Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Father's Day Wisdom: Kids, Don't Fly On Private Planes - Ted Reed

By Ted Reed
I've been covering the airline industry since 1989.

On this Father’s Day, I will say something I know my three kids will always remember, because their dad says it all the time: Never fly in a private plane.

I mention this today because on Friday I read about Richard Rockefeller, a respected doctor who died at the controls of his private plane minutes after takeoff in bad weather at Westchester County Airport. “Though several other flights were canceled due to the rain, fog and poor visibility, veteran pilot Rockefeller opted to take off,” according to The New York Daily News.

I think of so many other tragic private airplane crashes, particularly the 1999 crash involving John Kennedy, who was piloting a small plane with his wife and sister-in-law as passengers – and I think of the misjudgments that led to their deaths, and I wonder why anyone would ever take such a risk.

But I know why. U.S. commercial aviation is so remarkably safe that we have come to assume that all flying is safe, no matter who is the operator.  In fact flying is not safe. U.S. commercial aviation only makes it seem that way, due to the extreme efforts taken by those involved – primarily the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines and the airline industry’s labor unions.

It is a complicated, interlocking safety system. Briefly, despite vast financial upheaval during this century, the airlines remain deeply committed to safety. The NTSB has managed to devise a system, based largely on transparency and open debate, that makes every accident a laboratory experiment intended to prevent any similar future accident.

The FAA utilizes a rickety, annoying system to enforce compliance: somehow it works. The labor unions not only devote resources to safety, but also create an environment where people are encouraged to speak up.

Speaking up is in fact a big key to the system. Apparently, some pilots did not speak up in advance of the 2013 runway crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco. Also, in the 1999 Little Rock crash of American Flight 1420, the young first officer did not contradict the veteran chief pilot who insisted on landing in a thunderstorm.

I remember a conversation with a US Airways pilot shortly after the Little Rock crash occurred. He was the son of an Eastern pilot and a spokesman for the US Airways chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association and,  like many veteran pilots at US Airways, was still a first officer.

“What would you have done?” I asked. His response, as I recall, was “No way I would have landed – when I need to speak up, I speak up.” He told me of times, during his 20-year career, when he raised objections to a captain’s intent. ALPA, his experience, his loyalty to his job – and to his dad – provided him with the confidence and inner strength that required.

Since 1996, covering US Airways has been my primary job, except for the year I spent there as staff writer.

During those 18 years, US Airways has had a strong safety culture which, from what I know, is replicated at the other major airlines. No question, part of the reason is that US Air suffered five fatal crashes from 1989 through 1994. All of the parties, including management, pilots and the International Association of Machinists, rededicated themselves to making sure there were no repeats. There have not been.

In 2003, a regional carrier flying as US Airways Express crashed in Charlotte. I was on a Charlotte Observer team that investigated. Ames Alexander, an extremely talented investigative reporter, found out something very interesting: the FAA had never visited the maintenance base responsible for the aircraft, except for one time before the base was actually performing maintenance. We also found out how often the FAA visited the US Airways Pittsburgh maintenance base: every day.

So one maintenance base was never visited and one was visited every day. Also, at some airlines, the cockpit culture does not encourage the junior guy to speak up, whereas at US Airways the junior guy would not for one second have hesitated to speak up.  These are just two small examples of the hundreds of factors that contribute to commercial aviation safety.

My continuing exposure to the US Airways safety culture has made had me the type of driver that some people cannot stand. I accept that I lack the mental capacity to simultaneously drive and talk on a cell phone or, worse yet, to look at texts on a cell phone. Sometimes I make this view known to others. Call me an annoying dad.

Elevated safety awareness is not something I see woven into the fabric of general aviation. I know I will now receive e-mails stating the contrary. But on Father’s Day, when a lot of kids are recalling the many wise things their dads have taught them,  I wanted to restate something that I have tried to teach to mine.


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