Safety Costs

Sept. 8, 2001

Safety Costs

Regional operator relates how incidents impact airline operations

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

September 2001

Charles Howell

Chuck Howell helps direct the operations of Corporate Airlines out of his headquarters office in Smyrna, TN. On this day, two incidents have occurred, one a bird strike at Burlington, IA, and the other a fuel truck incident at Norfolk, VA. With one, a contract service provider helps respond; with the other, the service provider is the cause. Safety is the overriding issue, and it has costs associated with it.

Corporate Airlines serves as a regional carrier for TWA to eight cities in the Midwest and for Midway Airlines to seven locations out of the Raleigh-Durham hub. At many locations, the airline subcontracts for fueling and other passenger handling services. Howell, 44, has a clear idea of what the aircraft servicing business is all about, being part owner of an FBO, Corporate Flight Management, Inc., with locations at John Tune Airport in Nashville and in Smyrna.
"Our quality assurance person," explains Howell, "has to go out and sanction on-call maintenance personnel at each location, as part of our Part 121 requirements. We provide them the necessary hours of training for our particular aircraft (Jet-streams). If we have an unscheduled maintenance event, then our maintenance guys in Smyrna get on the phone and communicate with the person at the FBO for a visual inspection, assuming it’s not potentially catastrophic."
The bird strike incident at Burlington resulted in the visual inspection determining no damage, and the aircraft remained in service.
At Norfolk, however, the refueler backed into a Corporate Airlines wingtip, damaging the aileron and grounding the aircraft. "We had to launch a crew with an aileron and wingtip to make the aircraft airworthy again," explains Howell.
What is the cost of safety? In this incident, according to Howell, there were no injuries involved, but one unsafe act by a refueler resulted in thousands of dollars in costs for the FBO, air carrier, and related insurance companies. It also cost the company’s passengers in inconvenience and the airline in its reputation.
Says Howell, "At the airline, we’re required to carry $200 million in insurance, and pay roughly $110,000 a year per aircraft. That’s close to $80,000 more than a guy who is operating on a (Part 135) charter certificate; that’s the difference between Part 121 and 135 exposure."
The refueling mishap led to the cancellation of four legs for the airline, locating and sending along another flight crew, and the necessary work to repair the plane.
"We figure that if we have to cancel a flight it’s $1,000 in lost revenue for that leg," says Howell. "In the meantime, we had to ferry our spare maintenance aircraft from Smyrna with the extra crew, burning up time and fuel. From a financial perspective, we’ll probably burn $10,000 for this incident, but the customer relations hit is the worst part. John Q. Public doesn’t understand that this was out of our control.
"We inconvenienced 50 to 60 people this morning, and there will be one or two of those who will call to tell us that they’ll never fly us again. Plus, it affects the carriers we’re aligned with; everything in the 121 business is tracked by performance, tracked on cancellations."
The service provider’s cost for the incident, estimates Howell, will run some $50,000 to $60,000 to replace the aircraft’s control surface, along with the cost to the refueler. "In theory, they could hit the aircraft with that refueler and total the darn airplane or burn it to the ground. Now, you’re talking about a $3 million hull loss."
The employee driving the refueler will also need recurrent training, says Howell. "He’ll be pulled off the line and provided recurrent training, and we’ll document it. It will be turned into their insurance carrier and they’ll want to know what’s being done to prevent such an incident in the future," he says.