Deregulation and the Unfriendly Skies
VTR Date: March 15, 1986
Guest: Duffy, Henry
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Captain Henry Duffy
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When the head of the Federal Aviation Administration appeared on my other television series, The Editor’s Desk, sometime back, I began the program with a personal note, pointing out that I commute between New York and California, flying some 100 to 120 or 130,000 miles each year, and therefore must be profoundly concerned with air safety. Well so, of course, are millions of others who defy that hoary dictum that if the good lord had meant us to fly, he would have given us wings. But all of us know there’s no failsafe way of getting from here to there, not even across the street if you will, in total safety. Accidents happen, and Murphy’s law seems not about to be repealed. If something can go wrong, it will. Somewhere it will. Somehow it will. Sometime it will. Presumably however, as a people we do more than simply hope for the best in our admittedly limited, faulted human condition. Presumably we work toward the best too, constantly, single mindedly, always significantly adding safety to the traditional cost-effective nexus. Safety in reference to airport security, to airline and airport equipment, to adequate manpower, to pilot and controller training, to human and mechanical redundancy, to everything we can think of, presumably always giving priority to good sense before dollars and cents. Well, there are differing points of view on these matters of course. As a good friend says, where you stand often depends up where you sit. And sitting as he does in the presidency of the Airline Pilots’ Association undoubtedly does give today’s Open Mind guest, Captain Henry Duffy, a perspective far different from that of other aviation experts. S let’s see how much of it he’ll share with us.
Thanks for joining me today, Captain Duffy. And I sort of want to begin the program by asking if it is effectively true that the pilot, that the captain is so much in command of his airliner that he can really stay the matter of taking off and that really the matter of safety is the airline pilot’s job.
DUFFY: Well, we’ve always considered ourselves the last defense in the safety of the industry, and I can give you an absolute yes to your question. We have over the years built up regulations that have in fact vested the safety of the airplane in the left seat of the cockpit. And I think the traveling public should want it no other way.
HEFFNER: Are you safe then, in saying that if something is wrong or the redundancies aren’t there to your satisfaction that any and every pilot is going t say, “No, we’re not taking off?”
DUFFY: Well, I’m afraid I can’t say any and every pilot because what we are seeing beginning t creep back into the industry is something that we haven’t seen since the 1930s, and that’s something called “pilot pushing.” One of the reasons that the Airline Pilots’ Association was formed back 50-some years ago was that we had some managements that were leaning on pilots to take airplanes that had maintenance problems or go into weather where they shouldn’t have flown. And through the years of regulation I think we eliminated most of that. But one of the things we see with this proliferation of new airlines coming in under deregulation and the tremendous economic pressures that are put on some of those managements is a return to some pilot pushing. And that’s a major concern to us.
HEFFNER: Well, you say that in the years of regulation there was a diminution of pilot pushing, that questions of safety were more prominent, perhaps more prominent than they are now. And yet I had been reading a letter to the editor that you wrote to the Wall Street Journal, and you say, of course, that deregulation has adversely affected aviation safety. But you also indicate that whatever comments you make on the deleterious effects of deregulation on safety, those comments must be taken at face value, and as you write here, “Must not be misconstrued as a code word for reregulation.” Why in the world, if regulation provided a barrier to pilot pushing, why are you not pushing for reregulation?
DUFFY: Well, that was a practical answer rather than what I might have wished for. Since I do most of my job in Washington I sense no push from the Congress and certainly from this administration to return to economic regulation of the airlines. So we’re going to have to live with economic deregulation. Our feeling is that the major error that was made in moving into deregulation, if in fact that’s where we had to go, was that the safety regulation side of the government did not keep pace with what happened in the industry. And we had this tremendous increase in economic pressures on the airlines, practically a revolving door of airlines now with some airlines going out of business and new airlines coming into the business all the time. And the Federal Aviation Administration’s inspector force, who has a responsibility of seeing that those airlines are complying with the highest degree of safety, hasn’t kept up with it.
HEFFNER: Well then I gather what you’re saying is that deregulation is an economic phenomenon. It leads then to competitiveness, uncontrolled competitiveness. And that to match that you really needed an increase in safety regulation. We haven’t had that.
DUFFY: Well, that’s right. We’ve always known that safety costs money. And the tremendous safety record that we’ve built up in this industry came from those redundancies and those backup systems and, all of which are very expensive. And as the airlines have had to deal with fare wars and pressures on the income side, they’ve naturally turned to the expense side to look to see where they could cut. Now, you k now, there was fat to be cut, I’m sure. But the problem is, we think, in many areas they’ve started to cut too deep, when they start asking for waivers to take flight attendants off the airplanes or to take life rafts off the airplanes or to shave fuel reserves, which only have economic reasons behind them, then we see those redundancies being stripped away, and we know eventually that’s going to go too far and end up jeopardizing the safety record.
