The battle between US Airways(LLC) and its pilots over the airline’s safety culture is continuing, this time focused on an incident in which a captain declined to fly a transatlantic flight.
At the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA), the union that represents US Airways pilots, that’s our motto. Our pilots have decades of experience and are committed to making sure that every flight we fly arrives safely at its destination. That’s our responsibility to you, our passengers – and it’s one we take very, very seriously.
Unfortunately, our employer does not share our passion for safety. While US Airways management touts their safety record and certain programs they have in place, they have nonetheless created a culture of intimidation and pressure, where a Captain’s authority takes a backseat to economic considerations and on-time performance. We know that being on-time is important to our passengers, but US Airways is pressuring its labor groups beyond reasonable limits and to the detriment of safety. We cannot support their desires for profits over safety, and we will not put the lives of our passengers at risk to satisfy the on-time performance goals that produce lucrative executive bonuses.
Consider what happened on June 16, 2011:
In an incident in which a captain declined to fly a transatlantic flight.
On June 16, captain Valerie Wells, a 30-year-pilot, was scheduled to fly an Airbus A330, which can carry nearly 300 passengers, on a flight from Philadelphia to Rome. But she declined to fly because of failures of both the auxiliary power unit, a backup source of electrical power, and the “hot battery bus,” a primary source of electrical power.
After the crew and passengers had returned to the gate Wells, in a particularly unusual event, was escorted out of the airport by security officials. Subsequently, a second crew of three pilots also declined to fly; the aircraft was repaired and underwent a rigorous inspection, and a third crew took off about six to seven hours late.
In seeking to publicize the incident, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association took out a full-page advertisement in Friday’s edition of USA Today. The ad proclaimed that US Airways put “revenues first, safety second.
“The intimidation of flight crews is becoming commonplace at US Airways, [which] works to maximize their revenues by pushing their employees to move their airplanes regardless of the potential human cost,” said the text. The ad referred readers to a website, www.USAirlinePilots.org/SafetyFirst.
In a letter to employees on Friday, Robert Isom, chief operating officer, wrote that “USAPA has embarked upon a smear campaign that in reality is all about contract negotiations, not safety.
“I can tell you unequivocally the union’s claims are outlandish, false and a disservice to the 32,000 hard-working employees of US Airways,” Isom wrote. “Safety has been and always will be the top priority at US Airways, as it is at any airline.”
Union spokesman James Ray said that initially, Wells could not possibly fly the airplane because it lacked cockpit electrical power, but a chief pilot nonetheless encouraged her to fly. He said the incident symbolized US Airways’ desire to enhance on-time performance and revenues. “This is not just an isolated incident,” he said. “It has been going on on a daily basis, and is the kind of practice we’ve been fighting for a number of years now.”
Airline spokesman John McDonald said the incident is under investigation. He said “the fact that [Wells] was escorted off the property had nothing to do with safety,” but declined to elaborate. Ray speculated the airline did not want Wells to tell the replacement crew of the problems she had with the aircraft.
In May US Airways (LCC_) pilots are calling for the dismissal of the carrier’s chief safety officer, saying the safety culture has deteriorated markedly since a 2005 merger.
The airline, however, said that Paul Morell, vice president of safety and regulatory compliance, is staying and the charges are baseless, motivated by ongoing contract talks with the U.S. Airline Pilots Association. “It’s unfortunate that our pilots’ union is using safety as a negotiating tactic,” said airline spokeswoman Michelle Mohr. “It’s a real disservice to the 32,000 employees of US Airways.”
Tom Kubik, USAPA safety chairman, insisted that pilots safety concerns are unrelated to negotiations. “What we are saying is that they’re putting so much emphasis on economics and on-time [performance] that they’re losing sight of the safety culture that existed here,” he said.
Kubik acknowledged that the safety level of U.S. commercial aviation is high and that “every airline has a great safety record.” But he said US Airways’ standing results from highly experienced pilots rather than from its faltering safety culture. Historically, he said, the safety level has varied, peaking when the airline vastly intensified its focus following a series of five fatal crashes between 1989 and 1994.
