May 16 2009

How much is enough?

Published by under Flying

There has been a lot of coverage of the Colgan 3407 mishap. I’ve watched it very closely because, living here in Shopping Mall, we are very much at the mercy of the commuter airlines. Unless you want to drive up to Nashville or over to Atlanta and those options are not very feasible.

Having a bit of “insider knowledge”- 5200 hours in military aircraft and having had a lot of contact in my last two previous jobs with commercial airline pilots, who also happened to be Navy reservists-I was kind of aware of the experience gap between the commuter airlines and the big ones. However I always sort of believed that the “aviation ethos” was the same between both. Now I am beginning to wonder. Seeing this is stomach turning and watching this is just as scary. (Watch the airspeed indicator in the upper left corner). Not the least because the S.O. and I are getting on a commuter plane in five days to  head someplace fun-and I have to get on another one a week later. I’d really like to hear what they are doing in light of this evidence.

Mile Obrien has written a pretty good analysis: namely we get what we pay for:

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.

Who is to blame? A lot of people-ourselves included. The spiral started in the mid 1980′s as guys like Frank Lorenzo discovered they could take an airline into bankruptcy in order to break its union contracts. It accelerated in the 1990′s as big airlines consolidated and also “orphaned” cities like Shopping Mall. They were also busy screwing over their own employees and outsourcing jobs:

First and foremost, the reason we have chosen to use third- party providers for some of our work is because the costs are significantly lower. In this part of the world, as in the Philippines (where we will be headed in a few weeks), the cost of living is far lower than it is in any of our existing United locations. Because of this, the wage rate is low. That means we can accomplish some of the same tasks for far less money, which makes good sense for us if the quality can be comparable. In the queue work we saw last night, I can assuredly tell you that the back office work is progressing with a high degree of quality by educated, intelligent agents.

The second reason is that we stand to gain from the expertise of the service providers. Because they provide many of the same or similar services for other companies, we can learn from what the other companies are asking them to do, and we can also rely on their flexibility to cross-train the staff to match the ebbs and flows of our demand. Since the suppliers are experts in the contact center area, we are able to learn from some of the technology they have applied, the training tools the y have pulled together, and the process improvements they have evaluated. This is good for all of us, so that we can continue to learn and and so to continue to improve.

A long winded way of saying, ” We don’t give a shit about our American employees-or training them properly. Their cost of living is too high.”

And the difference between Glenn Tilton and a Chinese industrialist is? Nothing. ( Tilton by the way is the guy who walked out on United’s pension obligations leaving the employees-who had made big sacrifices to keep the airline afloat-with nothing.) Instead of holding himself accountable for a 73% loss in United stock value and a proportionate loss of revenue, Glenn Tilton continues to blame external factors while creating additional wealth for himself. ( He got 40 million when he f**ked over his own employees).

And finally, as I have noted before, the “pilot pool” from the military has begun to dry up-thanks to the war and lousy pilot salaries, as well as reduced number of pilot seats available. Flying still holds an attraction for many-but as one pilot explained it: “Now we’re a step above bus drivers. And the bus drivers have a better pension.

The only good that can come from this mishap is if people wake up and smell the coffee-and demand the airlines go back to a higher standard. I stand by what I wrote three months ago:

Better business guys like Glenn Tilton lost sight of that. And if you look at the demographics of today’s pilot population it should make you nervous. I still maintain that people will pay for higher levels of service-and if anything, we could do with a transportation infrastructure that was not totally dependent upon the airplane-particularly within the Northeast.

Having a trained cadre of good pilots is one of the benefits of investing in military aviation. Of course, with the changes that are happening within the military these days-sometimes I wonder about that-but there is still no other place to gather a grunch of hours quickly. In 1984 at the end of my first sea tour I had almost 1400 hours. Those days have come and gone however.

I submit that airlines can offer both service and timely arrival , even if it means a little more money for a ticket. What the traveling public must understand is that cheap airfares come with a hidden “fee,” and that fee is the cost of not having the right folks in the right places.

Unlike some-I do believe high speed rail is a good alternative and should be invested in. However pilots are worth investing in too-and I’m for that right now, even if it means higher ticket prices.

There is no shortcut that works here. You get what you pay for.

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