Senate GOP leaders press ahead on a health care reform bill: What's in it, what's not, and will voters like it any better? Then, lessons learned from the Republican victory in a Georgia special election on Tuesday.
Details have come to light regarding two potentially dangerous air traffic control errors. One incident which took place last year involved the near collision of an American Airlines jet and a military cargo plane off the coast of New York. Last week at Washington’s Reagan National Airport three commuter planes came perilously close to one another. The U.S. airline industry has had a remarkably strong safety record, but some say details of these recent incidents point to strains in the system. Please join us to discuss efforts to maintain airline safety, the growth of regional carriers, and what other trends in the airline industry mean for air travelers.
- Ray LaHood U.S. Secretary of Transportation and former Republican member of the United States House of Representatives.
- Ashley Halsey III Transportation reporter for The Washington Post.
- William McGee Author of "Attention All Passengers: The Airline's Dangerous Descent - And How To Reclaim Our Skies" and former travel journalist for Consumer Reports.
- John Cox Aviation consultant and president of Safety Operating Systems.
- Captain Lee Moak President of the Air Line Pilots Association, International.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Two widely publicized incidents of planes coming close to one another in flight have raised new questions about air traffic safety.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about these incidents and general trends in the aviation industry: Ashley Halsey of The Washington Post, Capt. John Cox, aviation safety consultant, Capt. Lee Moak of Air Line Pilots Association International and, joining us from a studio at WSHU in Fairfield, Conn., William McGee, author of "Attention All Passengers: The Airline's Dangerous Descent - And How To Reclaim Our Skies." Please feel free to join us by phone, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Feel free to follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everyone.
MR. ASHLEY HALSEY IIIGood morning, Diane.
CAPT. LEE MOAKGood morning.
MR. WILLIAM MCGEEGood morning.
REHMGood to have you all with us. First, joining us by phone from Jackson Hole, Wyo., Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation. Good morning to you, sir.
SECRETARY RAY LAHOODHey. Good morning, Diane. Good to be with you again.
REHMHow are you?
LAHOODI am doing well. I'm looking out at the Teton Mountains, and it's about as spectacular view as I think Mother Nature could provide to anybody.
REHMWell, I wish I had the same view. But, right now, we're going to have to talk about airlines. You said that in this most recent incident that there was a loss of separation between the planes, which should not have happened, but you said they were not on a head-to-head collision course. What more can you tell us about this flight?
LAHOODDiane, you and I have had discussions about airline safety before on your show and you know that nobody cares as much about safety as Ray LaHood. I've been preaching safety in all modes of transportation, but in particular when we went through the sleepy controller issue, when we went through other issues having to deal with the airlines, whether it was the Colgan air crash in Buffalo, N.Y., where we stepped up and put a very strong enforcement rule in. In this instance, I want people to know that America has the safest aviation system in the world.
LAHOODThousands of people will board planes today and arrive at their destinations safely. That happens every day in America because those of us that are charged with the responsibility for safety in aviation get up every day and think about safety and how to make sure that when somebody gets on a plane, they don't have to worry about it. And the incident that took place in Washington, D.C. is under investigation. We will make our findings known, and we will make very -- some very strong recommendations.
LAHOODThere were some mistakes made, but at no time were any planes on a collision course. And people charged with the responsibility of guiding planes, i.e., a controller at national airport did exactly what she was trained to do. We -- again, let me just tell all of the listeners. We live in a country that has the safest aviation system in the world. Can we do better? Of course, we can always do better. That's my job. That's Michael Huerta's job at the FAA, and we will continue to work every day to continue to make our aviation system the safest it can possibly be.
REHMAnd my job, of course, is to ask you further questions. I'd like to know what might change as a result of what happened at National Airport.
LAHOODWell, obviously, we need better communications between those that are guiding planes heading out, and...
REHMAll right. Better communications between the air controllers and the pilots.
LAHOODWell, look it, the controller did what she was trained to do. The communications I'm talking about is between the TRACON, which is located out in Virginia, and Washington National Airport. We also need to make sure that people that are charged with supervisory responsibility at the TRACON and at the airport are communicating directly with one another during very busy times.
