Posts Tagged ‘aviation’

Suppose you were going out to dinner and you called a babysitter to take care of your children. Then, after you made the arrangements for the sitter, a friend tells you that your babysitter has been exposed to bubonic plague.  Would you still let this person babysit your children? But wait – what if they didn’t show any symptoms of bubonic plague; wouldn’t it be alright then?

Today, the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center (administered by the FBI) has over 1,300,000 names on its Terror Watch List. Two sets of names are extracted from this ever-growing list. One set of names is the No Fly list.  The other set of names is the Selectee list.  The Selectee List is the list of names of people who must receive extra screening of some sort.  The No Fly (the name is self-explanatory) list is much, much shorter than the Terror Watch List.  Since the underwear bomber incident, the No Fly list has been growing longer. Even so, the are still a lot more names on the watch list than on the no fly list.

Here are a couple of things to think about:

1. We have pretty much proven that a terrorist can sneak through our security screeners with either box cutters or underwear bombs.  There are probably lots of other ways to sneak through security too.  The simple fact is that a really clever person can probably outsmart the system.

2 The 1.3 million people on the Terror Watch list make up about 0.014% of the world’s population. (The current world population is about 6.7 billion people.)

So, taking item # 2 first, we need to ask ourselves this question: in the larger scheme of things, how important are these 1.3 million people to our nation’s economy?  How important are these people to us, as a nation, in any way at all? All we really know is that we think they might want to kill us – but we aren’t sure. It’s sort of like the babysitter we hired. There are, of course, plenty of other babysitters we could hire. There are also plenty of other people who we might like to visit our country, besides these 1.3 million people we’re not too sure of.

Secondly, let’s remember the guy with the bomb in his underpants.  There must be a lot of other creative ways to disguise a bomb – after all drug smugglers even carry little amulets of their product in their intestines sometimes.  My point is that you really can’t be sure you are going to detect the guy’s bomb, or maybe some other dastardly weapon, he might be carrying.  Who knows, maybe he’s some sort of Al Qaeda Ninja and he can fabricate a deadly weapon out of his paperback book or something.

The sensible thing to do is to simply ban everyone whose name is on the FBI Watch List from entering the U.S., and if they are already in the U.S. (because they are U.S. citizens) they should be banned completely from flying.  That, of course, doesn’t make us 100% safe – you can never be that, but it makes us a lot safer than we are now. As for the 1.3 million people on the Watch List who can’t come here because we don’t trust them – well, it’s just too bad. They can either clear their name by presenting evidence to the FBI demonstrating that the FBI is all wrong about them, or they can just stay where they are and we’ll work with the other 6,698,000,000 people in the world.

Oh. And one other thing. Janet Napolitano has to go. She was one of President Obama’s political appointees, but as the head of Homeland Security she is clearly in way over her head.  When she said that the “system worked” that was a clue.  Unless, of course, airline passengers are now a key part of the Homeland Security System – could that be what she meant?  Homeland Security has been plagued with political hacks since its inception.  That needs to change.  The President needs to appoint a brilliant non-politician to this job.  It is one of the most important jobs in America and it cannot be entrusted to politicians or to people who are simply being repaid for some political favor.

If there is one message we should take from the underwear bomber it is this: it is time for this country to finally – finally – take homeland security seriously.  We were lucky this time.  The next time a terrorist sneaks through our “system” the results could be far, far worse.

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More than Catholicism, more than Calvinism, more than Judaism, more than Islam, more than Hinduism, more than any religion, there is one belief system in America that is above and beyond criticism: Capitalism. To criticize capitalism is to be called un-American by many citizens of this country.  Capitalism, of the free and unfettered type favored by Milton Friedman (there are in fact many definitions of capitalism), is our sacred cow – above criticism, beyond reproach, the cure for all of society’s ills, the defender and fount of our freedom, our goal and our vessel, our salvation, our Nirvana.  This is especially true if you are a Republican, for it is the extreme Republican right that are the true believers in this economic theory.  For them, capitalism is the cure for whatever ails our society.  If our economy is lagging, take off the controls, it’ll cure itself.  If our economy is overheated and inflation is rampant, stand back, it’ll correct itself.  If people are starving and out of work, do nothing, it’ll all get taken care of through the immutable laws of the marketplace.

In case after case, the true believers always have the same answer: take the controls off our capitalistic system and “let ‘er rip”.  For the true believers, the sanctity of capitalism is beyond reproach and certainly beyond question. For these people there is only one rule: capitalism always works in all situations.  For these people this rule is as inviolate as the rule that says 1+1=2, and anyone who dares to question or tinker with capitalism is either a fool or just simply un-American.  The thing these people don’t understand is that even in the ideal world of mathematics, 1+1 is not always equal to 2.  In the world of computers, 1+1=1, because computers do not use our decimal arithmetic, they use the rules of Boolean algebra for their internal computations. There are exceptions to every rule – that’s a hard and fast rule.

