Posts Tagged ‘FAA’

Media layoffs are eroding the quality of journalism on television

February 10, 2010

As it happens, the PBS newsmagazine “Frontline” chose the one-year anniversary of the Buffalo crash to air its investigation . The report rewinds to the dawning of the deregulation era 30 years ago, then walks us back to the present day, methodically showing how the commuter business grew to 52 percent of all airline travel and how two inexperienced pilots were allowed in that Colgan cockpit.

A former Colgan pilot told “Frontline” he got promoted to captain with 500 hours of flight time, less than a third of what the majors require. Pilots are paid only when the cabin door closes, so they work 16-hour days for perhaps $21,000 a year. There’s no pay for canceled flights, so they take chances with stormy weather.

And when a plane goes down? Incredibly, the major airline that “incentivizes” (not my word) this risky behavior is shielded from liability. And the government? As Mary Schiavo, the FAA’s inspector general during the Clinton/Valujet years, puts it: “The FAA protects airlines.”

“Frontline’s” correspondent is Miles O’Brien, who was one of my favorite CNN anchors until he and the network’s entire science team were fired in 2008. Between the PBS exposure and likely tie-ins with NPR, O’Brien’s reporting will probably be seen and heard by more Americans than saw him on cable. PBS also will put the report online in perpetuity.

Will other networks follow? During a decade when the cost of gathering news plummeted, meaning that networks could do more with less, they have instead done less with less.

Everywhere you look, TV news is saving money. And as Miles O’Brien, Larry Doyle and thousands of other journalists might say in response: At what cost?

via Media layoffs are eroding the quality of journalism on television.

Flying with the Low Bidder

February 9, 2010

(Ed. Note: Please watch your PBS Station tonight at 9pm (8 Central) for the Frontline program “Flying Cheap” )

colgan-air-flight-3407There is an old, apt bromide in flying world: It’s easy to end up with a million dollars in the aviation business…just start with twenty million.

And so it has gone for the airline industry. Since the airline business began nine decades ago, airline companies have collectively not made a dime.

And these days the business is as bad as it ever has been. Facing high fuel costs, restrictive labor contracts, an epic recession and intense pricing pressure, the are grasping for ways to make a buck. We all know this – after all we are getting tenned and twentied to death to fly our bags, get some chintzy headphones, a flimsy pillow and thin blanket or a microscopic snack. How far off can pay toilets be?

I always assumed (perhaps it was denial) that this dysfunctional business model did not mean the safety bar was lowered an iota. But over the past nine months, while working on the PBS Frontline documentary “Flying Cheap”, I have learned that is not the case. Airline flying in the United States may be the safest means of travel ever devised since the invention of the wheel, but it is often not as safe as you maybe led to believe.

Over the past twenty years, the airlines have been doing what is common on so many other industries. They have been outsourcing.

The idea has its roots in deregulation. When Jimmy Carter took the government out of the business of dictating airline routes and rates, it was not too long before the airlines cooked up a new operating model we now call hubs and spokes. The idea: gather up passengers from smaller cities – get them to the larger airports – and stuff them into bigger planes for the longer hauls.

Hamstrung by expensive, restrictive union contracts, the big ”legacy” carriers were not structured to efficiently fly short runs in little airplanes. So they started hiring others to jump the puddles and came up with a scheme called “code sharing”. The legacy airlines paid commuter carriers to fly a certain number of flights to their hubs. The smaller carriers borrowed the name and livery of their clients – who would sell the tickets. These airborne contractors were paid by the completed segment (on time) – regardless of the number of passengers on board.

For passengers it made life much more simple. They could buy one ticket form a familiar brand name airline to take them from Peoria to Paris. Most of us would assume that the smaller airline would operate the same way as its larger customer.

But in fact the big airlines generally go out of their way to stay out of the business of their contractors. They point the finger at the FAA and say it is responsible for the maintaining “one level” of safety in airlines large and small. And that is technically true. But the legacy carriers exceed FAA minimums in almost every regard. They have discovered enhancing safety, maintenance and training programs actually accrues to the bottom line. Flying safer also means flying more efficiently.