LAHOODSo we need to make sure that if we're going to change course or change planes' courses, because of weather, that it's done correctly and it's communicated properly. And I believe that when you hear our recommendations following the investigation, a number of these things will be addressed. But there's no...
REHMNow, tell me about the GPS system that's slated to replace radar tracking.
LAHOODYeah. Look it, Diane, we are very grateful to Congress for passing a four-year FAA bill that gives us the resources, gives us the money to implement a very strong state-of-the-art system that will use state-of-the-art equipment. And we are in the process of implementing what we call Next Generation technology in airports all over America. We're training controllers.
LAHOODWe're -- we are implementing this in several airports around the country. Next Generation will save jet fuel. It'll guide -- help guide planes safer into airports. And Congress provided us the money in the FAA bill, and we're on our way to implementing this very important technology.
REHMAll right. And let me ask you about the increase in the number of regional carriers and how that is affecting overall traffic.
LAHOODWell, in implementing NextGen, in implementing next -- the next generation of technology, Diane, airplanes will have to have this technology in their planes. And we are working with the airline industry in terms of their ability to make sure this technology is not only in the air traffic control towers and -- but also in the airplanes. And, obviously, regional carriers are becoming a very important part of the aviation system in America. And, eventually, they will have to have this technology so that those planes can be guided safely also.
REHMAll right. And, Mr. Secretary, you said very plainly, very clearly, it was a loss of separation. It should not have happened. What can you put in place now to ensure it doesn't happen again?
LAHOODWell, we're going to release recommendations very soon, Diane, maybe as soon as today.
REHMWhat about right now, Mr. Secretary?
LAHOODWe want to make sure that supervisory personnel that were involved in these communications are talking directly and that there's a good understanding of what's being communicated and that they're not distracted by other responsibilities. And I think you'll see those recommendations come out very quickly here. We've completed our investigation, and our recommendations will be made quickly.
LAHOODBut, again, I want all of your listeners to understand and the thousands of people that boarded planes or will board planes today will fly around America safely thanks to the safest aviation system in the world. We will do better...
LAHOODDiane, we will do better, and part of recommendations will show that we will do better.
REHMYou've got some 2.5 million listeners right now. You can make your statement, so it will be heard.
LAHOODWell, my statement is that I will take a backseat to no one as the secretary of Transportation when it comes to safety in trains, planes, automobiles, motor coaches, big buses or big trucks. We have spent the last four years on safety, and we will continue to do better. And I want people to know that our aviations system is the safest, but we'll do better. And I think when you see our recommendations that will come out later today, you will know that we take safety as our most serious agenda item, and people will fly safely. And we'll do what it takes to make sure things are done correctly.
REHMRay LaHood, secretary of Transportation, thanks for joining us, sir.
LAHOODThank you, Diane. Have a good day.
REHMYou, too. And, Ashley Halsey of The Washington Post, what do you expect those recommendations to include?
IIII have not seen anything yet, but a colleague of mine, who has apparently had access to some of these in advance, says that there may be a restriction put on planes approaching from opposite directions at an airport temporarily and that they're also going to deal with some communication issues, which clearly was the problem at National Airport. And I think that it's important...
REHMCommunications between who and whom?
IIIOK. There -- for your 2.5 million listeners, I won't get specific with location, but there is a facility near National, but not at National, which deals with airplanes and their coordination. It called the tower at National and said, hey, the wind has shifted. Let's approach from a different direction. And the tower agreed. However, the person in the tower apparently did not communicate that to everybody who was directing the airplanes.
IIIWell, that's what the -- what Secretary LaHood and Administrator Huerta and their investigators, as well as the NTSB investigators, will determine.
REHMCould -- what could have been the reason that was not communicated?
IIIIt would be entirely speculative to me. I mean, some -- there may have been an interruption of that communication.
IIIThere could have been distraction. But, as I say, it's completely speculative on my part. Something happened, and the controller who was dealing with the planes was unaware that the shift had been made.
