Ask the pilot

As hundreds of planes are grounded, the FAA faces an identity crisis. Plus: What does a rash of airline bankruptcies mean for the future?

By Patrick Smith

Published April 11, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

It has been a tough few weeks for the airline biz: aircraft groundings, maintenance scandals and the sudden shutdown of at least four carriers.

It all began in March with the news that Southwest Airlines had neglected to perform required fatigue inspections on its fleet of Boeing 737s. The carrier issued a public apology, and faces a record $10.2 million fine. (A more detailed discussion of the affair appeared in this column.)

Barely two weeks later, following a maintenance audit by Federal Aviation Administration and airline officials, American and Delta removed dozens of McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series aircraft from service in order to perform wire bundle modifications in the planes' auxiliary hydraulic systems. The grounding resulted in hundreds of canceled flights.

This was followed by the two-day grounding of United Airlines' Boeing 777 fleet. While reviewing its maintenance records, the airline discovered it had performed incomplete functional tests of the 777s' cargo compartment fire suppression systems. The planes were withdrawn from use until the proper checks could be carried out, stranding thousands of passengers at overseas airports.

And now, this week, American Airlines announced further cancellations as MD-80s were again pulled from service for wiring checks. Between Wednesday and Thursday, roughly 2,000 flights were affected -- a third of the carrier's daily schedule -- inconveniencing countless travelers at American's hubs in Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, New York and elsewhere.

As all of this was unfolding, the FAA came under growing scrutiny. The agency soon found itself on the hot seat during hearings of the Congressional Transportation Committee. Why hadn't the problems been detected earlier, and what, exactly, are FAA inspectors out there inspecting? The public needs to know if the FAA can be trusted, and wonders if greater safety lapses are yet to be discovered.

The FAA is dealing with an image problem, if not an outright identity crisis, born from its conflicting role as both a promoter and a regulator of civil aviation. Critics say the agency is slow to act and much too cozy with the industry it oversees -- a classic fox-guarding-the-henhouse scenario that potentially jeopardizes lives.

Such accusations are not entirely without merit. The agency is notorious for dragging its feet on certain issues (the problem of crew fatigue, for one), and spends far too much time enforcing regulatory minutiae when it ought to be sinking its teeth into meatier concerns. When it comes to enacting new rules, the FAA's cost-benefit analyses sometimes seem to give airlines the upper hand.

But air safety is not banking, and despite the appearance of a blatant conflict of interest, the unique dynamics of commercial aviation require close cooperation between the airlines and their overseers. If you ask me -- and I say this as a pilot, not as an industry lackey or bureaucrat -- the system could function no other way. A confrontational relationship would be certain to increase, not decrease, the number of lapses, violations and scandals, while slowing research and development.

There's a media element in play here as well. Planes are grounded, and it's big news. What the public fails to hear about are the thousands of mandates and airworthiness directives put in place by the FAA over the years. Airlines spend billions to comply with rules changes -- the vast majority of which never make the papers.

The system, as it stands, is remarkably safe. Although airlines have been through fiscal hell and back over the past several years, and despite their status as the most consistently dogged pariahs of the postindustrial American economy, they and their regulators have managed to maintain an astonishingly reliable transportation system. Here we are amid the safest-ever stretch since the dawn of the jet age. The last large-scale accident involving a major U.S. carrier was that of an American Airlines A300 in November 2001. That was approximately 43 million flights ago.

It's tempting to misinterpret these recent events as sign of a major systemic breakdown, or a disaster narrowly averted. Indeed, for an airline to remove hundreds of jets from service is extremely costly, and would seem to imply a state of imminent danger. But these aircraft were not in an unsafe condition, and nobody's lives had been put at risk. Taking the planes out of service was an entirely preventive measure -- albeit a drastic one, in part driven by the FAA's eagerness to save face. Together, these incidents are less a harbinger of disaster than a wake-up call that should help us avoid one. The groundings, the congressional hearings, the apologies from Southwest and American ... for the most part these are productive and proactive. If, along the way, the FAA needs a kick in the pants, let them have it. Stepping up our guard will only make us safer.