But all of this requires some significant up front investments – which would put the smaller carriers at a competitive disadvantage. After all they win those flying routes by being the low bidder.

The major airlines do not send their maintenance and training experts – or their Sully’s -to to their regional contractors – because they prefer keeping a thick firewall between the operations.

Perhaps they are listening to their lawyers too much. As it stands right now, the big airlines are not liable when one of their outsource carriers crashes. If the laws were passed forcing that liability to be shared (“joint several liability” is the legal term of art), things would change about as quickly as Continental/Colgan 3407 went from a routine flight to a horrible disaster.

They say this industry has a “tombstone mentality” – meaning people have to die before things change. Let’s hope the souls we lost a year ago did not die in vain.

Beware the Aviation Demagogues

August 9, 2009

Politicians who know nothing about aviation will soon be flocking to microphones -like moths to a porch light – demanding the FAA shut down the corridor – the virtual tunnel of airspace – that allows small airplanes to fly unfettered through the busy New York City airspace to either savor the sights or simply save a lot of time.

Such is the nature of rhetoric in the days following a spectacular fatal aviation accident. But all the uninformed posturing and demagoguery will overlook two very important points.  1) Systems devised by humans will never be perfect. 2) The system in place to avoid accidents over the Hudson is extremely effective and safe.

Over the years, thousands and thousands of airplanes and helicopters have safely plied their way through the Hudson River Corridor. The system sounds like anarchy, but it is extremely effective. Pilots tune in the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency of 123.05 MHz and start listening carefully – and talking quickly. They announce their location, altitude and direction using easily identifiable landmarks as points of reference.

I typically begin a flight down the corridor with a call like this: “Hudson Traffic, Cirrus 122CV – George Washington Bridge, southbound, Jersey side, one thousand feet, Hudson.” As I fly down, I keep announcing my location as I reach various landmarks.

The system works well – so long as pilots are tuned in and talking. In addition to making radio calls, it is very important pilots keep their head “out of the cockpit” – looking out the windows constantly for traffic. I prefer to fly this route with another pilot in the right seat – two sets of eyes are always better than one.

Shutting down this tunnel to small airplanes would mean pilots would have to call air traffic controllers – “New York Approach” – in order to fly the route. This means these busy people will be forced to manage even more traffic than they already do. Will that be safer? I suspect not.

Let’s not forget current system is already extremely safe – and this accident looks more like an unfortunate, improbable fluke that put two aircraft on a collision course – each unable to see the other. It was a terribly sad, one in a million event that should not invite a reflexive, uninformed regulatory response.

From Sully…to Sullied

May 13, 2009

airlinederegulationactWhen the wreckage of Colgan/Continental Flight 3407 was still smoldering near Buffalo, I blogged that aircraft icing was a likely potential cause of the crash. Turns out, it was just icing on the cake – a cake that has been in the oven for more than thirty years now.

It was October 24, 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act. There were a lot of good reasons then to remove the tie-downs and chalks on the airline industry. The Civil Aeronautics Board had become egregiously bureaucratic and good people with good business plans were stymied by government rules and inaction.

So why not allow the free market to prevail? Wouldn’t competition be a win-win for the American people and the airlines? Thirty years later, it is hard to find a winner – unless your only metric is your ability to fly roundtrip coast-to-coast for $200.

Well I have news for you: your mother was right…you get what you pay for. And tragically, Flight 3407 is what we ordered up back in 1978.

A “Sully” was not at the controls that dark and misty night. If he were, I would not be writing this now because it would have been just another routine arrival on a cold, misty night at BUF. There was no reason this airplane should have crashed – and yet it makes perfect since when you understand how stressed the system has become.

You will hear all kinds of spin and posterior-covering as the NTSB continues its hearings, but here it is in black and white for you: the flight crew was overworked, overtired, underpaid, undertrained and inexperienced. Period.

Some rules were broken. Before the flight Captain Marvin Renslow slept in the crew room at Newark after commuting from Tampa. First Officer Rebecca Shaw flew through the night from her home in Seattle and was up all day before signing in for her final trip. And the crew did not maintain a “sterile cockpit” (meaning no chit-chat) as they descended below 10,000 feet.

