Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Airlines Blame Everything and Everybody

The Fall of Saigon, 1975

Given the rolling fiasco of airline cancellations in the last six days, with travelers still stranded at airports around the country, unable to book alternate flights sometimes till days later, there's a lot of public anger toward the airlines. Well, a lot more than usual, let's say.

The airlines, of course, are blaming everything and everybody except themselves for the mess, in which flight cancellations legitimately caused by horrible weather in the Northeast and Midwest have developed into huge numbers of cancellations and delays throughout the air travel system. There were 3,600 new cancellations today, for example, bringing the total to well over 25,000 since last Thursday.

One villain the airlines were quick to finger is the Department of Transportation, which in 2010 addressed the scandalous problem of airlines stranding passengers for hours and hours on idled planes on tarmacs by imposing stiff fines for excessive tarmac delays. The problem disappeared virtually overnight, but the airlines have always hated the rule,  and are widely blaming it now for the excessive number of cancellations in recent days.  After all, the airlines and their various amen-choruses argue, why risk stiff fines valiantly trying to get planes into place to depart, when weather might cause backups and passenger dissatisfaction in getting those planes onto runways within prescribed time frames?

The airlines and various elements of the media that accept that line of reasoning seem not to consider the obvious fact that a great many of the massive number of flight cancellations since last Thursday have occurred at airports where the weather was not bad, for departures to other airports where the weather was not bad. (And in many cases, involving aircraft that had originated in places where the weather was also fine). So where was the tarmac-delay fine threat in those cases?

The fact is, the current fiasco is a direct consequence of an air transport system that has been significantly shrunk by the airlines in their quite reasonable drive to maintain profitability. Routes have been cut, crews are stretched thin, backup aircraft are unavailable, customer service and reservations agent workforces have been slashed and outsourced, while planes are all flying nearly full -- meaning re-booking after a canceled flight is daunting, even if you can get an agent on the line or get the online systems to work. So because there is no slack and there is no backup in the systems, weather disruptions immediately roll out through the whole network, with one result being that some terminals have resembled the Fall of Saigon in recent days.

Yesterday, meanwhile, JetBlue Airways came up with a new excuse when it shut down its operations at the New York airports and Boston: While the weather meant delays, cancellations were greatly exacerbated, JetBlue said, by new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration that limited duty-hours of pilots as a safety measure (partly in response to that horrific accident that killed 50 when a Continental flight operated by Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo. Pilot exhaustion was one of the causes of that disaster.) Other airlines are now also invoking the FAA rule as an excuse.

Well, the nation's pilots have something to say on that. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union that represents 50,000 pilots in North America, issued this statement today (the underlining is mine):

ALPA Statement on Flight Delays and Rollout of New Pilot Flight/Duty Time Rules
Record bad weather and poor planning to comply with new regulations by a few individual airlines should not distract from the tremendous advancement in safety that has resulted from this past weekend’s implementation of the FAA’s new science-based flight- and duty-time regulations for airline pilots who fly passengers. Airline companies have had two years’ advance notice and the proactive safety culture that ALPA pilots have helped to develop at many airlines. Implementation of these long-overdue regulations has gone smoothly in all but a very few cases. These new pilot fatigue rules are a significant accomplishment in enhancing safety for the traveling public.

Where the safety achievement does fall short is that the new regulations do not apply to pilots who fly cargo. While the new rules make historic progress for pilots who fly passengers by taking into account a pilot’s work schedule, aircraft equipment, human physiology, and travel distances, the deliberate exclusion of cargo airline pilots clearly indicates there is an illogical conclusion that cargo pilots do not deserve the same protection from fatigue. For that reason, ALPA will never stop advocating for one level of safety and for Congress to pass the Safe Skies Act (H.R. 182/S. 1692), which will bring all airline pilots under these important safety regulations. When these regulations are applied to all-cargo operations, our industry will take an enormous stride toward achieving one level of safety to the benefit of all who fly.