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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How Will The Germanwings Disaster Affect Budget Travel?

April 7, 2015

Budget airlines have a reputation for pushing for the lowest pilot pay and the most arduous working conditions to keep a cap on costs.

Of course consumers want cheap airfare, and sometimes they do get what they pay for. For example, flights that used to have three qualified pilots, a captain, first officer, and flight engineer - went down to two. 
The three-person cockpits are a historical artifact now, but aviation experts have often debated whether the airlines' continuing drive to economize with automation and smaller crews has taken a toll on safety.
With last week's ceaseless media coverage of Germanwings, emerging facts point to a breakdown of screening and detecting an obviously sick pilot, as well as an airline policy that failed to properly manage its employees.
The Germanwings accident also brings up the issue of large airlines shifting more operations to low-cost carriers. 

Shifting Flying To Subscontractors

Here in the US we have United Express, American Eagle, Delta Connection - the regional jets contracted from the legacy carriers.

FlyersRights has written much on the subject of the harsh working conditions and poverty pay for regional pilots. Yet the trend continues unabated, along with the outsourcing of gate agents, ticketing, ramp operations and bag handling.

The Germanwings disaster should spur some basic reforms including: 

1) redesign of cockpit doors and a ban on only one person in the cockpit,

2) mandatory reporting of pilot mental health conditions by flight training schools and other pilots of severe depression, suicidal or homicidal ideation to regulatory authorities as well as to the airline employers,

3) minimum wage and working conditions for pilots,

4) rigorous skill testing of pilots to deal with unusual flight situations, not just hours of flight time,

(It has been reported to Flyersrights.org that some Korean airline pilots cheat on skill tests, and that some foreign pilots have gamed the system by paying to sit in the co-pilot seat to accumulate the requisite hours of flight experience, instead to receiving pay.)

5) development of auto-pilots to prevent not just warning of impending crash,  but auto-correction. 

6) raising no fault compensation from $150,000 to at least $500,000 per person for air disaster deaths and eliminating the ban on punitive damages in cases of  gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing by an airline.

In sum, a combination of automated fail safe systems and procedures, minimum pay, and better pilot skill testing and monitoring is needed to maintain and improve the record outstanding safety record of commercial air travel.

This need not significantly raise air fares.

Paul Hudson, Pres.

At What Cost?

Almost all major international airlines are eager to exploit the cost advantage of employing younger, less experienced - and therefore cheaper - pilots, says Amy Fraher. But at what costs?

FlyersRights spoke with Dr. Amy Fraher, retired Navy Commander, Naval Aviator and former United Airlines pilot on the subject of budget carriers. 

She has over 6,000 mishap-free flight hours in four jet airliners, five military aircraft, and several types of civilian airplanes. 

FlyersRights: You say in a recent column that what concerns you is how a pilot with only 630 flight hours was in the position to kill 149 people, in a state-of-the-art Airbus A320. Could this pilot have been hired by a US low-cost carrier?  

Amy Fraher: Up until a short while ago, yes. But after the Colgan Air crash, public pressure caused the FAA to revisit the minimums and recently changed it to 1500 flight hours for all US carriers.

Interestingly, neither of the Colgan pilots had less than 1500 hours, but they were not good pilots and had very limited operational experience, which prompts the question of quantity versus quality of flight experience. That has yet to be adequately resolved.  

For example, military pilots often have less total flight time than civilian pilots, but the intensity of the operational tempo - flying off ships in bad weather, etc., typically means they have greater breadth of experience.

FR: Some of the airlines in China, Indonesia and many developing countries are facing a severe pilot shortages, and are taking students right out of high school and placing them in Airbus or Boeing high-tech simulators. After about 300 hours they receive their Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL) and for the first time, sit in a real cockpit with paying passengers in the back.  

AF: This is a huge problem. I interviewed several furloughed (laid-off) US pilots flying for asian carriers and they have noted a real discrepency in these pilots' skills.  

They are typically very good at checklists, company policies, etc., but when the smallest thing goes awry, they hve very limited out-of-the-box thining capacity.