Otherwise, they – and the airline – apparently met the minimum FAA requirements.

But the those minimums still allowed:

  • A captain to flunk no less than five flight exams and still hold the “left seat”.
  • Those long commutes between a pilot’s home and base.
  • The airline to pay pilots paltry wages.
  • Only 8 hours of rest time (from wheel-stop to sign-in for next flight).

Reading the transcript of the CVR  is a gut-wrenching experience for me. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who lost a loved one that February night.

The crew was shockingly disengaged and unappreciative of the ice that had built up on their craft – and had minimal experience flying safely though it.

Said Shaw: “I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never deiced. I’ve never seen any— I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’dve freaked out. I’dve have like seen this much ice and thought oh my gosh we were going to crash.”

They also never even made mention of their rapidly degrading airspeed once they deployed the landing gear as they  began the final stage of the approach.

And then, when the airplane started demanding their attention  (in most urgent terms) with an automatic “stick-pusher” designed to remind the pilot to push on the yoke, get the nose down and build up some airspeed or face imminent aerodynamic stall, they overruled it – pulling back hard – sealing the outcome. The 3-D animation is also hard to watch.

But it really wasn’t their fault at all. They were set up to fail by a system that operates on the ratty edge of disaster every day.

This is a systemic problem, people. And it needs to be fixed now. Should the airlines be re-regulated? Well, for one thing, they are already the most regulated “unregulated” industry I can think of. But, no, there has to be a way to keep the free market alive, level the playing field for all competitors, keep barriers to entry low and yet preserve the kind of safety margin that is embodied in the “Sully” generation.

A Failure of Imagination…

April 28, 2009
Screengrab from YouTube user chrisxmakk

Screengrab from YouTube user chrisxmakk

White House Apologizes for Air Force Flyover – City Room Blog – NYTimes.com.

The Police Department confirmed that it had been notified about the event but said it had been barred from alerting the public. “The flight of a VC-25 aircraft and F-16 fighters this morning was authorized by the F.A.A. for the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty with directives to local authorities not to disclose information about it but to direct any inquiries to the F.A.A. Air Traffic Security Coordinator,” the Police Department said in a statement.

So the guys who fly the VC-25’s (what we call 747’s) that are painted white and powder blue and adorned with the Presidential Seal decide they want to make a cool new postcard. No problem with that, right? That shot they got of a VC-25 with Presidential livery flying low over Mt. Rushmore is a real winner. Desktop wallpaper city – a big seller in the souvenir shops!

So, let’s see, what else would make for a good photo opportunity? Of course, the Statue of Liberty! What a great idea! This will go viral!

Well it did…for all the wrong reasons.

Air Force One flying over Mount Rushmore.

It is hard to imagine no one inside our government who knew about this did not immediately understand that the sight of a big transport jet in formation with fighters flying the “Atta-1 Arrival” to the foot of Manhattan might cause a stir.

Of course it did. Office workers were running for the exits. And the only glimmer of good news here is no one got hurt or had a coronary.

Apparently the White House did notify the FAA (can’t avoid that), Mayor Bloomberg’s office and the NYPD. But they were told not to spread the word – that it was a “need to know” operation.

Well listen up all you Secret Squirrel/Jack Bauer/Maxwell Smart types: WE NEED TO KNOW.

Next fall, we will mark the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and I have the sinking feeling the morons in our government are back in 9/10 mode.

The 9/11 commission detailed a litany of bad – or non existent – communication between the FBI and the CIA –  the FAA and the Pentagon – and the President and his own intelligence brainstrust.

The report said the system was “blinking red” and no one had the insight to put it all together.

The 9/11 report also concluded there was a “failure of imagination” in our bureaucracy – that the people charged with keeping us safe could not fathom such an attack.

Well, yesterday they didn’t fathom something very obvious (even without the benefit of hindsight): that the public (for whom they supposedly work) might view this elaborate (and, incidentally, rather pricey) photo op as something sinister and threatening.

They flunked the imagination test yet again. That makes me want to run for the exit.


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