REHMAshley Halsey, he's a transportation reporter for The Washington Post. You heard earlier from secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking about airline safety. There have been some recent incidents which have certainly troubled the Federal Aviation Administration. The Department of Transportation, you've just heard Secretary Ray LaHood talking about announcements that could be made later on today regarding intensifying the systems that are already in place and perhaps putting in new ones. Ashley Halsey, just before the break, Secretary LaHood had said over and over again, at no time, were these planes on a collision course. Explain that.
IIIWhat he said was that at no time were they on a head-to-head collision course.
IIIAnd I think the secretary drives cars and rides bicycles, both of them very effectively. But an airplane is a 360-degree experience. So I think he's thinking of head-to-head as a head-to-head collision, nose-to-nose. And I think that, when they review the radar track on this, both at the NTSB, which now has it, and at FAA, they're going to find that there was a very real possibility of collision. But to put it in the simplest terms for your listeners, if you look at the flight patterns in and out of National Airport, they are patterned up and down the river for noise abatement.
IIIAnd as a consequence of that, they're not -- it's not a broad funnel into which they come. They come up and down the river. Anybody who sits by the Potomac will see that. And so when you have planes going out in one direction and planes coming in in the other direction, without getting into all the technology and the technical details, I leave it to your listeners to imagine it's not -- you know, George Washington is supposed to have thrown a dollar across the river. I don't think he did that there, but it's a pretty narrow river.
REHMAll right, Capt. Cox, I know you want to weigh in.
CAPT. JOHN COXWell, I think it's important for us to recognize that the aviation safety system has several layers in it. And while the communication issue is a breakdown in one layer, there were several other layers available that -- the supervisor that caught it, that's an additional layer. And it worked...
COXThey worked just exactly like they were supposed to. There are on-board traffic avoidance systems in both of the -- in all the airplanes. So had they gotten to a point where there was an imminent collision risk, these technologies give the pilots coordinated escape maneuvers. And the pilots can also see outside and see each other, so there's a see and avoid component to this as well.
REHMAt the same time, Capt. Lee Moak, it sounded, from the conversations I heard going back and forth between one of the pilots and the air traffic controller, as though there were some confusion. And certainly if you're flying, even in layers and not nose-to-nose, there is certainly the possibility of a collision.
MOAKWell, I'd like to make a couple of points. The first one is in relation to what you're saying. First off, we communicate so that we clear things up. So that would be normal communications. Second is, I agree with the secretary in that we -- and I want to underscore this -- we have the safest national air space in the world.
REHMI understand that, makes me very happy.
MOAKI like that. Next, the air traffic controllers that we deal with -- that the pilots deal with every day -- they're very professional. And I think it's maybe just a bit premature right now to be speculating on an ongoing investigation and recommendations that are going to come from that.
REHMBut it sounds as though the investigation is completed from what Secretary had to say.
MOAKYeah, I did hear him say that. Now, I'm still waiting for a reach out from the DOT to the Airline Pilots Association for us to put our input 'cause sometimes I get concerned when they make decisions without everyone's input because there's that famous law, the law of unintended consequences, when they haven't included everyone. So I'm still waiting for that reach out from DOT.
REHMAll right. I want to turn now to William McGee who's on with us from WSHU in Connecticut. The subtitle of your book, Bill McGee, is "The Airline's Dangerous Descent - And How To Reclaim Our Skies." What did you make of the recent incidents?
MCGEEWell, first of all, there's no question that what Secretary LaHood said is correct. We have the safest commercial aviation system in the world. An awful lot of work has gone into that over the decades. My concern and your concern is really reflected in the dozens and dozens of people that I spoke to while researching the book, frontline FAA inspectors, pilots, air traffic controllers among others, is that we're in an unprecedented era in the airline industry in the United States.
MCGEEAnd the cost cutting that has been going on just over the last decade has the potential to affect that safety record that we're all so rightfully proud of. And one of the things that struck me, when I was reading the Washington Post coverage of last week's incident, specifically, I know this airport very well, Washington National. Before I became a journalist, I -- I'm an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, and I worked for Pan Am shuttle. So I used to deal with that airport on a daily basis. I was an operations control duty manager.
