If you were wondering why airline pilots have been joining the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, picketing airports or taking out ads in the nation’s newspapers, please let us explain.
Competitive pressures and big mergers are doing more harm than attacking pilots’ pay and benefits. (All pilots don’t, in fact, earn in the six figures). The companies may also be putting airline safety on a collision course with their bottom line.
The two most recent airline mergers (Delta with Northwest, and United with Continental) have resulted in problems in devising and implementing new safety-related policies and procedures.
Over decades, each airline has developed its own procedures, approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, for just about every action: from when to extend the flaps for takeoff to how to annotate the flight plan. To an outsider, these differences may seem subtle and relatively insignificant. But to a pilot — for whom habit, consistency, routine, predictability and discipline enable a complex succession of tasks to be accomplished day in and day out with a remarkable degree of reliability — it matters a great deal.
As a result of the mergers, crews are expected to absorb a large volume of procedural and cultural changes all at once, including some the pilots are uncomfortable following. To minimize costs, the airlines do not want to spend any more time in training than is absolutely necessary. In many cases, pilots — who are used to extensive safety training with experienced instructors — are now told they should just “read the memo,” watch the video, and then go out and make the change.
Wendy Morse, the head of the pilot union at United, warned that going through a 54-minute computer-based slideshow is not enough.
“No single change would be difficult but there’s a whole plethora of changes in a row, and one on top of another,” she said. “That is what’s creating the angst. Our guys are not comfortable.”
Because of decades of work, aviation’s safety record has been the envy of many other industries. Now is not the time to compromise that.
Suzanne Gordon is a journalist who writes about health care. Patrick Mendenhall has been a commercial pilot for more than two decades and teaches crew resource management procedures. Their book, “Come Fly With Me: What Health Care Has to Learn from the Aviation Safety Model,” will be published by Cornell University Press next fall. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.