FR: Can a MPL co-pilot in a year or two be pushed into the left seat as a Captain? Considering the huge growth of these low-cost carriers?

AF: We've already seen it!

FR: As a veteran pilot yourself, is there any safety device or security protocol that could protect the flying public against a pilot intending to do harm?

AF: The public needs to realize that they aren't going to attract the best and brightest to pilot jobs with the given pay and work conditions.  

They need to recognize you get what you pay for. So the public needs to pay more and we need better airline leadership to improve the airline culture for employees. At the moment, it's a race to the bottom.

FR: There is a consortium in Europe for advancing autonomous ships. And we currently have automatic trains with no drivers. Is it just a matter of time before planes become pilot-less?

AF: Probably at some point. It will start with Fed-Ex and UPS flying drones/UAVs and then they'll make the case for passenger flight based on their success. But what people don't realize is you don't pay an experienced airline pilot to fly the plane - you pay him or her to make safe decisions on your behalf, based on their sound judgement, good intuition and extensive experience.  

That doesn't come cheap because people who have those skills can be successful in lots of environments and they won't work in today's poor industry conditions. 

FR: PBS did a documentary on the growth of regional airlines and the safety concerns with operators like Colgan (which stopped flying in September 2012) that underscored the problems of new pilots at regional airlines, especially their low pay and high debt. Are these stressers dangerous?

AF: The problems are system-wide. Regionals have certain issues, but pilots have been flying more for less and dealing with the stress and distraction of bad managerial conditions since 2001.  

See my book, "The Next Crash" for the full story.

FR: A ripoff we're seeing are legacy airlines charging the same price whether you are on a mainline flight or one of their subcontracted regional jets on the same route. 

Shouldn't passengers pay less when flying on a regional jet, when the operating costs are much lower? (Aka United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle).

AF: Personally, I think customers should be happy to pay more in order to ensure they get safe pilots.  

It's in part this search for the lowest possible fare, and assumption that you'll always get a good product-- that creates this environment.  

If you spend $5 at McDonalds, you know you're not getting the same burger that you get at Ruth Chris.  

Along the same lines... you don't get Capt. Sully for a $99 airfare - you get First Officer Lubitz, of Germanwings. 

FlyersRights asked Patrick Smith, airline pilot, air travel blogger of 'Ask The Pilot', and author of Cockpit Confidential, for his thoughts on the Germanwings disaster:

March 26, 2015

I'M NOT SURE WHAT TO SAY. For pilots, that a colleague may have intentionally crashed his plane and killed everybody on board, is not only horrific but embarrassing, offensive, and potentially stigmatizing to the entire profession.

This would not the first instance of a crewmember committing a murderous act. In 1994, an off-duty FedEx pilot, riding along in a cockpit jumpseat, attacked the crew of a DC-10 freighter with a hammer and spear gun. A PSA jet once crashed after a disgruntled employee shot both pilots. And most notorious of all, a suicidal first officer brought down EgyptAir flight 990 flying from New York to Cairo in 1999.

I worry now that every time a plane goes down and the reason is not immediately obvious, people will begin proposing suicide as a possible cause. Try to remember that even if we include the SilkAir crash or the or unsolved MH370 disaster, acts of crewmember sabotage account for a tiny number of incidents over many decades. 

But it was, for lack of a better description, a freak event, something highly unusual. Hopefully the traveling public realizes that the rest of the tens of thousands of airline pilots out there take their profession, and your safety, as seriously as they possibly can.

People will be asking: how many pilots out there are ready to crack? Is the mental health of pilots being evaluated properly by airlines and government regulators?

In the U.S., airline pilots undergo medical evaluations either yearly or twice-yearly. A medical certificate must be issued by an FAA-certified physician. The checkup is not a psychological checkup per se, but the FAA doctor evaluates a pilot on numerous criteria, up to and including his or her mental health. Pilots can be grounded for any of hundreds of reasons, from heart trouble or diabetes to, yes, depression and anxiety. It can and does happen. 

In addition, new-hire pilots at some airlines must undergo psychological examinations prior to being hired. On top of that, we are subject to random testing for narcotics and alcohol.