This spring, USAPA spent about $30,000 to hire a consultant to conduct a safety culture survey, which showed that “we have a safety culture in need of intervention,” Kubik said. He acknowledged that while 38% of the carrier’s 4,116 pilots responded, the response rate was only 7% at America West, which merged with US Airways in 2005. The two pilot groups have been sharply divided because of a controversial seniority list devised by an arbitrator: most America West pilots back the seniority list and oppose USAPA.
Here are examples of three specific safety issues that concern USAPA. They are among 17 issues the pilots reported to the airline’s board in seeking Morell’s dismissal.
The airline’s 767s are not equipped with a satellite phone. This is not a problem on the trans-Atlantic, where high frequency radios work, but it is a problem on the Charlotte-Rio flight because, on some nights, the pilots cannot communicate with US Airways dispatchers. Kubik said potential solutions include putting a $50,000 satellite phone on the airplane or switching to the newer A330, which has the phone.
This isn’t the first time USAPA has been moved to make our safety concerns part of the public record. Three years ago this month we alerted the travelling public in USA Today to US Airways management’s last big assault on our Captains’ authority when they were issuing discipline to pilots who disagreed with how much fuel was needed on certain flights.
The very idea that accountants and managers would argue with our most experienced pilots about fuel loads was ludicrous. Many of our pilots have been flying professionally since long before our top managers attended their junior proms, and we weren’t about to place our passengers in jeopardy over a few dollars saved. It’s the difference between book knowledge and real world experience. Our pilots have real world experience – tons of it – and that’s what saves the day when real trouble arises; we all remember the “Miracle on the Hudson”.
Similarly, our recent confrontations with US Airways’ management involve the difference between what looks good on paper and the reality of flying seven miles above the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans at night. Or over the Rocky Mountains. Or over the dark expanses on our way to Anchorage. Often times it’s a question of what is legal versus what is safe. It’s legal to fly with the absolute minimum fuel onboard, but our experienced Captains know it’s not always safe. It’s legal to fly with certain aircraft equipment inoperative, but it’s not always safe.
It was technically legal for US Airways to be the only major carrier to fly over the Amazon Jungle without satellite communications for essential ATC communications and position reporting, but the pilots insisted it wasn’t safe. In fact, for most airlines, if the SatCom is inoperable the flight is cancelled. Finally, after pressure from the union’s Safety Committee and outside entities, US Airways has stated they will install the equipment. Their excuse for not installing it in the first place? Management stated the revenue on the route in question didn’t justify the expense of installing the communications equipment; again a clear money over safety decision.
In countless areas of our professional lives, pilots are faced with the question of legality vs. safety. When we are partnered with solid leadership from a management team that thinks of safety above everything else, these decisions are made without intimidation or fear of reprisal. This certainly is NOT the case with the current management at US Airways, who is implementing a “shut up and fly” mentality we will not stand for.
It’s been said that aviation is not inherently dangerous, but it is by all accounts terribly unforgiving. All USAPA pilots applaud the Captain in this latest debacle for insisting that her aircraft be safe. We applaud her for standing up to a company that pushes for on-time departures, no matter what the cost. We applaud her for averting a potential crisis over the Atlantic. Conversely, we find the Company’s actions deplorable. They suspended her without explanation for three weeks. Rather than thanking her for exercising impeccable judgment and demonstrating superior knowledge of her aircraft’s systems, they called her in for an investigative hearing and then returned her to line flying without any word whatsoever addressing why she was treated like a criminal at the airport that evening. On top of everything, they haven’t even apologized.
What we are detailing here is a systematic problem here at US Airways. While this incident is a big topic this week, our files are filled with other, similar events – evidence of a serious cultural problem that Management is perpetuating.