The true believers in unfettered, hands-off capitalism, prefer a simplistic world, a world of almost religious belief in an economic theory, a world where everything is well defined and the rules never change, a world where a centimeter is always a centimeter and a minute is always a minute.  Except we know from science that centimeters and minutes aren’t inviolate after all and lengths and times can expand and contract despite our definitions of what they are.  Just ask Albert Einstein.

Today, as we try to have rational discussions about improving our health care system, the advocates of change are being met by mobs of people determined to hang on to the free market type of health insurance system we have now.  They want no role for government in our health system.  Why? For the mobs, it’s a matter of a semi-religious belief in capitalist economics and a mistrust of government in general.  But for the health industry, it’s different.  It’s about money – lot’s of it.  If there is one thing that is notable about the history of American capitalism it is that is has produced some prodigious individual fortunes.  Just consider the robber barons of the 19th century, people like John D Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor. There are many more.  Is there one thing that distinguishes all of these people?  Yes, exploitation.  They came into a land rich in natural resources and they helped themselves to whatever they could grab, unfettered, unrestrained by any rules, they enriched themselves at the expense of others.  Today’s American health industry, while not as successful as the robber barons of the past, is no less greedy.  It is important to note that this is a for-profit industry, and they make lots of it.  Health care is big business and much of that big business wants to keep it that way: profiting from the sick and dying.  And the true Republican believers in unfettered capitalism have been suckered in by these businesses, becoming the unknowing and unthinking pawns in a high stakes game of finance of which they truly have no knowledge.  This is the Republican coalition of our 21st century: would-be robber barons and a large crowd of ill-informed, often deceived, and anxious Americans who truly believe that no rules capitalism is the true religion of America.

Unfortunately, unfettered capitalism is not confined to health care in the U.S.  It has also infected our airline industry (courtesy of Ronald Reagan) to the detriment of the safety of the traveling public and the aviation industry in general.   Congress is in the process of holding hearings about the safety of regional airlines in the wake of the Colgan Air (operating as Continental Connection) crash in Buffalo last winter.  It is clear from the hearings that Congress is very concerned about the very low pay that regional pilots receive and the conditions in which many of them have to live.  Many make the same pay as bus drivers in New York City. The result of this unfettered, free market capitalism in the aviation industry is that Congress has serious concerns about the safety of the regional airlines, mostly due to the extremely low salaries that are paid to regional airline pilots – a result of uncontrolled capitalism.  You can watch the proceedings here. Just be sure to set aside a couple of hours to watch the whole thing.

The problem we have in the U.S. is that we have this notion that having a completely free market and unrestrained, unregulated  capitalism is equivalent to being American. It means being free.  It doesn’t.  It’s just an economic theory that, unfortunately doesn’t work too well.  It needs adult supervision.  However, there are some very wealthy people in this country who are making a lot of money from this malfunctioning system, and like John D. Rockefeller, they would like things to stay this way.  Europe, the birthplace of capitalism (not the U.S.), faced these issues long ago and came up with a variety of solutions – all of which implement some sort of controls on their economic systems.  Most have moved to some variant of socialism.  It’s not un-American to consider some socialistic ideas, indeed we already have incorporated some, such as Social Security and Medicare.  And is there anything more socialistic than the Veterans Administration health system?  Aren’t our public schools a form of socialistic education?  If you look around you will see that we aren’t really a purely capitalistic society at all, we have incorporated many concepts of socialism when they made sense for society as a whole. The thing to understand is that it is OK to modify no-rules capitalism.

It’s time for American’s to stop listening to our 21st century robber barons and their pleas to patriotism that evoke knee-jerk responses in the ill-informed.  Capitalism is not our national religion.  It can be questioned and modified.  It’s only an imperfect economic theory, and far from being bound to its precepts like slaves to a stone idol, as Americans we have the freedom to fix it.