As for the stresses of the job, it's no different from any other line of work. People are people, and there's always some element of one's personal life that is brought to work. Sometimes pilots are dealing with one or another problem or stress issue. That does not mean the pilot is unsafe, or is going to crash the plane. Most airlines, meanwhile, are pretty proactive and accommodating when it comes to employees with personal or mental health problems.
I'm uncertain what more we should want or expect. Pilots are human beings, and no profession is bulletproof against every human weakness. All the medical testing in the world isn't going to preclude every potential breakdown or malicious act. 

For passengers, at a certain point there needs to be the presumption that the men and women in control of your airplane are exactly the highly skilled professionals you expect them to be, and not killers in waiting.

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Question Of Trust
March 31, 2015
French Red Cross members pay tribute to the victims in front of a stone slab erected as a monument, near the site of the crash near Le Vernet on March 28. The crash of Germanwings Flight into an Alpine mountain, killing all 150 people aboard, has raised questions about the mental state of the co-pilot.
It's been less than a week since the catastrophic loss of Germanwings Flight 9525 and its 144 passengers and six crew.

Fear of becoming a victim to such coldblooded evil will surely weigh heavily on the minds of the nine million passengers who take to the skies each day. 

What to do about pilot suicide?

There has been 619 killed in nine incidents over 33 years (or 859 killed if you include FedEx and MH370). 

It is telling in how far we have come in aviation safety that pilot suicide is now a significant cause of air disasters, and if MH370 turns out to be one it will actually be the leading cause in this last year. 

Japan Air Lines 24 killed, 9 Feb 1982
Royal Air Moroc 44 killed, 21 Aug 1994
Egyptair 217 killed, 31 Oct 1997
Silkair 107 killed, 19 Dec 1997
LAM Mozambique 33 killed, 29 Nov 2013
Lufthansa (Germanwings) 150 killed, 24 Mar 2015
Air Botswana 1 killed, 11 October 1999
Pacific Southwest Airlines 43 killed, 7 Dec 1987
Fedex attempted pilot suicide, 7 Apr 1994
Malaysia suspected pilot suicide 239 killed, 8 Mar 2014

The big vulnerability appears to be precisely the "cure" put in place to deal with terrorism: the cockpit door locks. It is clear that considering the heightened passenger awareness that now exists, the danger of a terrorist overpowering a crew member and forcing his way into the cockpit is now less likely than the danger of a pilot shutting himself in the cockpit and excluding all others.

Quick Fix By European Regulators

The quick decision by EASA, the EU aviation regulator, to require that at least two crew members remain in the cockpit at all times should reduce the possibility of pilot murder-suicide. 

But it is no magic wand. When the first officer of EgyptAir Flight 990 decided to crash his plane into the Atlantic Ocean in October 1999, killing 217, his captain fought to save those aboard, ultimately failing to over-power the co-pilot, according to an Economist article.

In the short term, rules will change to insure two people remain in the cockpit at all times. In the longer term, more mandatory psych/medical/drug evaluations and background checks of pilots. Technology will also improve to provide live data to the Cloud at all times. Perhaps even cameras in the cockpit. 

It Seems The Humans Are Making The Mistakes - Is This Something We Should Think About?

Driverless cars. Pilotless planes. It's coming. Along with the replacement of many jobs across the globe with artificial intelligence.

And a lot sooner than almost everyone realizes. Most of the public lampooned driverless cars only a couple of years ago, and now there is a race to be the first car manufacturer to have a self-driving car.

Loss Of Trust 

When you fly, you're putting your trust in a company and their two pilots. You're not thinking they're going to do something nefarious.

You are trusting the airline to get you safely from point A to point B, and you have no recourse over their actions. You are not the master of your destiny.

Unlike in a car, where you would have some recourse, or a boat you could try to swim.

Former flight attendant, Judy R. asked FlyersRights, "How did the other pilots and co-pilots feel about Andreas Lubitz? When I worked, there were pilots who spoke openly that they wouldn't fly with certain other guys due to trust issues or personality clashes."
The moral of the story is that we cannot place absolute faith in any person or group of persons. We have found this out about politicians, doctors, lawyers, clergy, and every other group. Pilots are no exception.  