Last year, after identifying the problem, our Safety Committee asked US Airways to partner with us in a Safety Culture Survey conducted by renowned expert Dr. Terry Von Thaden. (Click here to read Dr. Von Thaden’s resume.) US Airways’ management refused to participate. In fact, US Airways is the only airline in history to refuse participation in one of Dr. Von Thaden’s surveys. They immediately politicized the survey by claiming it was a negotiating tactic on our part. That suggestion is both insulting and false. Pilots have more of a vested interest in safety than any other type of aviation employee; our pilots expect their union to be proactive, and conducting this survey – even as Management hid behind false claims of political intent – was overwhelmingly supported by our members. (This is but a small excerpt from Dr. Von Thaden’s survey of the safety culture at US Airways: “It is not enough to state in corporate documents that you desire to provide a safe environment; then turn your back to work actions which intentionally violate both ethical and safe operations. US Airways has chosen a path that no longer provides pilots the protection of being within the “standard of care” recognized in the industry and could jeopardize their ability to operate safely.”)
Management at US Airways appears to be hiding something. To wit, their legal department has prohibited managers at all levels from even discussing the results of the survey with us, perhaps because Dr. Von Thaden identified several serious deficiencies at our airline. Further, they have threatened our Safety Committee Chairman – an Airbus A330 International Captain with over 33 years at US Airways, over 18 year as a Check Airman, and nearly 18,000 hours of flight experience – with termination should he continue advocating for safe procedures on your behalf.
Experts will tell you: There’s a big difference between a company’s safety record and its safety culture. While US Airways safety record is unquestionably enviable, it is our pilots’ experience and skill that produces it, as was the case in 2009 when two of our pilots landed a completely disabled Airbus on the Hudson River and all onboard survived. But professional pilots are risk managers by design, and we must always strive to prevent disaster rather than react to it. We look for possibilities of danger around every corner of the operation, and our experience tells us when to question an aircraft’s airworthiness or the suitability of a set of weather conditions. We cannot exercise our best judgment when operating in a culture of intimidation and disrespect. This is why we are bringing you the facts about US Airways and how they treat their experienced aviators.
Leading up to our decision to again go public, 60 days ago we called for the immediate termination of the ranking official in charge of airline safety at US Airways – Vice President of Safety and Regulatory Compliance Paul Morell. Mr. Morell has been openly hostile toward us and our efforts on behalf of your safety, and his removal would undoubtedly enhance safety, but true to form our requests have been ignored by Management and the culture of intimidation continues.
Every pilot who flies for US Airways is committed to making sure that safety remains our top priority. While Management shamelessly takes credit for the safety record we provide to them, we are morally bound to bring the cultural problems this airline embodies to light. Because US Airways has steadfastly refused to work cooperatively with us and because the incidents are becoming more frequent and more serious in nature, we have decided our best alternative is to communicate openly and honestly with you, the travelling public. We know you have a choice in air travel. Management apparently thinks you’ll be more impressed with an on-time departure than you’ll be with a truly airworthy aircraft and a flight crew whose valuable experience is fully utilized to ensure your safe arrival.
Shame on US Airways management for putting profits before people.
So, what can you do?
For the flying public:
We urge the flying public to take several actions. First, let us know if you see any practices which cause you concern or events that have occurred that you believe are saftey related. You can do that by clicking here.
Second, contact your elected officials and let them know how you feel about an airline that attempts to intimidate pilots into making questionable decisions. To find and contact your elected officials, simply go to http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml.
Third, contact the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and let them know how you feel about airlines that put profits before safety. You can reach the FAA Aviation Safety Hotline here: http://www.faa.gov/contact/safety_hotline
Fourth, contact the Aviation Consumer Protection Division to express your concerns to them. They can be reached at: http://airconsumer.dot.gov/problems.htm
In the contacts above, here is some suggested wording you may consider:
I have read the safety concerns expressed by the US Airline
Pilots Association regarding the disturbing negative safety
culture at US Airways, and believe that this matter should
be investigated in the interest of the safety of the traveling public.