MCGEEAnd what struck me is that, in recent years, the regional flying that you alluded to earlier just continues to increase. We now are at a stage where 53 percent of all commercial departures in the United States are operated by regionals that are flying on behalf of mainline carriers. So one of the issues that I would just hope is addressed here is, you know, we'll find out the specifics of what happened last week at National.
MCGEEBut as a systemic issue, we're putting more and more smaller planes into the air at a time when, you know, congestion is a critical issue. Secretary LaHood referenced NextGen, which hopefully will address, you know, many of these congestion issues. But the fact is -- you know, and the regional airline association points out, that every morning there are 35 northbound departures between 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. between three Washington airports and four New York airports.
MCGEEAnd 30 of those 35 departures are operated by regionals. So I think, as a big picture issue, to step back, I think we need to ask ourselves, you know, are we making the best of our resources here? We're putting more and more flying on smaller and smaller aircraft and clogging the skies.
REHMAshley Halsey, do you have any comment on that?
IIII don't. I defer to the other gentlemen in regard to the quality of -- and the number of regional aircraft that are in the air. In this case, the fact that these happened to be three regional aircraft had no bearing whatever on the circumstance, and I would defer to the other two to (unintelligible).
REHMAll right, Capt. Moak.
MOAKI think if we were to focus just a little bit on a number that was used earlier related to how close the aircraft were, routinely, we fly our airplanes within a thousand feet of each other. And as we go...
REHMThat's the minimum.
MOAKWell, and sometimes even closer. It just depends what part of the airspace you're in. So we want to be clear that...
REHMBut isn't the FAA rule that they not be any closer than 1,000 feet?
MOAKWell, at this point where we were at, we weren't 1,000 feet. However, we were in an area where it had a larger bubble around the airplane. That's what happened. And...
REHMWhat do you mean a larger bubble?
MOAKBecause we haven't converted to Next Generation yet, and the position of the planes are defined by radar returns and IFF -- you know, the transponder returns, the bubble around an airplane is much larger. When we bring NextGen on, which will actually address some of the concerns by your other panelists, we expect that capacity will go up at airports. And I want to stress this that the capacity coming into DCA -- and I fly into Reagan Airport. I'm a pilot. I still stay current.
MOAKI fly into Reagan Airport. The capacity into Reagan works just fine. It's very safe. And, by definition, what happened here -- and I want to stress this -- we're having a conversation on it got some airplanes -- they got closer than they should have by current rules. We're not having a discussion like we would have had 10 or 20 years ago that we had a potential midair -- that we had a midair, so, by definition, the skies are safer. I think capacity is right.
COXI'd like to follow up with what Capt. Moak said. And to put it in perspective on a worldwide basis, we will fly the population of the planet about every 26 months. That is the demand that air travel has grown to worldwide. While we're doing that year over year, year over year, year over year, it's gotten safer. So when we see -- in the United States, we see the increase to 53 percent for the regionals, the safety record is still excellent.
COXWhen you compare it anywhere in the world -- when you look at Western Europe, you look at all of North America and other parts of the world, it's just an unbelievably safe system. What we learn from it is events that come up that are abnormals -- they're not immediate potential accidents or collisions like we had at Reagan. We learn from that, and that's what gives the system the strength, is to see what -- where the breakdown was, what mitigations worked, what didn't, evolve the system and make it better. And that's worked for us for decades.
REHMHere's an email from Richard in Ann Arbor, Mich., who says, "A lot of stock is being put into a GPS-based air traffic control system. A solar storm can distort GPS for days. Do we ground the airlines during a solar event?" Capt. Moak.
MOAKWell, I'm not going to argue with your email. But I'm going to say that that's not the case, and the GPS systems are very secure. And our aircraft will continue to fly, and the system is not going to be affected.
IIIThe NextGen system is -- the shorthand for that is it's a GPS system which, in fact, it is. But it is also a far, far, far more complex system than that it totally replaces what we currently do with air traffic controllers. It's a complete...
REHMYou mean it replaces the human being?