Limit Of Liability At Issue

Montreal Convention on air carrier liability generally limits airline liability to around $150,000 for each passenger who dies in a crash if families do not sue.
Although the pilot's actions may add to Germanwings' liability reports Reuters

Lawyers who have represented families in past airline disasters told Reuters that potential lawsuits could focus on whether Germanwings properly screened the co-pilot before and during his employment, and on whether the airline should have had a policy requiring two or more people in cockpits at all times during a flight.
Last week The Wall St. Journal declared that Lufthansa may face unlimited liability in the Germanwings crash.

"Unless it can be proven the airline engaged in intentional misconduct, a difficult standard only proven in a few instances, Germanwings' liability is capped at $150,000 per passenger under the Montreal Convention of 1999," said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.

He continued, "Some air crash attorneys make such claims to attract clients and charge up to 33% of recovery"

Lessons For Low-Cost Carriers - Progressive Deterioration Of Working Conditions, Pay, And Safety Standards

How many young First Officers are in rather desperate economic situations?

As FlyersRights has pointed out many times, there is evidence of a progressive worsening of pilots' working conditions, which has negative financial and safety consequences. 

In the USA, following an air accident in 2014, the FAA demanded that the maximum working shift be set at nine hours, and for long stretches, the presence of three pilots would be required. 

Similar rules have not yet been taken in Europe, where shifts with only two pilots onboard regularly exceed eight hours, compromising the safety of the passengers and crew. 

There is also the growing problem of low wages. In February 2009, a Colgan Air turboprop crashed in NY. The National Transportation Safety Board, ruled the accident was caused by the pilots' "inability to respond properly to the stall warnings." 

No evidence so far that the Germanwings pilot was suffering from any specific preoccupation with wages. But that anxiety can lead to mistakes in the cockpit that have the same end result as those of a well-paid yet suicidal pilot. And ultimately, the Germanwings accident shows that mental stress is a problem. 

Pilots love to fly, but when the airlines are given incentives to overwork them, or to cut corners on safety in general, bad things are going to happen.

This is a job for intrusive government regulation.

After 9/11, consideration was given to installing equipment that would allow
ground controllers to override and take control of airliners in emergency

All airliners are now equipped with devices to warn pilots of CFIT (controlled flight into terrain, aka crashing into mountains).

Automatic pilot equipment could be programmed to override pilot attempting to crash airliners. Soon thousands of drones will be flying in the skies that could be armed with explosives. Collision avoidance and crash protection technology will increasingly be needed.

Paul Hudson, Pres.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Igniting A Debate
March 24, 2015

Last week, KLM flight attendants put out a fire in an overhead compartment 'caused by a lithium-ion battery in passenger's hand luggage' on flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok.

Mobile phones, laptops and tablet computers are powered by lithium batteries. 

A KLM spokesperson said the incident occurred when the Boeing 777 carrying 321 passengers plus crew was taxiing to its gate at Bangkok International Airport after flying in from Amsterdam.

Laptop fire at LAX
A Lithium battery fire example in a laptop at LAX
In response, last week Boeing and other aircraft makers pressed for a ban on bulk lithium battery shipments on passenger planes, saying the threat of fires is 'an unacceptable risk'.
What happens if the fire starts in the luggage compartment? 

New research shows that lithium batteries can explode and burn even more violently than previously thought, raising questions about their use and shipment on passenger airplanes.
A United Parcel Service cargo plane was carrying 81,000 lithium batteries when it caught fire and crashed after taking off from Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010.
Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was carrying a 440 pounds of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold when it vanished over the South China Sea.
For years FlyersRights challenged the safety of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner over its lithium-ion batteries that is used to run its electrical system, and disputed the FAA's policy of delegating safety and regulatory authority to Boeing.

Cockpit Smoke Reported An Average Of Four Times A Month

From 2000 to 2013, more than 650 incidents of smoke in the cockpit have been reported to the FAA, according to the USA Today.