HEFFNER: What is happening in the meantime to the remaining safety regulations?
DUFFY: Well, the regulations are more or less static where they were as deregulation came in. The problem is the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to enforce them, to send their inspector force out and probe and see if the level of compliance by the airlines has diminished. We actually have less inspectors now than we did prior to deregulation coming in in 1978, and they’re trying to look at three times as many entities out there, airlines and fixed-base operators and all of that. They simply haven’t been able to keep up with the job. Consequently we have found the hard way, an Air Illinois crash, for instance, brought out the fact that there had been deferred maintenance items that directly let up to that crash, but the FAA inspection system hadn’t caught it. And it took an accident in order to bring it out. That’s not right; the inspection system should catch the problem. I mean, that’s what the inspection system is for.
HEFFNER: Captain Duffy, you know, those of us who fly in the back, not fly up front as you do, there’s very little we can do, that people who could do something, I should think, are those whom you head as President of the Airline Pilots’ Associate. Aren’t you going to be our whistle-blowers? We don’t know when to blow the whistle. We don’t know how to.
DUFFY: Well, our pilots are in fact increasingly blowing the whistle. And I think that we remain silent perhaps a little long in that we have a vested interest in this industry and we’d gotten involved in the economics battles that have been going on. I mean, they’ve tried to cut pilot pay. And so we have fought on that side of it very strongly during these past two or three years. In the meantime this whole safety issue has started to grow and grow. And you’re going to hear us speaking out much more loud and clear than we have in the past. Our pilots are alarmed. It’s interesting that one of the Dallas papers took a poll following the Delta windshear accident. They asked us, as the Airline Pilots’ Association, to participate in that poll, and we refused as an organization. So they went out and contacted our pilots anyway. And our pilots told them just exactly what we’d been saying over the last three years, that they’re alarmed at the continuing degradation of the safety standards in this industry, and they want something done about it.
HEFFNER: You know, I appreciate the peculiar position that you’re in. You’re not going to, as a pilot and as a part of the industry and as a person who’s obviously proud of the safety record of this industry, you’re not going to knock it. Yet you go up there, and you have to be concerned about yourself and your family. Every time I fly in a plane and I hear that voice come over the speaker, you know, “this is your pilot,” I get a warm sense of comfort, here’s someone who’s up there who’s not going to let anything happen to himself and therefore to me. But this question of the economic stake makes a number of people ask whether the pilots really will blow that whistle hard and soon enough.
DUFFY: Well, I think you’re seeing us evolve. We certainly have reacted largely the way we did during regulation because we had a very good system. As we are seeing these margins slip away, we are increasingly speaking up, even when it is detrimental to our own airline. Ur United pilots right now are out there pointing the finger at their own airline and saying there’s a growing problem of slipping standards here. The Eastern pilots have just gone through the same thing. And I don’t think you would have seen that in the past. And I think it does show the level of alarm that’s growing within the pilot group. And so as I say, we’re going to be doing shows just like this, trying to bring to the traveling public the facts that we see from inside the cockpit.
HEFFNER: That interests me. What I am, our viewers are, part of the flying public. What in the world can we do?
DUFFY: Well, first of all, the people that can really put the pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration is the congress, and of course the administration. One of the problems in the system is that the FAA is a part of the administration and therefore part of the budgetary process, and have to go along with the budgetary process. And so, while there are many good, faithful, safety-minded people within the FAA, when they put their budget in and it comes back slashed, they have to live with it and they have to defend it. And some of the slashes have cut the inspector workforce, they’ve cut the number of controllers to the point where the air traffic control system is literally just hanging on by its fingernails out there, and they haven’t been able to independently speak up and say the kind of things that they know are happening. And so we need the Congress to be much more aggressive in its investigations and in its probes to bring forth the shortcomings that we know exist out there. And the traveling public can certainly have a role in that.
HEFFNER: You know, it puzzles me, when you talk about the Congress, each and every one of the Representatives and each and every one of the Senators who, leaving Washington, gets into a plane must be concerned themselves about this. Have we succeeded in playing games with ourselves to such an extent that it isn’t yet recognized that there has been what you call a “slippage in safety concerns?”
DUFFY: No, I think the aviation subcommittees and the oversight committees are doing a good job. I think once again that the problems, it’s like a growing wave, you know, and the wave is just kind of breaking on us now. And I think the extent to which these problems have developed, maybe the aviation subcommittees need t get out in front of it a little more. And certainly as they’re pushed by the constituents, they’ll be glad to do that.
