In 1986 I was working at Detroit Metro Airport when one of our MD-80s crashed during takeoff. About 150 people were killed instantly, except for one infant (still an unexplainable miracle). The accident investigation revealed that the pilots did not properly set the flaps for take-off. That’s a routine step in their procedure, but they missed it because they were distracted. Our airline was going through a merger at the time and the pilots were all nervous about how they would fare. Our industry is heavily unionized, and seniority will make or break your life. The pilots on this particular flight were discussing the merger in the cockpit while they were awaiting takeoff clearance from ATC. Fifteen minutes later, they would all be dead.
Very professional workers can still make mistakes. In the airline industry we refer to the causes of these errors “human factors”. These factors include poor communication, fatigue, distraction, etc. Human error analysis and correction is a major focus in aviation. We don’t have a choice; mistakes are deadly. We have worked during the past 30 years to imbed safety into every facet of our operations. And it shows. U.S. airlines transport 885 million passengers a year. During the past 10 years only one person has died due to an accident. Compare this to the 250,000 people who die each year in the U.S. due to medical error. No other industry comes even remotely close to our safety record. It’s something we are very proud of.
Union workers have been central to developing this safety culture. They have developed error reporting and analysis programs with management. Workers must be free to say “I made an error” without fear of losing their job. That error has to be analyzed so that it can be prevented from happening again. Other industries could learn much from observing airline processes. And while I would say that all the unions in an airline work together in accomplishing these safety goals, they don’t usually work together on other matters. Airline unions have varying history and missions. Unions that are not grounded in workers rights and socialism view their mission as simply representing their members for their collective benefit, not part of a wider movement. From my personal experience I can say that the IAM has always done a stellar job standing up for all workers, not just their members. I remember union leaders telling members that both the janitor and the mechanic have to pay the same price for bread, even when mechanics wanted to throw the baggage handlers or stock clerks under the bus during contract negotiations. I always gave the IAM leadership credit for teaching the stewards these basic lessons. We don’t historically see this in flight attendants and pilots unions.
That’s why I have been so encouraged by Sara Nelson and the Association of Flight Attendants. When the Federal shutdown idled employees and caused others to work without pay, Sara recognized the threat to the flying public caused by a human factors error. At the same time, President Trump dismissed the impact by saying that these workers would all get their back pay and they should be able to go for a month without a paycheck. But the threat is real. Very professional workers, when distracted from their duties by outside factors, can and will make errors. Sara and her coworkers exhibit a safety consciousness that informs everything they do. Further, a new assertiveness by women has allowed her to take the lead on this matter in an industry still dominated by men. It wasn’t the pilots who publicly alerted the nation to the danger, and it wasn’t the mechanics who ended the shutdown, it was the flight attendants. This is something inconceivable when I hired into the airlines in 1980.
Sara is today calling for a nationwide day of action by all flight attendants if the government is shut down again. You should follow Sara on twitter @flyingwithsara. The AFA-CWA are members of AFL-CIO.