Over 200 emergency landings a year in the US are typically due to smoke or fire. A December 2014 DOT Advisory Circular (AC) about in-flight fires indirectly reveals the alarming lack of defense against airliner fires.
FlyersRights president Paul Hudson said, "After reading this, I cannot understand how the FAA could possibly permit two-engine planes like the Boeing 787 with fire prone lithium ion batteries to fly up to 5 1/2 hours from the nearest landing zone. This AC points out that fires not discovered and extinguished can become uncontrollable within 6-10 minutes and destroy an aircraft with 20 minutes."

"The biggest danger of the long haul over ocean flights that are up to 5 hours from the nearest landing zone is that their emergency landing defense in case of fire is increasingly impractical," Hudson said.
Also, the newer commercial airliners, Airbus 360 or 380 and Boeing 787 have order of magnitude increases in electrical power over older aircraft.

Allowing passengers to use laptops and other electronic devices and soon to provide plug in recharge outlets at seats adds hundreds of new potential sources of overheating, fire and smoke, which may increase the risks by 10 to several hundred fold.
To date, the FAA has ignored the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations and its own prior safety criteria regarding lithium-ion batteries on airliners.

Airlines:"What fuel surcharges?"

Remember the hornet's nest we public advocates stirred up a few months back when we called for an end to the airlines' phony 'fuel surcharge'?
Even Senator Charles Schumer jumped into the fray, demanding a federal probe into airline prices.
A rule change from the DOT tried to fix that problem by requiring airlines to link fuel costs to the actual price of oil, and be transparent about costs that make up the fares.
FlyersRights hasn't heard anything about fuel upcharges since then, so we checked in with the airlines to see if these phony fees have been eliminated.
Well, the clever airlines have quietly removed "fuel surcharge" from their vocabulary, but replaced it with "airline fees"and "carrier-imposed charges".
By avoiding the word "fuel," and saying these are fees the airlines themselves (and not the government) are tacking on, the airlines skillfully duck the new DOT rules.
The Whole Pricing Equation Is Fraudulent
As the Wall St. Journal's Scott McCartney reported, fuel surcharges were never calculated based on the cost of fuel.
Fuel is an airlines' biggest operating cost. So if that is true, then the assertion the surcharges do not factor in the cost of fuel is deceptive.

Who isn't tired of "carrier imposed charges" by airlines, or mandatory "resort fees" by resorts and junk fees by car rental companies?  

Near-Perfect Obfuscation

The big US carriers have become very profitable enterprises by obfuscating the true cost of what they're selling, and changing the terminology to escape regulations.  

We are seeing a demonstration of what most consumers already know: Once a fee goes on, it never comes off. When these surcharges first popped up, airlines defended them by insisting that fuel is their biggest cost. Now airlines are protecting their surcharges by saying other costs have gone up.
Paul Hudson, FlyersRights president, believes that a complaint filed with DOT is appropriate, "To fine airlines for using a deceptive practice of fuel surcharges to raise fares in violation of DOT guidelines and to evade excise taxes."

He adds, "Only competition is likely to lower air fares. DOT can pressure airlines but this would require, in my opinion, jaw-boning by the DOT Secretary or President Obama."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

TSA Gone Wild
March 17, 2015
Finally, other media outlets have followed FlyersRights' lead and raised the alarm on TSA's new PreCheck data-mining program. 

Stick em up. A wall poster at Eugene Airport in Oregon directs passengers at the TSA screening area to raise up their arms, form an O with their hands and stay that way for 3 seconds. #GoodSheep.
As we wrote about in January, the new, juiced up PreCheck program which applicants pay $85 for, gave private companies access to citizens' social media posts, banking, mail order, supermarket, gas, electricity and telephone data, press reports, location info and more while doing background and fingerprint checks.

It was sold as a program that'll allow people the kind of freedom in an airport that they used to have - the freedom from being hassled, groped and degraded for the privilege of traveling.
The question becomes, how many of our rights are we supposed to give up for the illusion of safety?

