Ripple Effect: The aviation industry was badly shaken by the tragic events of September 11 and aircraft technicians now find themselves amidst the rubble of the aftermath

Nov. 1, 2001

Ripple Effect

The aviation industry was badly shaken by the tragic events of September 11 and aircraft technicians now find themselves amidst the rubble of the aftermath

By Stephen P. Prentice November 2001

Like many viewers, I saw in real time, a Boeing 767 intentionally crash into Tower 2 of the World Trade Center building in New York on the morning of September 11. I could hardly believe what I saw. Now, new security steps are in place while we all pray for the people who were killed or suffered injury by this criminal act described as an act of war by our President. Our air transportation system will never be the same again.

New security items
Among other new security measures, the FAA now requires a daily fleet-wide aircraft search after planes have been serviced with fuel and prior to any flight. Mechanics will be involved very closely with these inspections in addition to their usual service checks. This interior security inspection must be performed before any passengers are boarded. Inspections must be performed each calendar day and the search includes a physical inspection of the empty passenger cabin and the cargo hold. This security inspection must be approved by, and will be supervised by, security personnel and on-site mechanics. Many airlines have stated that in order to accomplish these and other security objectives, it will be necessary to operate a reduced schedule. Airports, likewise, will be thoroughly searched daily before any flights can proceed. Ramp areas, tool and tire storage and other mechanic supervised work areas will be examined very carefully on a continuing basis. The FAA also placed a temporary suspension on the carriage of mail and cargo aboard passenger aircraft.

Gore Commission on Security
In 1996, the Gore Commission proposed these types of safety steps and many others. The Commission on Aviation Safety and Security was established after the TWA 800 incident. Press reports state that the laundry list of recommendations published in 1997 was largely ignored by the industry and the FAA. For example, computerized profiling of all passengers was strongly urged by the Commission to detect potential terrorists. Had this system been in place, it may have tipped off authorities to some of the people involved with the September 11 incident and may have prevented the whole affair. The recent report to Congress regarding this matter, delivered on September 16, said that 25 of the 31 measures had been "completed" but went on to say later in the report that few of the safety measures were in fact, in place!

The mechanic’s box cutter?
You no doubt heard the story by now about American Airlines personnel finding a box cutter under a seat while inspecting a SAN to JFK non-stop a week or so after the criminal attack on September 11. The reported statement was something like, "Oh well, lots of mechanics use box cutters in their normal work." The inference being that one of the mechanics left it in the aircraft by mistake. Nonsense. We all know that mechanics don’t normally use a box cutter tool and none that I know even have one in their toolbox.
Another incident reported involves the discovery of another box cutter tool on a serving cart, which immediately forced a return to the gate. A prank? Who knows? But you and I know that no mechanic left it there!

Lost security – The Mechanic Flight Engineer
A few issues back, we talked about the Flight Engineer (FE). A traditional onboard airframe and powerplant mechanic. If the aircraft provided for an FE, he was in place to be the security officer for the aircraft in addition to his other duties. The FE was positioned closest to the entry door of most aircraft flight decks and thus blocked the way to the Captain and First Officer. Instead of laying off mechanics and other employees, airlines should cross train them for onboard security positions.
Unfortunately, the airlines felt the need to dispose of the FE position in order to reduce their payroll some years ago. Yes, money prevailed and this crewmember was removed from many aircraft. Many captains will tell you that they believe that the removal of the second officer from larger transport aircraft was a singular blunder, among others, regarding security.

Additional crew members for security
There are also additional crewmembers that are sometimes onboard who are, for the most part, airline crewmembers and mechanics going to or from work. They are afforded the courtesy of a ride because it is a reciprocal convenience traditionally used to move crews to positions around the country. These people should also be enlisted to aid in the security of the aircraft.

The handout – Who gets what and how much?
On September 26, the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by our President. As a result, the airlines have received a $15 billion taxpayer handout. How much of this money will be used to enhance security or the employees’ lot in life? Probably none of it. Now travel agencies want some, hotels want tax relief, restaurants, insurance companies and Amtrak are all lining up. Car rental companies have also asked for relief based on the lack of business. And this is just the start. I can only ask where is the bailout for the laid-off employees?
Many argue that the payment is excessive and unnecessary. They say that the airlines have access to protection under bankruptcy law proceedings in order to buy time until things get better. Do they have a choice? They will also be entitled to apply for government backed loans. Who will be approved for the loans? How will they be paid back? These areas have yet to be addressed in detail.
Some have estimated that it cost airlines $1.2 billion to close down as a result of September 11. The airlines obviously will claim more loss. They asked for compensation of $24 billion and got $15 billion! Many of these same airlines claim devotion to employees, the environment, and the general welfare, but, when push comes to shove, corporate welfare seems to many to be concerned with bailing out shareholders and maintaining compensation for executives.

Labor union’s lament
Labor unions complain that Congress is boosting airline profits and their common stocks and stockholders, at the expense of the people who are hurt by the wave of layoffs. Are they right?
Many believe this taxpayer bailout for public corporations will do nothing but undermine the free market system. Every time something goes wrong from now on, there will be the mandate for a bailout. Any positive effects from this payout will probably be short term. Over the long term, they will work against free enterprise and disturb the free market system.

What the carriers get
Under the terms of the new legislation, the Federal government will pay cash directly to the carriers. The law was passed and signed in a matter of days. It gives direct aid on the basis of the airlines individual available seat miles for August. The media reports that the payments will range all the way from a high of $880 million for American Airlines including TWA, to a low of $1 million for a small carrier called CommutAir. Even the very profitable Southwest Airlines comes away with close to $300 million. What a deal! There are a total of 35 listed passenger carriers lined up for the these payments.
But wait, there’s more. What about the cargo people? Won’t they share in this handout too? You bet they will. Cargo people will share $500 million as reported recently in the press. They will divide the money on the basis of their cargo capacity. FedEx, UPS, and Airborne among others will take the lion’s share. It appears that other cargo carriers who are 121 Supplementals will not share nor will the FAR 125 or 135 cargo carriers. There does not seem to be any rational reason for this distinction at this time. Supplementals are not scheduled, but what difference should that make?

What about mechanics and labor?
Under this law, they get nothing! Thousands of employees who are laid off and those that will be laid off will not see any of the handout money. So far, executive salaries will go on. There will be an estimated one million or so people laid off including companies related to travel and others in the supply chain.
Many believe that the airlines are being bailed out of a regular business downturn or just plain mismanagement. It is true that a recession was in the works before the tragic event of September 11. You have to draw your own conclusions and opinions on this point.
There is one bright note however, the President has said he will extend the unemployment benefits period for laid off airline employees. Airlines will also provide retraining for jobs in other industries, and protect health care and relocation benefits.
Where will you go?