Friday, November 13, 2009

What's Wrong?

A good friend sent an e-mail the other day―addressed to the usual gang, all friends―citing the recent rash of airline pilot incidents: a Delta crew landing on the taxiway; a Northwest crew getting distracted by their laptops; and a United pilot arrested for drinking. He ended his messages with this question: "What is going on in the airline business?”

After a quick Google search I replied: “Over 50,000 airline flights with dedicated, professional crews in their cockpits operate each day without incident. That's what's going on in the airline business.”

So often―and with increasing frequency, it seems―we allow ourselves to be drawn to the sensational minutiae, rather than considering the whole picture. This is partially a result of instantaneous communications. News flashes appear on our Blackberries. We can't ignore them. Constituents get outraged, call for hearings. It's all over the news. Ignorant commentators chime-in ad nauseum. We hear. We read. We cringe.

Nothing has changed. These incidents have been happening for generations. What haschanged though, remains unheralded: commercial air transportation continues to be the absolute, unmitigated safest way to travel. And it keeps trending even better.

Okay, now your questions. Did I know any of the people in the news? Yes, I am acquainted with the person who got arrested. He's a nice guy. He'll be removed from flight status and placed in a dry-out program, after which he will return to the line. But he won't get a third chance.

The laptop situation? Gross negligence. It's not the laptops that are at fault; it's the way those guys allowed themselves to become complacent. Still, they didn't run short of fuel, and they didn't cause a mid-air threat because ATC kept tracking them. No one came near being hurt.

Landing on the taxiway? Three sets of eyeballs in that cockpit are guilty, not just the captain. But remember they were coming off of a 10 hour all-nighter. My guess is that if there had been airplanes on that taxiway, that crew would have seen their error and executed a go-around. Thus either way, there was no immediate collision potential. No one came near being hurt.

And, the guy who had the alcohol in his blood―he had two other pilots with him. Even if he had flown, a safety factor was already in place. No one came near being hurt.
Moral: Flying is safe. The vast majority of flights don't make the news―a good thing. For the ones that do, many safety layers are in place to correct errors.

There are always exceptions. The latest one: Colgan Air 3407, Buffalo NY, 12 FEB 2009. You know that story. Here's a good place to focus. Make sure your air carrier hires competent, experienced, professional well-paid pilots! How do you do that? I don't know. Write them. Write congress. Write the DOT. But be ready to pay more for your ticket.

Dang, I was going to tell you abut the message I sent to another planet.
Next time.
Post your captions for this. (BTW, that's not me.
It's a pudgy captain I used to fly with a lot
when I was a happy DC1-0 F/O.)