In response to the backlash from FlyersRights and other advocates, the TSA last month abruptly withdrew requests for proposals. Among those concerned was Thomas P. Bossert, a security consultant and a former Homeland Security aide to President George W. Bush, who said it represented a "massive expansion and outsourcing of the government's data-mining."
The TSA said it's now revising its request for proposals because of "some difficulties" with the language. The agency intends to proceed with its plan to hire private companies to get more travelers into PreCheck, which now has about 950,000 members.

Where Have All The Air Marshals Gone?

TSA's budget cuts for 2015 mean resources for its Air Marshal program is on the decline and large numbers of U.S. Air Marshals are fleeing the skies, reports the National Review.

Robert MacLean testifying before Congress Sept. 2014 on the treatment of TSA and VA whistleblowers
Robert MacLean, a former air marshal, TSA whistleblower and U.S. Supreme Court victor spoke with FlyersRights on the subject.

MacLean told FlyersRights that the Federal Air Marshal Program (FAM) should never have become an agency in the first place, but remained a detail - ideally made up of federal and local police working as FAM reservists who would be deployed when there is a specific threat.

FR: So, the FAM program is a waste of resources and doesn't provide needed security?

RM: "For the most part. Why isn't every aircraft outfitted with secondary barriers, tasers and restraint systems to control unruly passengers, and install a remote-locked modified shotgun into every flight deck? A short, pistol-gripped, scatter-pellet, pump-action shotgun is EVERY flight deck is much more effective and less hazardous than the .40 cal. handguns too few pilots carry because they have to pay to fly and lodge for the one week of mandatory TSA training. A firearms instructor can teach you how to pump, point, and shoot a scatter-gun in one hour.

Congress needs to pass a law to indemnify hero passengers. Passengers right now are hesitant to act believing there's an air marshal team on board. Google: 'unruly passenger air marshal arrest', why isn't anyone alarmed that an unruly passenger may be a terrorist ruse to ambush an air marshal overly anxious to make his/her first arrest ever after hundreds of missions without incident?"

FR: Are air marshals leaving because they feel the agency is not protecting them as the National Review says, or are they being pushed out to save costs?

RM: "I believe they want to flush out the street-experienced law enforcement officers and hire a bunch of very young yes-men who they can pay significantly less. After three years of being seated and maxed-out in their career field, air marshals can become disgruntled and hard to contain their frustration. An air marshal should have at least five years of street or military experience before planted into a chair only to wait for something that may never happen."

FR: $820 million is spent annually on the Federal Air Marshal program. So you're saying it's better to outfit aircraft with other barriers, i.e. tasers and firearms in the flight deck with NO air marshal onboard?

RM: "Do you really think terrorists are planning to have a gun fight as their attack? The principal threat are hidden bombs. For the "Hollywood doomsday scenario" of a airborne gun-battle: the pilots should have the ability to depressurize the cabin and put to sleep a hyperventilating, tachycardia killer with a gun." 

FR: Then why was the FAM program ever invented, if it is unnecessary to thwart an attack?
RM: "It made many retired Secret Service agents very financially comfortable able to collect collect second federal check -- a nice reward for protecting past presidents. The program also made a lot of contractors wealthy, who in turn would hire retired Secret Service-to-TSA executives: "the revolving door."

FR: Lastly, what do you think of TSA's new data-mining program behind PreCheck? 

RM: "It's very encouraging. You may not like what I say, but I believe passengers must surrender most of their 4th Amendment rights to fly in a missile of mass destruction. I'm terribly paranoid of a bomb being smuggled or 'muled' into a jet. I strongly believe that if you need that extra privacy, then you should not fly in a crowded tube, 40,000 feet up, at 500 miles per hour.

I do believe in some form of FAM program, but done as a reserve one open to local police. Let's say there's a Tokyo/Seattle threat, you can quickly deploy 100 Seattle area police and sheriff's deputies to fly that route."

Recently I spent many hours with congressional staffers to address the misappropriation of tax money that the public thinks it's protecting inflight security -- I opened up many eyes very wide." 
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