Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


As the Airlines Cut Costs to Keep Flying, Safety Expert John Galipault Warns They Could Be Risking Passengers' Lives

Posted on

In the airline industry, the shoes have been dropping one after another. The first major casualty was Braniff Airways, which went out of business in May 1982, costing 9,500 employees their jobs. Last month Continental Air Lines announced plans to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act, dismissing 7,800 employees and slashing the pay of those who remained. Within days Eastern Airlines threatened to follow suit unless workers accept a 15 percent pay cut Nov. 1. The carriers’ financial problems began in 1978, when Congress removed the complex of regulations under which U.S. officials had allocated routes, set fares and otherwise avoided the fratricidal competition and price wars that followed.

While many airline observers fear that without some form of reregulation more companies will fall by the wayside, industry gadfly John Galipault, 52, head of the Aviation Safety Institute of Worthington, Ohio, believes that economic pressures now at work on the airlines carry the potential for a disaster that will cost lives, not just dollars and jobs. A test pilot and a former aviation instructor at Ohio State, Galipault has, since 1973, received more than 46,000 aviation-hazard reports, usually in the form of anonymous tips from pilots, mechanics, controllers and other flight personnel. Although Galipault maintains that flying on a commercial airliner is far safer than driving a car, he is concerned that airline cost cutting is lowering the odds against tragedy. Galipault discussed the dangers with David Grogan of PEOPLE.

Why do you think the airline industry’s current economic difficulties are having a negative impact on safety standards?

To begin with, put yourself in the shoes of a Continental pilot who has been asked to take a 45 percent cut in pay in order to keep his job. His attitude should be a matter of concern to passengers on his flight. He’s going to be upset and worried. A guy in charge of a commercial airplane should not be worried about anything except flying it.

Henry Duffy, head of the Airline Pilots Association, says pilots will be more likely to make mistakes because Continental has adopted new rules allowing 16-hour duty shifts. Is this a concern?

You bet. In the name of increased productivity and scheduling convenience, the airlines would like to increase the amount of time a pilot is on duty in addition to his regular flying hours. Well, that’s fine up to a point, but the body has to be given time to recover, particularly when flights cross several time zones. There are some guys who even carry alarm clocks in the cockpit to help keep themselves awake. Several years ago a cargo jet reportedly left New York on a night flight to L.A., and the crew woke up 250 miles over the Pacific. It’s a buyer’s market now, and the airlines can replace people very easily. So the pilots keep their mouths shut and go out and fly tired.

Are planes at this time being adequately maintained?

Before the industry was deregulated, the Federal Aviation Administration evaluated the potential effects of cost cutting on safety and predicted that airlines would delay certain maintenance work as long as they could in order to defer the expense. Another of the FAA’s concerns was a potential lowering of maintenance inspection standards. This problem was manifested last May when an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 narrowly avoided ditching in the ocean on a flight from Miami to Nassau. The incident occurred because the oil seals were left off the oil plugs, causing engine overheating and shutdown. Prior to takeoff, the mechanics had been out there late at night to change those plugs using flashlights and the lights of a pickup truck. That tells me the airline is running on a shoestring. It was at least the fourth incident of missing oil seals at Eastern.

Are there other examples of risky shortcuts in servicing?

There is a general problem in the industry with very poor fuel gauges. No one wants to spend the money to fix them. Last July an Air Canada Boeing 767 lost power in both its engines on a flight from Ottawa to Edmonton and was forced to make an emergency landing at an abandoned airbase in Manitoba—which at the time was being used as a drag strip. The plane had a faulty fuel gauge, so before takeoff the refueling crew measured how much was on board with a dipstick device. There was an error involving metric conversion that led the flight crew to believe they had more fuel than they did. And away they went.

Another kind of fuel problem occurred last April on a Republic Airlines DC-9 flight from Minneapolis to San Diego. The plane had plenty of fuel, but the captain and first officer were distracted and forgot to switch tanks when one was nearly empty. Both engines failed, and in the five minutes it took the pilot to get them started again, the plane dropped from 35,000 to 12,200 feet. Maybe if there had been a flight engineer on board dealing with fuel management, the incident would not have occurred. But that kind of attention costs money.

On Jan. 13, 1982, 78 people were killed when an Air Florida Boeing 737 plunged into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. after taking off during a heavy snowstorm. Six months later 153 people were killed when a Pan American World Airways Boeing 727 crashed outside New Orleans after taking off in a severe rainstorm. The National Transportation Safety Board says weather conditions are to blame in 52 percent of airline accidents. Are airlines taking adequate precautions about flying in dangerous conditions?

No. The attitude is: Get them out of the gate. Get them airborne. Moreover, I think the crew on the Air Florida plane was patently undertrained for flying under those conditions. They didn’t understand the impact of snow on the aircraft, ice on the wings and slush on the runway. This was a green crew that should not have been in that airplane.

Questions concerning the crash in New Orleans haven’t fully been resolved yet, but it might not have occurred if Pan Am had followed the example of Northwest Orient when confronted with turbulence. In 1963 Northwest lost a Boeing 720-B in a thunderstorm after taking off from Miami. The airplane went down in the Everglades. It was a horrible accident. So the company hired a dozen meteorologists, and several times each day they transmit data about areas of instability. Northwest has a plotting board for this information in each of its airplanes and a strict rule: Thou shalt not penetrate turbulence. Northwest doesn’t have a perfect reputation as an on-time airline. But the people who understand why don’t complain.