HEFFNER: As you as a pilot, as one of those few brave people who do go up in the air so regularly, do you see any connection between what’s going on now in the airline industry and the tragedy of our own spacecraft? Do you think there is a Challenger parallel here?
DUFFY: Well, only in that perhaps our whole system of safety needs the same independent objective look that the whole space shuttle is getting right now. Yu know, we have tried to look at our system in traditional ways through the aviation subcommittees, through the Federal Aviation Administration’s own internal investigations and that sort of thing. It may well be time to have a truly independent panel step back and look at this thing and say, “All right, we’ve been in deregulated safety now since 1978. Let’s take a look at those years and see if the margins truly have slipped and how can we stop them from slipping anymore.”
HEFFNER: Did you feel during regulation that we were coming closer to – oh, I don’t want to call it “failsafe” – but that we were coming closer to the point that what we could do that was humanly possible to do with safety as our primary criteria, that that was coming about?
DUFFY: During regulation?
HEFFNER: During regulation.
DUFFY: I think we were putting the proper amount of funds and money into the development of new systems. The economic considerations were much lower on the priority list, and that’s the big change that we see. Everything is subjected now to a tremendous cost/benefit determination. And many times the answers that come out of that are wrong. I don’t mean to say that there was any utopian existence even during regulation. One example is back in the 1950s the Airline Pilots’ Association did a crash test on airplanes that showed that the materials inside of the cabins were in fact toxic. And when they caught on fire it wasn’t the fire the necessarily killed people; it was the smoke from the fire. And we hammered away at the airplane manufacturers and the FAA for some 30 years trying to get that fixed. And it took a crash of an Air Canada airplane at Cincinnati to finally move the FAA to issue the proper regulations. So some of these things we’ve been banging away at for a long time. It’s just gotten tougher under deregulation.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s the thing that concerns me, the statement that’s sometimes made that safety measures are taken, we make progress really over the bodies of those who first become victims. And that’s not just discouraging in terms of the fears one harbors as a flier, as a frequent flier, as a consumer, but in terms of what it means about us as a people. What does get the top priority?
DUFFY: Well, then it’s bad, I mean, you know, cost/benefit determination gets real personal in an accident. And unfortunately in some cases it’s taken an accident to bring about some dramatic fix. Worse than that in some cases. Ten years ago we had an Eastern airliner crash from windshear at John F. Kennedy Airport. And in those ten years the windshear detection problem should have been fixed. But it’s still not fixed today. And it’s only a matter of priorities and a matter of money. And neither those priorities nor the money were committed.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s the question I want to ask you. Your opinion – I’m sure others will have variations on that opinion, different opinions – is it a function essentially of dollars and determination of what to do with the dollars? Do you feel as a man who is technically trained, the man who pilots the plane, could you put enough effort in, you put enough skill in, you put enough dollars in, and you can lick the primary problems that relate to flying safely?
DUFFY: Without question. But, u know, we are again realists. If we hit that perfect world and spend all of those dollars, nobody could afford to fly probably because the tickets would cost too much money. And so there has to be always a cost/benefit. And we recognize that. But it’s all too often shaded the wrong way, and only on the economic side of it.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, I was familiar with that notion that if you had enough, if you had sufficient redundancy in an airplane, you couldn’t get the darned thing off the ground. But how much do you accept that notion. And I mean somewhere then you say we have to draw the line.
DUFFY: Well, I mean the notion that there will be no accidents just isn’t real.
DUFFY: Mr. Richenbacher said it way back in the late ‘30s and ‘40s. If the airplanes are going to move they’re going to have accidents. And the only way to have a perfect safety record is to keep everything on the ground.
HEFFNER: Right. Like walking across the street. The only way to be safe is to stay home.
DUFFY: Sure. Sure.
HEFFNER: And even that’s not so safe.
DUFFY: Sure. But I think you could see we have developed the world’s safest form of transportation. So we can do quite well when we have the economics. And if there’s such a thing as an acceptable accident level, certainly we were working our way towards that. What we can’t stand and what the traveling public won’t stand for is any roll back in this great record that we’ve developed.
HEFFNER: Of course the job then, is to inform the traveling public. I’m not so sure that we’re that aware f it. There is an accident and everyone gets nervous, and then a couple of days go by and back we are on the plane. And I suppose that’s a good thing. It says something about the indomitable spirit – or stupidity – of human beings.