IIINo, the human being will still be a factor. But it will be playing a very different role. But to suggest -- and we journalists are to blame for this -- we call it a GPS-based system because it fits nicely into one paragraph. But I wrote about 500 paragraphs to try to explain it fully and still didn't scratch the surface. The NextGen system is a very, very complex system, and GPS is a key element of it, but not the only element of it. And also my understanding of GPS is -- concurs with Lee's understanding -- Capt. Moak's understanding that it's not as problematic.
REHMBill McGee, what's your thought?
MCGEEWell, two years ago, I was serving on Secretary LaHood's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, and we were given an in-depth introduction to NextGen. And I certainly concur with what the other panelists have said. There are a lot of moving parts with NextGen. And I think one of the -- ironically, one of the issues with funding may be related to the fact that it is so complex. And it's hard, I think, for journalists and for the public to sort of, you know, wrap your head around it.
MCGEEIt's not as if a new computer is being wheeled in. And we plug it in, and, you know, we cut a ribbon and say, now we're on NextGen. There are a lot of moving parts, obviously, with the aircraft on the ground, in centers across the country, and there's no question that it's an improvement. And, obviously, there are a lot of moving parts to it.
REHMAll right. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Bill McGee, you allege in your new book, "Attention All Passengers" that airline executives are cutting costs in what you call a mad race to the bottom. What's different now as compared to 10 years ago?
MCGEECertainly, well, I think, you know, when you speak to the average consumer about the airline industry, the complaint that you often hear is about the add-on fees...
MCGEE...fees for checking baggage, things like that. What I'm much more concerned about is how that same mindset for cost cutting affects things that can't easily be seen. And I think one of the most significant issues is the outsourcing of maintenance. And that is a change. There has always been outsourcing to an extent.
MCGEEBut the -- just the sheer volume of outsourcing of what the industry calls heavy maintenance, major maintenance -- basically now, the only airline in the United States that provides most of its maintenance in-house is American Airlines. Although, ironically, that's likely to change soon now that American is in bankruptcy reorganization and there's a possibility that U.S. Airways might acquire American as well.
REHMAnd so tell me why you were so concerned about outsourced aircraft maintenance if it can be done as well and as -- or less expensively.
MCGEEWell, the fact is, in theory, there's not a problem at all. But it's the practice that's the concern. And my concerns, quite frankly, stem from the dozens and dozens of experts that I've been speaking to for six years on this topic. Primarily, the frontline FAA inspectors -- the FAA inspectors that are assigned to airlines, that are assigned to oversee maintenance, we've seen just over the last 10 years, much of this maintenance -- some of it is outsourced in the United States.
MCGEEMuch of it is outside the United States in developing countries, in El Salvador, in Mexico, China, Singapore. And the FAA inspectors that I've spoken to repeatedly -- they all sort of say the same thing, that they don't have the same ability to -- they call it kicking the tires -- to walk into a hangar and to oversee work as they used to. Now, at the same time, the FAA has also relied more on electronic surveillance of maintenance and that -- you know, it's provided benefits, but, at the same time, every FAA inspector I've spoken to says that that's not enough in and of itself.
MCGEEYou still need -- still need people on the ground.
MOAKI would say that we have airplanes that we manufacture in the United States at Boeing aircraft, but many of the components are built overseas and around the world. We sell these planes all over the world. We also buy airplanes that are manufactured in foreign countries. Airbus airplanes, and now they're going to start manufacturing them in the United States. So it's normal to expect that some maintenance would be performed outside of the United States on components that were manufactured outside the United States.
REHMBut what about looking to export that repair and maintenance simply to cut cost, Capt. Cox?
COXI think it's really more important that we look at the oversight. And I've worked in some absolutely beautiful maintenance facilities that are doing heavy maintenance for U.S. carriers around the world. The oversight for those carriers was very close, and the quality of the work that they were producing was as good as any.
REHMHow many FAA inspectors are available to do that kind of kicking the tires?
MOAKThat's -- so that's the question. The question is the oversight and the question is that we have the same oversight when it's done overseas as it is done in the U.S. And that's...
