At United Airlines, Does Making Money Trump Safety?

By Robert Mark on March 2nd, 2015

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At United Airlines, does making money trump safety?

A recent Aviation Week article quotes United CEO Jeff Smisek saying, “We’re going to run the airline for profit maximization …” That made me wonder a bit.

Then I noticed last week’s Wall Street Journal story in which the airline strongly chastised its pilots for cockpit safety issues the company warned could lead to an accident. United’s tone throughout the story made it appear the company had just uncovered a scorpion’s den of safety violations created by a bunch of rogue pilots who cared little about the safety of their millions of passengers.

But there’s another side to the story and calling it eye opening is a bit of an understatement.

After reading the WSJ story broken by Andy Pasztor, I began receiving a series of intriguing documents from some United pilots that again made we wonder if United is too focused on money, so much so in fact that the company might be avoiding responsibility for financially-focused policies that appear to already be undermining safety at the airline. (Note: this story was edited after it posted to correct an error in my referencing the NYTimes, when the story should have mentioned The Wall Street Journal)

While some readers might assume the information I received was simply a reaction to the company’s indictment of its pilots, it now actually seems to be the other way around. Among what I received, was a letter from a pilot member of Local 12, the Chicago council of the Air Line Pilot Association penned by their local safety officials. They were considerably more blunt about the problem at the airline. “[At United] economics trump safety,” they said. Pilots told me that their training at United, once the envy of the aviation industry, has deteriorated to become more of an industry joke.

The documents also proved that the union was way ahead of the airline’s merger-related safety issues that became the focus of the NYTimes story. United’s ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC) in November 2011 sent Congress, at the request of those legislator’s, a report called, “Inadequate Pilot Training and Compromised Safety by United Airlines Within the Process of Merging the Continental and United Airlines’ FAA Operating Certificates.Three and half years ago the report called attention to safety issues driven by poor training and a host of other merger-related topics. Where all the pilot’s concerns have been sitting the past three and a half years though is anyone’s guess.

The Plot Thickens

Important to this current story are also the recent behaviors of a number of United management personnel the pilots claim are responsible for the not-so-subtle intimidation of crews to convince pilots to bend to management’s financially driven demands. The letter I received names one of the more offensive managers as Cal Janacek, United’s Chief Pilot at the Chicago O’Hare base.

Commenting on Janacek, the union said, “The pattern of his behavior [in dealing with pilots] includes threats, intimidation and outright bullying. We are also seeing an alarming increase in punishments using the threat of re-training to ‘help get a pilot’s mind right’ [and thinking in the company mode].” Pilots being sent back for retraining, is considered one of the ultimate shames and indicates the organization has lost faith in that aviator.

A union-reported incident said the chief pilot unexpectedly showed up in the cockpit of an airplane full of passengers sitting at the gate. Janacek is said to have inserted himself into the middle of an operational delay problem even though the captain never requested his help. As the captain tried to explain the situation, because the airplane was going to be late, the chief pilot is reported to have told the captain, “Don’t throw that safety shit at me [as a reason for not departing] …”

In another, a different assistant chief pilot told the captain and first officer of a flight they needed to get their airplane into the air or else. The crew was trying to figure out how to carry a passenger headed for deportation that they also believed had been exposed to Ebola. The rest of the crew, including the flight attendants was pretty worried. The assistant chief is reported to have told the captain, “go now, or get your belongings and leave the airplane.” The crew chose to leave the airplane, which left all the passengers wondering what had just happened.

The pilots told me that the robustness of the airline’s once-great training program has also suffered with recurrent training devolving into a time-wasting effort, much of it focused around simplistic computer-based questioning. Worst of all … they told me the FAA operations inspector who oversees the airline’s flight operations has known about United’s training and safety issues for years, but has essentially turned a blind eye.

So keep these issues in mind the next time you climb aboard a United flight. My guess is the situation will get worse long before it gets better, so stay tuned.

Rob Mark, Publisher


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10 Responses to “At United Airlines, Does Making Money Trump Safety?”

  1. bonita lehto Says:

    Never flight United, too expensive! thanks for update.