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Since September 11, 2001,  six scheduled passenger airplanes have crashed in the U.S.  Of these, only one involved a major airline.  This record, including the crash in Buffalo last winter of a Colgan Air flight, operating as Continental Connection flight 3407, has now finally caught the attention of the media and Congress. The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded its hearings and will be reporting its results to the FAA.  Meanwhile, Congress will begin hearings next month as a result of the NTSB findings.  The most shocking news from the NTSB investigation has been that the crew of the Colgan Air flight seemed to be suffering from extreme fatigue.  Colgan Air has been quick to say that any fatigue experienced by the crew was not the fault of Colgan Air. Colgan says that the crew-members had plenty of time to rest up before their flight, and their statement implies that if they didn’t take advantage of that opportunity it is their own fault, and not Colgan’s.  It seems to me that this statement might be slightly disingenuous, which is to be expected since there will undoubtedly be a lot of finger pointing, not to mention lawsuits, in the near future.

If one tries to find the truth of the matter, it will soon become apparent that this accident, like many aviation accidents was caused by a whole chain of causes, one leading to the other, until eventually the proximate cause occurs that results in the actual accident.  It seems that in this particular case the evidence points to the captain taking incorrect action when the aircraft automatically began maneuvering to prevent a stall.  The captain apparently reacted in a way the not only prevented the autopilot from avoiding the stall, but actually ensured that the aircraft would stall.

Of course there is still the unanswered question of why was the aircraft about to stall in the first place? Was it because of icing conditions?  Could it be that this type of aircraft does not have adequate deicing capability?  I suppose the NTSB will be lookiing at that too.

However, for now, the issue that has gotten the public’s attention is crew fatigue and crew salaries, and the question of whether low salaries inevitably lead to crew fatigue, poor judgement, poor reactions, and the crash.  How can low salaries possibly lead to fatigue and a crash? Apparently neither Colgan nor the rest of the regional aviation industry have a clue.  Here’s how: imagine you are a regional airline pilot based at LaGuardia, Newark, or JFK.  Now imagine you get an annual salary of $16,000.  Go find an apartment near the airport that you can afford so that after paying your rent, you can also afford to buy food in New York City or New Jersey, clothing, gasoline, parking, and on and on (not to mention taxes).  It turns out that you can’t do it because $16,000 just doesn’t cover your expenses.  So what do you do? You find a cheaper place to live, like with your parents a few thousand miles away, or with a bunch of other poor regional pilots who share a cramped “crash pad”.  Then you fly a schedule of three or four flights, day after day, which barely gives you enough time to sleep. The FAA regulations about crew rest time turns a blind eye towards this reality.  They count travel time to and from the airport and meal time as “rest”.  They require a minimum of eight hours of this “rest” every night, but most pilots will tell you this can translate into only a few hours of actual sleep.

There are a host of issues that need to be addressed concerning the safety of regional airlines including crew rest, crew training, crew workload, aircraft safety and capabilities, and ultimately crew salaries.  I say ultimately because unless crew salaries are sufficient to provide the ability to actually have a safe and healthy lifestyle the passengers who fly on these planes will not be as safe as those who fly on the major airlines, where the crews get ten time as much (or more) in salaries.  The problem for the American public is that about 50% of passenger traffic is on the regionals these days.  The question is whether the Congress, NTSB, FAA, and the aviation industry will face this issue or just duck the whole thing.  Duck the whole thing?  Yes.  It is a common practice in the aviation industry. It’s more commonly called cost/benefit analysis, which means that sometimes, if a certain type of fatal accident happens only very infrequently – like the TWA 800 disaster (the Boeing 747 that simply blew up in the sky) – it just isn’t worth the cost of fixing the problem because it probably won’t happen again for a very long time.

On the other hand, it may be that because the regional airlines don’t have such a great track record versus the major airlines (five out of the last six crashes),  this time the cost/benefit analysis thing will show that it is more cost effective to fix the problem.  The question is how do we fix it?  It seems to me that, unAmerican as it may sound, the underlying problem is too much competition.  This is the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of the airline industry. The airline business has become a free for all and the resulting cut throat competition (just ask Aloha Airlines) has continually driven one airline after another into bankruptcy.  Those that are not bankrupt (read America’s major airlines here) are barely hanging on.

The cure is simple: the government has to step in and start regulating the airlines again because our current Darwinian competition actually creates a safety problem that will never be adequately addressed without the (hopefully) adult supervision of the government.  First, the FAA needs to disentangle itself from its cozy relationship with the airlines and go back to being an independent supervisor of American aviation safety.  Then the government needs to get back into its old role of assigning aviation routes to particular airlines.  In other words, some of the airlines have to go, there are just too many of them and it doesn’t do anybody any good.  Those that are left will be able to make a profit, and they will be able to pay their pilots enough money.  The result will be that all these crew rest and training issues will go away. (Yes, I know that airfares will go up.  I’m afraid it’s either that or crash and burn – you choose.)