COXI agree with that.
MOAKThat's what we want, and that's what we believe is happening.
REHMCapt. Lee Moak, he's president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International. Short break here. When we come back, your calls.
REHMAnd welcome back. With me here in the studio, Ashley Halsey, transportation reporter for The Washington Post, Capt. John Cox -- he's an aviation consultant and president of safety operating systems -- Capt. Lee Moak -- he's president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International. On the line with us from WSHU in Fairfield, Conn., William McGee, author of a new book titled "Attention All Passengers: The Airline's Dangerous Descent - And How To Reclaim Our Skies." First to Oklahoma City. Good morning, John. You're on the air.
JOHNGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call. I love your show.
REHMCertainly. Thank you.
JOHNMy comment -- we kind of touched on it a little bit earlier about outsourcing maintenance to other countries and the downward pressure on the airlines. My comment/question to your panel is, what do you think about, you know, the downward pressure in general? It seems like, you know, there's these bankruptcies in contract negotiations and pay, to me, for pilots, flight attendants, dispatchers, mechanics, whoever. Pay and quality of life seems to be going down and down. How do you think that affects aviation safety in general?
MCGEEWell, it's an issue that is at the core of attention of all passengers because I don't think it's possible to discuss the airline industry or even airline safety in 2012 without discussing labor issues, quite frankly. This is an industry that, in many ways, has just been decimated from a labor perspective. We've seen more outsourcing than ever. And as far as the maintenance outsourcing, you know, let's be very clear about this. I mean, a panelist earlier on this topic, you know, referred to what are really some of the best practices around the world.
MCGEEThere's no question that there are first-rank outsourcing facilities, including Boeing and Airbus and jet engine manufacturers. But that's not the case in, you know, across the board. The fact is there are many facilities, both inside and outside the United States, that do not hire FAA-licensed or FAA-equivalent licensed mechanics. There are two sets of standards as far as drug and alcohol screening outside the United States. So what we're really talking about here is when U.S. major carriers are ferrying empty aircraft to El Salvador.
MCGEEThis is about cutting costs, and let's be very clear about that. And the money that they're saving, in many cases, by using mechanics that are not licensed mechanics -- you know, we have to ask ourselves, is -- what are the long-term effects of this? Now, according to the FAA, if an FAA-licensed mechanic signs off on the work, then -- and FAA officials have said this to me eye to eye, then it doesn't matter whether the work was performed by licensed mechanics or unlicensed mechanics. I think the average person would have a problem with that.
IIII think that the question has been raised numerous times about outsourcing, and I think probably the best person to ask about that is Capt. Moak because he is talking with pilots who, every single day, fly those planes again and again and again. Is he hearing any complaints about an uptick in maintenance issues?
MOAKThere's no uptick in maintenance, but I do want to stress one thing. We could do all of this work in the United States. It's clear that we could do it.
REHMYou think we will be doing more of that?
MOAKWhether we do it or not is really based in government policy related to leveling the playing field on a tax and regulation basis. Right now, they don't fly these planes outside the United States to have them repaired for fun. They do it because the taxes and regulations that are imposed on the airlines right now are the highest in the world, especially the taxes. So when they move it outside the U.S., they can do it cheaper from a tax viewpoint.
REHMBut if they're taking a chance on my life because of taxes, I've got a problem with that.
MOAKI couldn't agree more. But what I'm saying is it's safe, what they're doing. It's the FAA's job to have oversight of it. But I would like to see those jobs back in the United States. I would like to see pay, working conditions, and benefits commensurate with the experience of an American, but they're not going to be here as long as this tax policy we have here continues.
REHMWhat specific taxes are you talking about?
MOAKIn general, airline taxes -- there are 17 different taxes on an airline ticket. And it's no mistake that over the last 30 years, we've had 200 -- and I want to say that again -- 200 bankruptcies of airline companies in the U.S. A lot of it is because of government policy. A lot of it is because of taxes and the way taxes are applied, taxes and fees across the board.
