Pilot Safety Gripe Leaves US Airlines With Black Eye

August 22, 2008

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At a time when US airlines are bleeding money and the outlook is so bleak that carriers must downsize or die, industry leaders cannot afford a public battle with angry pilots over safety matters and risk losing faint-hearted passengers.

Nevertheless, recent complaints by pilot unions at American Airlines and US Airways evoke images of planes running out of fuel in mid-air.

Those unions say thrifty airlines are trying to bully pilots into flying with uncomfortably low amounts of fuel.

Such accusations -- true or not -- could influence travelers to book on rival carriers or, worse yet, not fly at all, said Terry Trippler, travel expert at Tripplertravel.

"It's a hot-button issue. You don't want to mess around with it. It creates a bad public relations image," he said.

Air safety concerns escalated this week after a Spanair plane crash in Madrid killed 153 people. But the issue has been gaining importance since last month when the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA) at US Airways said pilots have been selected for mandatory training based on their decisions to add extra fuel to some flights.

The union considers the training a disciplinary action that discourages pilots from requesting additional fuel, which adds weight to the aircraft and increases costs.

The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents pilots at American Airlines, issued a similar complaint this month.

Federal law sets the minimum fuel requirements but it allows pilots and dispatchers to insist on higher fuel levels.

"We are concerned about what appears to be a drive toward minimum standards by our airline and others," APA President Captain Lloyd Hill said in an August 13 statement.

Union complaints about fuel levels reflect discord between management and employees in an industry that lost billions in the first half of the year, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group.

Airline employees are still fuming about steep concessions during the massive airline restructurings since 2001 and are outraged over the thousands of job cuts expected this year.

"This is not a safety issue. This is more union politics than anything else," Castelveter said, adding that no airline is questioning the pilots' authority to add fuel. "All the airlines are doing is asking the crews to be vigilant."

Trippler agreed to some extent, saying "pilots obviously believe it would have an impact on bookings or they wouldn't be making it public."

Safety issues have been an industry theme for months. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently proposed a USD$7.1 million fine for American and fined Southwest Airlines USD$10.2 million for safety infractions.

This spring, American canceled more than 3,000 flights because of inspection lapses involving MD-80 series aircraft.

The FAA says emergency landings are common for various reasons and the agency has detected no new trends this summer.

Over the past several weeks, there have been at least 15 emergency landings by at least eight US airlines for reasons including reports of smoke in the cockpit and engine trouble.

On one United Airlines flight this month, a row of seats came loose and rolled forward. Last month, a Midwest Airlines MD-80 carrying Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made an emergency landing in St. Louis after the crew had trouble controlling the plane.

"Pilots are trained to land their aircraft as soon as possible when they have a variety of different warnings or problems," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. "In the vast majority of cases, they land safely."