  2. Tom Says:

    Just the tip of the iceberg on what is really happening. The FAA UAL PMI and PAI monitoring United were thrown out a couple of years ago for records fraud assisting United maintenance to violate laws. Their boss, FAA POI John Martin departed into retirement in 2013 after trying to fire FAA inspector Cheryl Henderson who reported the crimes. Martin was given the ALPA White Paper in 2011 which included many more serious issues than incompetent training. He did nothing. ALPA then went to Administrator Babbitt with Martin present in the room. Martin agreed to make changes but did nothing. Ray La Hood and 95 people in Congress then got the report. LaHood requested Babbitt’s attend a meeting on the White Paper but Babbitt got a DUI. He departed and nothing was done. Henderson survives with a commendation from Sec of Transportation Ray LaHood. New UAL FAA POI Hugh Thomas is said by some inspectors to tell employees that “he works for United, not the FAA”. Inspectors are leaving UAL FAA operations and have expressed no respect for Thomas. This is all typical FAA operations at United dating back long ago to when FAA inspector Robert Stitch was released after finding crimes. He wrote books on the matter.

    After the accident happens a lot of FAA people will be unable to hide behind the Federal Tort Reform Act, they have been directly told of the problems in certified mail deliveries and have done nothing.

    Remember that the FAA person in charge of the UAL-CAL merger was Bobby Hedland, the man behind the Southwest corruption as documented in the Oberstar Commission. Testimony before Congress can also be seen on U-Tube videos. Per the US Office of Special Counsel in a letter to Pres Obama Hedland was to be relieved of duty well before the CAL-UAL merger. Babbitt promoted him to “Team Lead” for the UAL-CAL merger. This issue was part of the 2011 White paper report you cite. The letter to Obama is included in the White Paper.

    There are issues in the White Paper that FAA personnel in AFS 200, Flight Standards, knows should be corrected but a loose POI does nothing. Recently the POI allowed UAL to fly planes with less reserve fuel that allowed by law, another $$$$$$ deal in the minds of some inspectors.

    What about the recent UAL 777 takeoff from SFO, headed to SYD. At top of climb the engine data back to maintenance alerts them of a bad engine. United does nothing, lets the flight continue 14 more hours but dispatches an engine change crew to Australia while the sick engine plane is enroute across hostile open waters on special FAA ETOPS procedures. On landing ground personnel note a smoking engine making unusual noises. The engine gets changed.

    How about the 737 landing at EWR, landing on the wingtip!!!! CAL pilots walked off with no apparent concern.

    How about multiple events of the pilots failing to land at the nearest suitable airport as required by FAR 91.7 after the planes became unairworthy and had to assume irregular operation such as low altitudes, etc. The crews disregarded FAR 91.7 and followed management guidance to continue to destination and not stop under threat of discipline.

    How about the line check captain who is unable to turn off fuel pumps in a dry tank, a likely cause of the TWA 800 accident and items of Airworthiness. he goes from his seat down into the electronics bay below the floor to try and disable fuel pumps so the flight can continue. All non-authorized but sanctioned by management.

    How about there FAA action against UAL concerning illegal charter flights. At the conclusion the UAL lawyers tell employees to continue the operation as the fines were very small.

    How about the Assistant flight Operations manager from Continental, Starley, walking into the ALPA MEC and request that ALPA stop trying to educate pilots on international laws as it is too much burden. It did not work on that MEC Chairman Morse and Vice- Chair Kravit but many think it did work on new ALPA MEC Chair Heppner who has done nothing to stop the circus. Paid off in the minds of many????

    The place is a crash in the waiting in the minds of many, now run by Frank Lorenzo’s seasoned Continental Air personnel. Original UAL people in general have little position on any matter, most have been fired or fled. CAL employes routinely refer to UAL employees as “the enemy” when they object to bad operations. Except a few like Mr. Janacek, who is original United, but seems to enjoy creating wild times. But that is another story for a guy making $450,000 a year and working 3 to 4
    8- hour days a week in an office.

    Frank Lorenzo’s policies and practices live on.

    Follow the FAA money.