MOAKYou brought up earlier on ancillary fees -- we were talking briefly about it. That's another example of airlines have to be profitable. And not one airline in the U.S. right now is investment grade, so bottom line is the government needs to focus on airline profitability, leveling the playing field. And these jobs will move back to the U.S.
REHMBill McGee, do you have any comment?
MCGEEWell, I think, you know, that's just one aspect of this issue, the tax issue that was just raised. The fact is I think we also need to look at the wages that are being given to the people that are actually doing the work.
MCGEEThe wages that are given to the maintenance personnel in China, in El Salvador and, in many cases, right here in the United States at outsource facilities, they're not equivalent to what airline mechanics receive or have received in the past before those jobs were outsourced. So I think a fair question is, you know, at what point does the tax burden issue, you know, give way to other cost factors?
MOAKWell, I want to say the tax burden issue is the issue because what it has driven -- it's the highest taxes on the U.S. It's higher than all the sin taxes of alcohol, tobacco and firearms which discourage use. So because that tax burden is so high, it's put downward pressure on pay and working conditions for our employees.
COXFrom the safety standpoint, we look a lot at data, and when you look at the maintenance issues, dispatch reliability, how the airplanes are coming back and how they're entering service, we see a very high and continually increasing level of dispatch reliability. Those are the numbers that drive us. If we were having large maintenance issues, it would show up there. And as a safety professional, that's one of the places that I'm going to look.
REHMBut if Bill McGee says that you've got FAA officials signing off on work that perhaps they've not had an opportunity to thoroughly inspect, how am I as a potential passenger supposed to interpret how safe that plane is going to be when I get on it?
COXWell, I think the most important part is to look at how well we have done historically and how well we're doing now. When you put that together and you say -- excuse me -- when you say as a passenger, and I ride in the airlines every week, my family rides on the airlines with great frequency, it's the safest mode of transportation out there. So when we look at it -- and the safety professionals, those of us that are involved in aviation safety, we're looking at this data for trends all the time, and the trends have gotten better. The safety has gotten better.
IIII think a taxi driver might be willing to take out a vehicle with a bad muffler. I doubt a pilot is going to get on an airplane that's misfiring. So that's why I said -- suggested to Lee -- that Lee would be the best person to answer that 'cause his pilots would be complaining, I think, loudly and very publicly if they felt that they were being given substandard equipment.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Sarasota, Fla. Good morning, Raymond.
RAYMONDGood morning. Excellent panel this morning.
RAYMONDI was to comment specifically on the new process actually taking place as far as this new software or new equipment going in. Are we finding that we might be relying far too much on that? And are we finally getting to the point to maybe we're a little bit more proactive on, not only maintenance, but also airline safety as well and also security?
REHMWhat about that, Bill McGee?
MCGEEWell, you know, the point was made earlier about data, and couldn't be more correct. You know, this is an industry that, just from the sheer size and scope, data is critical. But the tough question and the question that we don't have a full answer to is, is the FAA capturing all the data that it needs to capture? Now, traditionally, the record it would indicate that it has, but in recent years -- again, due to two critical changes: one is the dramatic upswing in outsourcing itself of maintenance, and the other is the reliance on electronic surveillance.
MCGEEThe question remains, is the FAA capturing all the data that it needs? And, in fact, I addressed this issue at length in "Attention All Passengers." I have an entire section -- an entire chapter just devoted to FAA surveillance. And there's a section in there that deals with a former airline mechanic, who, out of his kitchen in Massachusetts, is running a shadow FAA.
MCGEEHe uses very low-tech technology, like Google, to capture events that make the news, air turn backs, emergency diversions, smoke in the cabin. He then compares his data with the public data that the FAA provides after a suitable time lapse. And we're finding -- I'm hearing this repeatedly from frontline FAA inspectors, from mechanics, that the FAA is not always capturing all the data.
REHMWhat about that, Capt. Cox?
COXEngineers are always -- are people who always want more data. And I'm guilty of that myself. So I think that there are so many different facets in and above and beyond the FAA. The airlines are now looking at their own internal data, and they're reviewing it with a fine-tooth comb. They have to under the safety management system concept, which is now permeating the entire aviation industry.
