I was a captain for a Northwest Airlines regional affiliate based in the Northeast. That summer, after weeks of foreboding rumor, we ran out of money and declared bankruptcy. The company bounced my biweekly $1,100 paycheck on my birthday, refused to issue a new one and demanded I come to work anyway. Morale imploded, employees were owed thousands from bad checks, and the outlook for company survival was bleak at best. About a month later Chapter 11 turned into Chapter 7 (liquidation). The police came into the hangar with padlocks, and that was that. There were some of us who finished out our tenure unpaid for several weeks of labor. Through it all, nobody vandalized property, made shoddy repairs, threw tantrums or showed up for work drunk -- though there was every opportunity, if not reason to. (My own worst crime was the playing of loud music, despite repeated dirty looks from passengers, over the plane's cassette-deck public address system, intended for use with the prerecorded safety briefing. When it grew clear that we were headed for the unemployment line, the Clash's "Career Opportunities" was a logical choice.) We had no accidents.

The ongoing situation at Northwest is unique, possibly even unprecedented, in that the Minneapolis-based giant is battling not only a Chapter 11 filing but a work stoppage action as well. A week ago at the Seattle-Tacoma airport I encountered a phalanx of picketing mechanics, some of them wearing sandwich boards asking, "Is It Safe to Fly Northwest Airlines?"

You already know what I think, so let's ask somebody else. "I spent 80 hours aboard company jets last month," says Michael [surname withheld], a senior Northwest first officer. "Do you think I'd have done that if I were worried about the state of our aircraft? It's not an easy time right now, but with increased vigilance we're able to keep our standards adequately high." Whether or not the strikers are fighting for a just cause is not the issue. The issue is the cheap, manipulative and frankly inviting use of fear as a protest and bargaining tool.

"The offenses highlighted in that news story," Michael adds, referring to the article linked to above, "aren't serious transgressions. It looks bad to the layperson, but if you ask me, this only proves that increased scrutiny is working." It's never exactly a good thing for the FAA to discover infractions, but in the context of a bankruptcy and labor disruption, minor violations keep an airline on its toes, even as they risk being spun by the media as dangerous scandals.

Looking at things as rationally and objectively as possible, is it a riskier bet to patronize an ailing, strike-addled carrier than a solvent and stable one? Probably, but on such a level of statistical insignificance that it's not worth canceling your trip or suffering undue angst. Bankruptcy is a cause for concern; an understaffed maintenance department is a cause for concern. To step back a column or two, the same goes for outsourcing, counterfeit parts circulation, and the threat of young, overly aggressive airlines that take liberties with training and operational standards. These all are problems that need to be addressed, because they indeed render a given airline less safe than it would be under more ideal conditions. But -- readers stop me if you've heard this riff before -- less safe does not equate to unsafe.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business