    1. Babbitt gets fired and goes to work at Southwest where he did nothing to remedy the corruption scandal.

    2. FAA AFS 20 head John Allen delivers FAR 117 crew duty time extensions from previous FAA law for 2-man crews as desired by jet Blue. Soon after FAR 117 duty time rules are imposed assisting Jet Blue Allen deports for Jet Blue employment.

    3. FAA Legal Regualtory head Rebecca McPherson delivers a carve out in FAR 117 duty time rules to exempt cargo carriers UPS and Fed Ex. She departs the FAA to work at the UPS law firm.

    follow the money when investigating FAA crime hiding behind what looks like simple incompetence..

  3. Jim Henderson Says:

    One of the most telling references I have heard is that the ex continental folks refer to themselves at the “Ex-Con”. All mergers have cultural differences, orange and blue, Capitol and United, NW and NC, that is not a very positive nor responsible moniker anyone should want to emulate.

  4. Requested Anonymity Says:

    Something seemed to be amiss to me when I read that UAL safety letter recently.

    My questions:

    Why would professional pilots be doing such things?

    Once that is answered, I’d ask at what point does the leadership of an organization [like United] suffering such incidents acknowledge having any ownership in what is happening during their watch?

    Contrary to the 1970’s Kansas song, we are not just dust in the wind, or at least shouldn’t be in this business.

    I believe strongly in a safety and just culture Rob. Your article shows that you do too. Good stuff.

  5. Requested Anonymity Says:

    After being a passenger on a United flight that ultimately canceled after hours of trying to jury-rig the electrical system (trust me, that’s what Swiss Air contract maintenance was trying to do to this old 767 that had been flown all the way from Dulles to GVA broken) I wrote the president of the company and told him exactly what the pilots told me about what happened. I told him I thought it was a safety issue that the FAA should look into.

    I got a $500 flight certificate and an apology (they also paid my hotel bill for the extra night).

    I definitely felt paid off. United hasn’t made me feel warm and fuzzy on their flights. What you’ve uncovered makes me feel like I’m done flying that airline for the time being.

  6. Requested Anonymity Says:

    Ive been a loyal customer of the new United. Prior to that, a Continental customer for a very long time.

    Its a matter of conveniencenot a choicebecause Im a short drive from Newark Airport. Continental was always consistently mediocrewhich is extraordinary given the airline environment which puts the customer absolutely dead last in their business matrix. The airplanes were clean. Flights arrived on time. Cabin crew was generally pleasant.

    In the past year, Ive experienced more cancelled flights on the new airline than I had in the previous ten years on Continental. Ive watched service reductions to places I need to go to. Experienced the torture of the new seats theyve installed on some aircraft. Stood by and watched the loyalty program get turned upside down which, essentially, devalued miles while keeping the same level of miles needed to redeem an award.

    This news, however, is a bigger eye opener than all of that. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Bo Henriksson Says:

    Management memory is short – at all airlines.
    The longer we go without a major accident, the harder the squeeze on safety gets….

  8. Ruben Says:

    Money should NEVER trump safety. But the fact is that most of the times safety is not fully enforced because of the profit margins.

  9. Another Big United Customer Service Failure - Says:

    […] you missed our story about United’s safety issues, you can read it here.You’ll notice no one from United bothered to refute that story and I doubt we’ll see […]

  10. Ray Says:

    Was with COA for 13 years before merger, moved on in 2012. I couldn’t stand to see what happening. I have to strongly chime in at your remarks how the current UAL is run by – Lorenzos seasoned Continental Air personnel-. The only COA workers left are a few close to retirement. Sadly they are keeping their mouths closed, and going with the old United flow so they can get to retirement. The board tried to keep COA management but most ran away. YOU NEED TO DO SOME SERIOUS HOMEWORK ON WHO IS ACTUALLY RUNNING UAL, before making these comments (yes I capped it on purpose). Only old COA management around are a couple of names. Those stayed for the big bucks the board gave out to keep wall street happy and have “COA management” fix United. I sat thru many, many merger meetings and can emphatically state there was no change from old United to new United. New UAL is operating under old UAL rules. COA ideas never made it north of the red river. No argument from me on the quality, or lack there of, of new United. But the new United is the old United with a different paint job.

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