I know it’s not pure Capitalism.  It’s not Darwinian airline evolution. It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s not the Law of the Yukon where, “only the strong shall thrive, surely the weak shall perish, and only the fit survive.”  It’s not Reaganomics.

It’s just reasonable.

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The collapse of the real estate markets, the banking industry, and the automobile industry over the past year has been the subject of news headlines almost every day. However, there is an other segment of the economy that has received scant attention, yet there is another industry that has also fallen to its knees: the airline industry.  Today, stocks for airlines like United and American are selling at 1/10 th of their value only a year ago. Yet, our government seems unconcerned.  In the world of aviation the unregulated, free market economics of Reagan and Bush still reign.  The result is that our airlines are barely able to survive and, for many passengers today, flying is merely something to be endured.

It doesn’t have to be this way; it wasn’t always this way.  Before the era of the great Reagan economical errors the airline industry in the U.S. was heavily regulated. Airfares and air routes were controlled by the government.  The drawback of the old system was that the cost of an airline ticket was relatively high compared to today.  However, the advantage for passengers was that there was actually legroom and food on airplanes.  A transcontinental flight was a comfortable journey with the airline providing good meals, blankets, pillows, magazines, decks of playing cards, postcards to be filled out, complimentary ink pens, – anything you could possibly want during your flight was provided, even in economy class.  Furthermore, the airlines actually made money because they were not faced with cutthroat competition.

Some airlines, like Pan American, were only allowed to fly international passengers while others only flew domestic passengers.  During the pre-Reagan years we had three major commercial airplane manufacturers in America: Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed; now there is only Boeing and Boeing has now fallen behind Europe’s government supported Airbus and the world’s premier passenger airplane maker.  In the pre-Reagan years an airline pilot was paid a salary commensurate with his abilities and his responsibilities, which were significant  – he literally held the lives and safety of his passengers in his hands.  Today, only a few pilots – the most senior at the largest airlines – still make six figure salaries. Young pilots,  the first officers who take turns with the captains flying each leg of a flight, find that their starting pay, even at the largest of the U.S. airlines, is comparable to the starting pay for a barista at Starbucks or a cashier at Wal-Mart.  Isn’t that just a little scary?

One need only to look at the record of the past thirty years to see that aviation in the U.S. is in a death spiral. The number of airlines that have vanished since deregulation is large. Gone are Pan Am, Eastern, Northeast, Braniff, Northwest Orient, America West, Mohawk, TWA, PSA, Air Florida, Air New England, Aloha Airlines, Mid Pacific Air, Mississippi Valley, National, New York Airways, North Central, Overseas National Airways, Ozark, Piedmont, Ransome, Reeve Aleutian, Republic, Southern, Transamerica, Western Airlines, and Wright Airlines.  There are actually a lot more. Too many to list here; for a more complete list check out wikipedia.

Clearly, operating an airline is  risky business undertaking.  It was risky even during the years of government regulation, but one has only to look at the financial condition of our major airlines to realize that the industry, as a whole, is facing a dire situation. Certainly, the plight of the airlines was severely compounded from the 9/11 attacks when a lot of people stopped flying.  A lot of rich executives went out and bought private corporate jets to avoid the possibility of a hijacking.  The price of fuel has skyrocketed.  Competing start-up airlines have forced the existing airlines to operate on a dime – to the benefit of no one.  It probably won’t be long before our airlines follow in the footsteps of Ireland’s Ryanair and start charging passengers to use the onboard toilets.

Enough.  The time has come to re-institute adult supervision for the airline industry. The alternative is the collapse of airline transportation in the U.S.  We are the only country in the world to all such no-holds-barred, free market capitalism for our airlines.  The result is that, by comparison, our airlines provide shoddy service in terms of passenger comfort, baggage handling, and on time performance.  Check out the 2009 World Airline Awards and compare any American airline with Singapore Airlines, Asiana Airlines, or British Airways. The only award given to any U.S. airline was given to Continental Airlines. Their award? Best airline in North America.  How far the U.S. airline industry has fallen!

A question we should all ask ourselves is this: are we also playing Russian roulette with airline safety in the U.S.?  Remember the fiasco about the cracks in Southwest Airlines’ planes? The U.S. government has gone too far down the path of no rules capitalism, a path that has led to the collapse of the real estate market, the U.S. banking industry, and the world economy. It also appears to be leading to the collapse of the U.S. airline industry in the near future. Now is the time for the government to reassert itself in U.S. aviation.  I know the government has its hands full at the Treasury but the FAA seems to be just sitting on their hands. My guess is they have plenty of free time; all they need is for President Obama to give them the word.  After all, we can’t all fly on Air Force One, can we?

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