Is the safety equipment aboard planes adequate for any emergency?

Through our hazard-reporting system, which includes a toll-free telephone service for informants, we discovered last June that three airlines—American, World and Air Niagara, which is currently out of business—had failed several FAA demonstration tests of their emergency-evacuation equipment. Then, on Sept. 14, United announced it was taking all its 747s off overwater flyings because the poorly manufactured inflatable slide and water-raft combinations for emergency landings would not hold air long enough to meet certification requirements. The airline took the action voluntarily, and I applaud it for that. But some carriers don’t want to spend the money to check this kind of equipment.

When they were hit by the fuel crisis in 1973, the bean counters at the airlines decided they could cut weight—and thus fuel costs—by stripping all kinds of things out of the planes. For example, there are 18 airlines that have received waivers from regulations requiring life rafts on certain domestic overwater routes. One of these routes involves most flights from New York to Miami and is more than 160 miles offshore passing Jacksonville. In 1978, on another route, a National Airlines Boeing 727 struck the water as it was approaching Pensacola, Fla. at night. Luckily a barge was nearby, and all 58 passengers and crew got off the airplane. But three people drowned. That airplane didn’t have life rafts.

By law, if you are going to operate a public conveyance, you are duty bound to protect the people who use it. When you see somebody asking for waivers on safety requirements like carrying life rafts, it tells me that person is running a marginal operation. When you take away something that could mean the difference between life and death, I think something is morally wrong.

But surely the last thing any airline wants is a crash. Why would any of them cut corners?

It’s a matter of playing the odds. Why do they put recaps on their tires? The classic example is Spantax Airlines, a worldwide charter carrier. In September 1982 a DC-10 was taking off from Málaga, Spain with a full load, when the pilot heard a loud bang, and the plane began to vibrate severely. The pilot aborted the takeoff, and the plane ran out of runway. The landing gear folded up, and 50 people died. It turned out that a nose wheel had a recapped tire, and apparently the recap came off and hit the belly of the airplane. That’s what the pilot had heard. The bean counters had decided to save money by recapping tires. Well, where do you draw the line?

I think the airlines fall back too much on the fact that an accident is a low-probability event. Therefore, instead of spending extra money on safety, they take the risk. For example, in 1972 an American Airlines DC-10 took off from Detroit Metro airport. As it did so, the cargo door popped open, causing sudden decompression. A casket with a cadaver in it was sucked out of the airplane and went six feet into the ground in some guy’s backyard. Luckily, the pilot was able to get the plane back to Detroit by doing some tricky flying. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated and informed the FAA that there were inherent safety problems with the DC-10 cargo door. But rather than requiring the airlines to take all their DC-10s out of service, the FAA made a gentleman’s agreement with the manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, and allowed the airlines to fix the airplanes whenever they were due for their next scheduled major inspection. In other words, they could deal with the problem at their leisure. Of course, that allowed the airlines and the manufacturer to save money. Well, in March 1974 a Turkish Airlines DC-10 took off from Paris, and the cargo door popped open. Cables were severed, and the airplane lost hydraulic power and crashed, killing 346 people. It was the same problem on the same type of aircraft. It could have happened here.

Isn’t the consumer at least partly to blame for failing to demand higher safety standards?

In a sense. Here’s an example. In order to attract passengers, the airlines are allowing people to carry everything but the kitchen sink onto their airplanes instead of checking it in to be carried as cargo. If you exceed the load limit of the overhead bins and there is a sudden stop or hard landing, things would come crashing down on people’s heads. But the airlines allow these carry-ons in order to placate the consumer. If one airline does it, the others have to do it. Even though you may have the best air carrier in the world, if you are not down there at the right price and offering the same conveniences, people are going to fly with the other guy.

Since deregulation, the established airlines have been forced to compete with new airlines offering cut-rate fares. What kind of safety record do these new carriers have?

People Express, which flies mainly in the Eastern U.S., is the classic example in this case. They have not crashed an airplane yet. I say yet. And they’ve flown a lot of miles since they began operating in April 1981. Their pilots start out working for less than half what an airline captain would get from a major carrier, and flight attendants work their butts off, serving in the airplane and then getting into the terminal building and taking tickets. Everybody is working very hard, but they have a good attitude because basically it’s an employee-owned airline. People has also increased its efficiency by bringing all its airplanes to a home base—Newark [N.J.] Airport. Most of the established airlines don’t have their planes in the same place every night, and that means they have to have maintenance personnel scattered everywhere. Since FAA regulations allow certain repairs to be delayed until the airplane reaches home base, management is tempted to use the opportunity to defer maintenance.

What advice would you offer people who are planning to travel by plane?

Pick an airline that is profitable, because those are the ones that are least likely to be cutting corners on safety. Southwest and USAir are top moneymakers. People Express, Piedmont and Ozark are in good shape. But according to a very hot report being prepared by the Government Accounting Office, the potential for accidents may be unusually high on some of the twin-engine air taxis used by smaller commuter airlines. Of the major carriers, Delta reported an annual loss for the first time since 1947, but it’s still basically a very good airline. Of the 10 national carriers, Northwest has the soundest balance sheet. American is doing well. United is improving.

Are there any airlines that you personally will not fly?

I won’t fly on Continental. I won’t fly on a DC-10. I don’t have to be anywhere that badly. Nobody does, in my opinion.