Wednesday, February 25, 2015

United Sent Safety Warning to Pilots • Unusually blunt message followed several serious incidents caused by cockpit errors

The Wall Street Journal
Updated Feb. 25, 2015 5:19 p.m. ET

United Continental Holdings Inc. ’s management sent a dramatic safety warning to its pilots last month, calling for stepped-up compliance with rules and procedures following several serious incidents caused by cockpit errors.

The bulletin, issued Jan. 9 under the heading “significant safety concerns,” said it was prompted by four separate “safety events and near-misses” in previous weeks, including a plane whose pilots had to execute an emergency pull-up maneuver to avoid crashing into the ground. Another flight cited in the document landed with less than the mandatory minimum fuel reserves.

The two-page memo, signed by the carrier’s senior vice president of flight operations and its top safety official, didn’t provide specifics about those close calls, which hadn’t attracted public attention. But the unusually blunt language focused on the dangers of lax discipline, along with poor crew communication and coordination.

A spokesman for United Continental, created by the 2010 merger of United and Continental, said the company regularly communicates safety findings to cockpit crews, taking a proactive approach that “is direct, clear and open with our pilots.” Such a stance allows the company, now the nation’s second-largest by traffic, “to adjust our actions when we see some of these potential issues.” Officials at the Chicago-based company declined to elaborate.

The last fatal accident for United occurred in 1991 and for Continental it was 1987. Hijackers crashed two United jets in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Both carriers were widely regarded as pioneers or early champions of safety programs.

The bulletin’s substance and urgent tone, however, are markedly different from typical companywide safety communications and updates from management, according to a number of current United pilots.

Aviators periodically receive summaries and descriptions of lessons learned from previous incidents. But those updates generally deal with events that occurred many months earlier, and tend to focus on more-mundane slip-ups such as relatively minor altitude deviations or flying slightly faster than permitted with flaps, or wing panels, extended.

In this case, the bulletin started off by saying recent incidents “have dictated that we communicate with all of you immediately.”

The document also highlights broader safety concerns stemming from demographic trends and personnel shifts affecting pilots, including retirements, new hires and aviators transferring to different aircraft types. Such change, according to the bulletin, “introduces significant risk to the operation.” The company plans to hire some 700 pilots this year, averaging more than 50 a month—a challenging number to integrate into a workforce that already includes more than 12,000 pilots. A minority of new hires go directly to become co-pilots on Boeing 757s flying internationally, which are considered particularly demanding routes.

The alert said “we know this is a brutally honest message,” noting that “the common thread with all of these [incidents] is that they were preventable.” It called for renewed attention to long-standing cockpit-management principles under which “every pilot must be willing to speak up if safety is in question” and “must also accept the input of their fellow crew members.”

Stressing the importance of conducting detailed pre-departure briefings and strictly complying with rules to keep planes from landing too fast or too far down runways, the bulletin mentioned the fatal crash of a United Parcel Service Inc. cargo jet that smashed into a hill while lining up to land in Birmingham in 2013.

“The approach and landing appeared normal to the pilots until right before impact,” according to the bulletin. “Let’s not for a moment think that could not happen at United.”

Federal investigators concluded that a series of crew errors and failure to follow required safety procedures led to the UPS crash, which killed both pilots. UPS didn’t contest the National Transportation Safety Board’s findings that pilot error led to the crash.

One United pilot said the fuel incident highlighted in the bulletin occurred after the crew of a domestic flight headed for Los Angeles asked air-traffic controllers for a revised route, ran into stiff headwinds and then failed to properly monitor fuel consumption, divert to another airport or declare an emergency for an expedited landing.

According to another pilot, concern has been building inside the carrier about potentially poor teamwork when some veteran pilots are paired with new first officers who may be reluctant to assert themselves. “The company wouldn’t have put out this memo if things weren’t bad,” the pilot said.

In response to the bulletin, union leaders for United’s Chicago-based pilots earlier this month said in a memo that the company’s concerns “are very valid.” But the union also complained of “shorter and less robust training,” degradation of respect for “captain’s authority,” “pilot pushing” and oversight of flight operations by labor relations instead of a flight-operations executive.

United’s aviators agreed to a combined labor contract in late 2012 and a merged seniority list was adopted in 2013, big achievements in joining the two groups after the merger. But there are still cultural differences and friction between the two sides, some pilots contend.

Capt. Bob Sisk, chairman of the central air safety committee for United’s pilot union, in a recent update to pilots listed a number of common threads linking serious incidents over the past two years, including poor teamwork.

“Typically, the pilots didn’t brief together as a crew,” he said, while “the captain was generally a highly experienced pilot” paired with a co-pilot “who was a new hire, a returning furloughee, or was relatively new” on the aircraft type.

Capt. Sisk also said a possible contributing factor in many of the incidents, “and an area of deep concern,” is that numerous pilots have reported significant discrepancies between how standard operating procedures “are presented in training and how they are implemented on the line.”

Veteran United pilots said the latest safety alert is comparable to management moves about seven years ago, well before the merger, when United pilots received extra training on fuel-management issues.

That initiative was prompted by a spate of hazardous incidents, including a United crew that took off from Los Angeles International Airport and belatedly realized, as their jet climbed in darkness over water, that the plane’s fuel pumps weren’t turned on and the engines could stop.

A crew on a different United flight, according to safety officials at the time, almost lost thrust from both engines because fuel tanks had been drained in the wrong order, making the remaining fuel inaccessible. 

Story and comments:


  1. All the complaints about service aside, it would seem that the real issue here is pilot/co-pilot cooperation and understanding. The biggest issue is the freedom to speak at will without fear. That comes from the left seat.

    Immutable rules: Follow procedure. See something, say something. Hear something, say something. Never assume--it'll get you killed every time. Just because the guy in the left seat has 20,000 hours, doesn't mean today is not his day.

  2. "The biggest issue is the freedom to speak at will without fear. That comes from the left seat." - Anonymous.

    That is true only in a single pilot operation. In multi-crew ops, ALL pilots have the professional responsibility to initiate their concern(s) with all other flight crew members, when first recognised.
    Kaptin M (Charlie Rich).

  3. It sounds like poor crew communication, poor flight deck discipline and disgruntled employees. In a word, complacency, sloppiness, which is going to kill someone.

    What are the Board, the shareholders and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration waiting for?

  4. "Who is Kathryn and why is she obsessed with aircraft crashes? She lost a husband to an airplane crash or something?"
    She's waiting to report about you.