COXSo we are moving from what once was a reactive safety system to today's proactive -- and very shortly to a predictive system. And that's the way that we're going to keep the incident and accident right from coming -- from -- keep it coming down.
REHMAll right. And here's an email from Rita. "What tax burden in particular? That line from your panelist sounds much too political and he ducked the answer when it was asked. Please press that point. Not all bankruptcy is the fault of the government." Capt. Moak.
MOAKWell, you could go into -- it would take a great deal of time to go over every one of them, but when I tell you that there's 17 different taxes and fees -- and let's be clear. A fee is a tax. The reason why they call it a fee -- TSA fee, immigration fee, whatever that fee is -- it's easier for them to raise that routinely. And the tax burden has gone up dramatically, and tickets are priced based on the market. So when you have a tax burden like this, it has -- it allows less money for the corporation to function.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's another email, this one from C.B., who says, "I would like to hear what your guests think of the current training for pilots, as well as ground personnel, in light of the carriage of dangerous goods as they continued to be overlooked." What about that, Ashley?
IIII think Capt. Moak knows about that in a much greater detail.
REHMAll right. But before Capt. Moak comes in on this, let me ask Bill McGee. What do you think about this?
MCGEEWell, you know, as you soon as you said it, I thought back to my own time in the airline industry 20 years ago. When I was an airline employee, I received extensive training on handling of dangerous goods. And what strikes me is, you know, we've been speaking a lot about maintenance outsourcing, but it's important to put in perspective just how much the labor picture has changed in the U.S. airline industry certainly since deregulation in 1978 but even more dramatically just in the last 10 years or so since Sept. 11.
MCGEEAnd so the fact is, you know, most ground functions at many airlines, in terms of baggage handling, catering, things like that, servicing the aircraft, are outsourced. And so the questions that we used to put to airlines -- how well do you train your employees -- now need to be extended to the service companies that the airlines employ. This -- you know, there's not only safety issues, but there are security issues here as well. How well are we screening not just airline employees, but how well are we screening all the many, many dozens of service companies that the airlines employ at airports?
REHMAll right. And, finally, what about the demographics, Capt. Moak, of commercial airline pilots? Is there a wave of retirements coming up? We hear occasionally about young -- younger pilots who are not quite as well trained, as compared to a Capt. Sullenberger, who knew exactly what to do and how to do it. What's coming up?
MOAKSo the question is training. Are...
REHMThe question is retirements and training.
MOAKRight. So I get that question based on a pilot shortage also. And I just want to say the following things. First off, when I was in my early 20s, I was very well trained in the Marine Corp, and I was landing on aircraft carriers. So it is a training issue.
MOAKI believe our young pilots are going through the best training programs in the world here in the United States, but the problem is many of our pilots are leaving the United States because of pay, working conditions, and benefits that are not commensurate with their training or experience.
MOAKThey might have 100- or $200,000 in student loans, and they're being lured overseas to Gulf carriers and Chinese carriers. So that's what's going to drive a pilot shortage. It's really a pay shortage, pay commensurate with service. But I'm going to tell you, our training is excellent. We have the best pilots in the world, hands down.
COXI think it's important to recognize that training for commercial airline pilots is in a revolution. It is being changed. The FAA is rewriting that whole process, and it's a good change. We have trained the same way. I first entered the airlines in 1980, and we were pretty much, until about four or five years ago, training the same way. We've learned now. And as we look forward to the next generation -- the pilots that will replace the massive retirements that are coming -- they're going to get better training.
COXThey're going to have to get better training. They're going to be in a more complex environment. They're going to be integral with NextGen. They're going to be with more automated airplanes, but that -- and the training has got to take care of that, and I believe it will.
REHMCapt. John Cox, aviation consultant and president of Safety Operating Systems, Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association International, William McGee, author of "Attention All Passengers." And Ashley Halsey, he's transportation reporter for The Washington Post. I'm sure this discussion will continue long after this hour ends. I'll look forward to flying safely in the future. Thanks for being here.
COXThank you, Diane.
MOAKThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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