Meanwhile, the FAA's job should be getting easier now that the pool of airlines is rapidly shrinking. Rising fuel costs and a slowing economy have brought on the demise of four carriers in the past month alone.

First to go was Honolulu-based Aloha Airlines. For better or worse, Aloha will best be remembered for the remarkable emergency landing of Flight 243 in 1988 -- the Boeing 737 whose top ripped off during flight. But more than a one-crash wonder, Aloha was a mainstay of Hawaiian aviation for more than 60 years. Yes, "aloha" means hello ... and also goodbye.

One reason for Aloha's failing was intense competition from a low-cost upstart called Go! An arm of the always-controversial Mesa Air Group, Go! began interisland flying in 2006 and quickly became the target of at least two lawsuits and a predatory pricing investigation. Many Hawaii residents, and much of the state's old-guard aviation community, bitterly oppose Go!'s presence.

Next to fall was Indianapolis-based ATA. Most folks are familiar with ATA's low-fare leisure flights and holiday charters, but the airline's bread and butter was military contract work, carrying troops and equipment to all corners of the world since the early 1970s. It was the canceling of a military contract that led to the company's shutting down. A partnership with Southwest, established in 2005, was not enough to sustain it.

"ATA" once stood for American Trans Air. Eventually, coinciding with a foray into scheduled passenger flights, it became ATA Airlines, whatever that was supposed to mean.

Speaking of annoying names, casualty No. 3 was the short-lived Skybus, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. It had a dumb and self-defeating identity, but gave it a good shot with its cheapo fares.

And in Hong Kong, upstart Oasis Hong Kong announced its liquidation on Wednesday. The 2-year-old company operated long-haul, low-fare services using five Boeing 747s.

Which will be next to fall? Rumors on the fates of Frontier, Virgin America and even United continue to swirl. But we shouldn't be too anxious in reading the tea leaves. The majors especially have money in the bank and, by virtue of their size, the ability to weather an economic downturn by temporarily parking or leasing out aircraft.

Nevertheless, a trip through the airline cemetery is a sobering one, reminding us that no airline, big or small, is immune to downfall. The list of post-deregulation knockouts includes Pan Am, Braniff, Eastern, Air Florida, TWA. I could list a dozen more off the top of my head. Pan Am and TWA need no introduction; Braniff once flew to five continents, and Eastern was, for a time during the 1970s, the largest airline in the free world. Gone, all of them.

ATA and Aloha were both criticized for ceasing operations with little or no notice to their customers and employees. Passengers were left stranded; employees woke up without jobs.

I can empathize. I have my own firsthand experience of a sudden airline shutdown. It happened in 1994. The company was called Northeast Express. We flew under the "Airlink" banner, as a regional affiliate of Northwest, with a network stretching from Prince Edward Island, Canada, to West Virginia. I'd been employed there about four years.

By spring, Northwest had given word that it would not renew our contract, thanks mostly to unreliable service and a lack of suitable aircraft. The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, and a round of paychecks promptly bounced. The writing was on the wall, you could say, but we'd been assured of "a plan," including possible partnership with a different major, that would keep us in business. So the final day was unexpected and unforgettable. The morning began like any other. We were flying a full schedule and our hub at Boston's Logan Airport was busy as always. Then, at around 1 p.m., word came that operations would cease immediately. There was chaos in the terminal and out on the tarmac. I remember state police cruisers driving up with their sirens on, and the sight of workers -- those who didn't instantly walk off the job -- throwing luggage from the backs of airplanes into heaps on the ground. By late afternoon all aircraft had been ferried -- some with passengers' bags still aboard -- to the company's maintenance hangars in Manchester, N.H.

I never did recoup about $3,000 that was owed to me, including that bounced check.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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