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.
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.
We are commited to solutions for promoting airline passenger policies that forward first and foremost the safety of all passengers while not imposing unrealistic economic burdens that adversely affect airline profitability or create exhorbitant ticket price increases.
All American air carriers shall abide by the following standards to ensure the safety, security and comfort of their passengers:
Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.
Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.
Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.
Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.
Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.
Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.
Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price.
The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.
Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.
Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.
Require that these rights apply equally to all airline code-share partners including international partners.