Flying the frightful skies: Outsourcing and deregulation make their mark

The prevailing notion has been that being killed by a fall in the shower or an object falling from a tall building is more likely than dying in a plane crash.

But these days fear of flying may make sense, as the airline industry eliminates systems that have kept people safe as they hurtle 600 miles an hour 35,000 feet above the earth.

“I fly at least 30 times a year and I know that the percentage of people killed in plane crashes is low,” said Ron Battinelli as he and his wife got in line March 20 at a baggage counter at Chicago’s Midway Airport. “Even so, I’m scared. They’re grounding uninspected planes, there are near misses and God knows what else. I think this all started when Reagan was president, and Bush hasn’t helped it any.”

“For me, flying is an act of faith to begin with,” said his wife, Maria. “I don’t know how one of these things gets off the ground and stays up there but I leave that to the people who do it. Where I don’t want to make an act of faith is with safety. To grab more money these companies are playing with our lives.”

Sara Nelson, a Washington, D.C.-based flight attendant, told the World last year that she felt “awful about having to serve passengers with poor equipment in planes that are filthy and, frankly, dangerous.” Union mechanic Brian McKeever said, “They tried to fire me when I went to stop a fully loaded passenger plane from taking off with a split tire.”

Recent events are validating these concerns.

Southwest Airlines this month grounded dozens of planes because they had missed inspections. Thousands had flown on the potentially unsafe aircraft. United grounded seven Boeing 747s because cockpit instruments were out of whack. A few days later, part of a wing broke off a United jet in flight, cracking a window and forcing an emergency landing. A day after that another United jet was forced down when it developed a decompression problem in flight.

Anyone who thought the FAA is an army of inspectors making nose-to-tail checkups on planes had better think again. Under the Bush administration, the FAA has even stopped making the cursory random checks it used to make.

The FAA merely “mandates” procedures, and trusts the companies to perform the required safety checks and the maintenance work. Food safety regulations, as lax as they are, still require that food inspectors make occasional visits to production facilities. The FAA doesn’t have to show up at all. It merely reviews paperwork submitted by the airlines themselves.

If an airline fudges records or FAA officials are pals with airline executives, the public would never know. Analysts believe that this happened in the case of Southwest Airlines, which may have “voluntarily” grounded its planes, they say, to conceal FAA-airline collusion.

Airlines themselves can’t be sure that paperwork submitted to the FAA reflects inspections or maintenance actually performed. In their drive for maximum profits, they’ve outsourced more than two-thirds of required maintenance and inspection.

Calvin Scovel, inspector general of the Department of Transportation, the FAA’s oversight agency, gave damaging testimony to Congress recently. He said airlines don’t have to identify their outside contractors and work is done by mechanics and shops that are not FAA-certified. “Without some form of verification, FAA cannot be assured that air carriers have provided accurate and complete information,” Scovel warned.

Airlines run planes for 12 to 16 hours a day, more than was the norm in the past, leaving little time for on-ground repairs. Not satisfied with running equipment into the ground, they also exhaust their workforce.

A Go jet flying the 214-mile route between Honolulu and Hawaii’s “Big Island” overshot the Hilo airport by 15 miles. Air traffic controllers were unable to reach the flight crew on the radio for 25 minutes because the pilot and co-pilot had both fallen asleep. They were on forced overtime after only two hours of sleep.

In 2006 a Delta flight killed 49 people when it took off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky. The flight crew had outdated maps and was also on forced overtime with little rest. There was only one air traffic controller instead of the required two and he was on an hour of sleep after his previous shift.

Senior controllers, most of whom were hired after President Reagan fired striking workers in 1981, are rushing to retire because they are angry about recently imposed unilateral pay cuts. Pilot pay has been cut so severely that airlines are having trouble finding people to fill entry level jobs flying commuter aircraft. For the first month, they pay only $12 an hour. The companies have slashed from 1,000 to 500 the number of flight hours required for a starting pilot.

jwojcik @pww.org