DUFFY: Well, one thing that’s happened is that we are probably victims of our own success. We did make this system very, very safe, and back in 1984 we had probably the best year that we had ever had in the airline industry. And then, of course, in 1j985 it turned around dramatically. Well, in that year, you know, the whole system didn’t just go to pot. It’s been a slow evolutionary thing. And the public has shown that they’re not going to tolerate a higher level of accidents. I mean, it’s the one thing that probably could bring back true regulation, complete regulation of the industry, is if the accident record got so bad that the public outcry pushed the congress to do something.
HEFFNER: Has deregulation and the connection that you see and you’ve written about and you’ve spoken about between safety and economics, has that affected the major airlines as well as the Johnny Come Latelys?
DUFFY: From the Johnny Come Latelys, but you know, you’ve got the managers now who are being pressured to other places where we can cut. And now the rationalizations start. You know, maybe we can do… We had one major airline that decided that they could do away with mechanics doing walkaround inspections. Well, through the history of aviation the mechanics walked around the airplane and looked for one thing and the pilots walked around the airplane and looked for anther. But for pure cost reasons they said that’s too much backup and we’re going to pull the mechanic off. Well, you know, maybe not this week or this month or this year, that mechanic not making that walk around is going to miss something and there’s going to be an accident. And then everybody’s going to say “We’ve gotta go have mechanics walking around the airplane.”
HEFFNER: It’s too bad that the feather bedding tradition in this country has jaded us to such an extent. And it really was a tradition.
HEFFNER: It was really wasteful. It was really sinful. That leads people to question whether both t he mechanic and the pilot need to walk around the airplane.
DUFFY: those are tough. I mean, those are, you know, what is a necessary redundancy and what is featherbedding? And where do you slice that? I mean, it’s like we’re…Pilot work rules. How long do you want a pilot to fly? Well, you’d probably want him to fly right up the point where he gets fatigued.
HEFFNER: Not I! Not my pilot.
DUFFY: But not a minute more. I mean, you don’t want him to fly one minute into being tired. And so, you know, where to draw that line and where that line comes down and what part of that’s featherbedding are tough judgment calls.
HEFFNER: Captain Duffy, we just have a few minutes left. I want to ask you about something that’s on the minds of so many people, that has to do with the controllers. Are you satisfied that we have, if not redundancy, at least safety in our air control system?
DUFFY: Well, once again it’s an area where we have been increasingly outspoken about the margins slipping away, and now there are congressional committees coming out with the same thing. There’s a government accounting office that’s saying the same thing. In our conversations with the controllers it boils down to simply not having enough, and because of the PATCO strike, the general experience level of the controller workforce being at a much lower level than it ever was before, and they’re having to handle something like 110 or 120 percent of the traffic, more traffic than was there pre-PATCO strike, which was back in 1981.
HEFFNER: Has the Airline Pilots’ Association taken a stand, one question, another question, how do you feel personally about the matter of if we culd, getting back the controllers who were put out at the time of the strike?
DUFFY: Well, we’ve strongly urged the rehiring of some of the experienced PATCO controllers. It’s the only way that we know to get experience back into the system quickly. It takes two to three years to really season a controller and get him where he is doing the full job that he should be doing, and especially in these busy centers like New York and Chicago and places like that. And so they’re going to hire a lot more controllers right now and they’re going to put them in the training chute, but it’s going to be two or three years down the line before the problem is really fixed. They can go right out there right now and a couple of months have one of these pre-PATCO people spun back up and in the system and doing the system some good.
HEFFNER: Captain Duffy, do you see any possibility that that will happen?
DUFFY: Administration has continued t take a very rigid line. However, we’re now getting more and more of the congress to speak up. And I think for the first time we may be seeing enough pressure starting to come on the administration where we may see it crack. I don’t know. They’re hard to turn around. But I think, you know, their own people within the FAA and the Department of Transportation know that the problem exists. They’re trying to gut out the problem here, but certainly we don’t need to slam two airplanes together in the air in order to make them change their minds.
HEFFNER: We have less than a minute, maybe 30 seconds left. What is the primary safety area that you would identify?
DUFFY: Well, I think the quickest thing that will restore safety to the system is to upgrade the Federal Aviation Administration’s inspection capabilities. I mean, we need more money in all of the facilities and in the airports. I mean, there’s just an endless list. One of the real problems is we’ve got $7 billion sitting in an aviation trust fund that was collected from your ticket taxes that’s not being spent for aviation safety the way it was mandated to be.
HEFFNER: Captain Duffy, thanks so much for joining me today and for pushing and being a voice for the flying public.
DUFFY: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you will join us again next time. And if you’d care t share your own thoughts about today’s program, please do write The Open Mind in care of this station. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “God night, and good luck.”