Usually when we talk about 'too close for comfort' we're talking about economy-class.
Rep. Bill Shuster, Chair of the Transportation Committee and Shelley Rubino, VP for Global Government "Affairs" disclosed their relationship last week.
This time it's about lobbyists and politicans.
Last week, Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chief anti-passenger legislator - whose main campaign contributors are United and American Airlines - revealed that he's been in a 'personal relationship' with a top lobbyist for the airline industry for the past year.
Not until investigated by the media did Mr. Shuster disclose this relationship with the airline lobbyist.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Do you see the conflict of interest here? We do.
Politico broke the story last Thursday about this influential lawmaker's dalliance with the VP for Global Government Affairs for Airlines for America (referred to as A4A), Shelley Rubino.
Why should you care? Simple, because passenger rights legislation appears to have been tainted by this liaison with a lobbyist that spends millions trying to manipulate his committee.
The Traveling Public Always Loses In These Situations
"When there's politically incestuous relationships between a regulated industry and the leadership that oversees it, I don't see how any legislation could come out that would not be tainted in some way," said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and a member of the Federal Aviation Administration's Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee to the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.
He said Mr. Shuster has shown partiality to the industry at the expense of consumers, and that he wields so much power that other committee members seem afraid to oppose him.
Mr. Shuster, he said, is allowing the industry broad latitude in writing FAA legislation, while he has ignored input from others, including Mr. Hudson's organization, which proposed 30 reforms.
"So far we have seen no hearings on any passenger-rights legislation. We've been told by some committee members they wouldn't even introduce anything because it might displease the chairman," Mr. Hudson said.
Pay To Play
1. Close personal ties between Shuster and A4A coincide with their nearly identical policy views and goals:
As of the end of 2014, A4A was lobbying on the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014. Shuster personally introduced this legislation that would hide the true cost of airfares.
This is not the first time Shuster's personal life has been found to have issues pointing towards involvement with other female lobbyists.
He was one of a half-dozen Republican congressmen who were scolded by House Minority Leader John Boehner in 2010 to keep their distance from the lady lobbyists who prowl Capitol Hill.
Shuster got divorced last year after more than 27 years of marriage.
2. The House Transportation Committee: the new 'Mile-High Club'?
The connections between Shuster's office and committee with A4A appear to run very deep.
Rubino is listed by the trade association as one of its lobbyists in disclosure forms filed with Congress. The association paid her nearly $460,000 in salary and benefits in 2013, according to tax records.
Shuster recently hired Chris Brown, A4A's vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, to be staff director on the subcommittee that writes FAA bills.
Shuster's personal office chief of staff, Eric Burgeson, is married to Christine Burgeson, senior vice president of government relations at A4A. Shuster is reputed to be close personal friends with Nick Calio, A4A president and CEO.
Shuster also has expressed support for the US airline industry's stance against the Persian Gulf air carriers in the current 'Open Skies' argument.
Shuster has also spoken out against new taxes on the airline industry. FlyersRights has urged taxing the billions of dollars airlines earn from baggage and other fees.
3. A4A and the airlines have contributed significantly to Shuster
A4A and its employees "contributed more than $20,000" to Shuster (making him the only congressman A4A made the maximum contribution to). The airlines and other companies comprising A4A's membership have together "given hundreds of thousands more to Shuster throughout his career." In total, A4A spent $6.8 million on lobbying efforts in 2014.
4. Like Father, Like Son: Shuster's father resigned over similar issues
Bud Shuster, Bill's father, was also a former chairman of the Transportation Committee. Following an investigation, the Ethics Committee found Bud Shuster engaged in a "pattern and practice" of allowing his former top aide Ann Eppard - a transportation lobbyist - to appear before him on behalf of her clients after she left his staff.
There is a one-year ban on ex-employees lobbying the members or committees they worked for. Bud allegedly accepted gifts from and gave preferential access to Eppard.
Following the Ethics Committee investigation, Bud resigned from Congress in 2001 but denied any wrongdoing. Bill won his father's seat after his resignation.
Tossing Aside The "Appearance of Impropriety"
A philosophical conundrum: Is mutual impropriety, impropriety at all? Apparently not under the House ethics rules drafted by Congress.
The conflict-of-interest rules don't prohibit family members, including spouses, from lobbying lawmakers, although members are barred from taking action on an issue in which they have a direct financial stake. Other romantic relationships aren't addressed in the House Ethics Manual.
The airlines like to convey that sardine conditions are a "passenger's choice".
They say they are offering "choice" to the economy customers who care more about price than being able to sit comfortably in the seat.
But the truth is that squeezing more and more passengers into limited space, while shrinking lavatories, is for the sake of cost-controls and carrier profits.
And yes, it's likely the CEO of American, United or Delta have ever flown in the middle seat in coach.
In February, FlyersRights held a media advisory on petitions to reduce airfares and end airline exemptions from consumer protection & antitrust laws.
Our Passenger Bill of Rights 2.0 calls for the FAA to set standards guaranteeing each passenger adequate leg, hip, and shoulder room. FAA currently has no standards limiting how small seats can be or how tightly they may be placed.
Passengers are not powerless to stop the trend to smaller seats and overcrowded airplanes. You can insist the FAA act now to set standards, and you can have a say in what those standards will be.
It was passenger pressure that forced the DOT to set reasonable rules on tarmac delays.
The tragic plane crash in Taipei was the result of mechanical and psychological failures.
Human errors in the cockpit have been the focus of media attention over the past few weeks.
An interesing article by Nautilus last week discussed the human errors in the airline community lately and speculated that the human brain might not be completely caple of handling multiple alarms in the flight deck.
For people in the grip of a life-or-death emergency, fear has a tendency to spiral.
In this state, we experience what's known as "cognitive tunneling." Our attention narrows as we focus on the danger at hand, resulting in an elevated heart rate and quickened breathing, and all our mental resources are focused on the main threat.
Yet there is also a flipside. With a narrowed focus it becomes hard to multitask, to think complex thoughts, to decipher instructions, or to generate novel solutions. Our judgment can be clouded, and experience thrown out the window.
In extreme cases, we lose the ability to consciously control our behavior at all, and find ourselves willy-nilly engaging in ancient stereotypical behaviors like fighting, running, or playing dead.
In other words, when a pilot who's managing a complex modern airliner realizes that his plane is going to crash, he needs the mild fight-or-flight response appropriate for taking a multiple-choice test, but what he gets is a five-alarm response better suited for surviving an animal attack.
A common, deadly mistake of overwhelmed pilots is to put the plane into an aerodynamic stall.
When a plane is flying slowly at low altitude, there's an instinctive human reaction to want to move away from the immediate danger and pull back on the controls to gain altitude.
Doing so, however, can have exactly the opposite effect.
Climbing causes an airplane to slow down, and if its airspeed falls below a critical velocity, the wing dramatically loses its ability to generate lift.
Instead of gaining altitude, the plane suddenly drops, often with fatal results.
From the very start of flight training, pilots are taught to be extra careful not to raise the nose when low and slow. But every year, pilots panic, forget their training, and die.
Has Your British Airways Account Been Hacked?
British Airways quietly disclosed two weeks ago that hackers gained access to the company's frequent flyer program.
The airline said the stolen data did not include Personally Identifiable Information, but many hacked companies such as Target have said this initially, just to admit later they were wrong.
The incident raises new questions about the airlines collecting more customer data online, including a variety of financial data, which is in turn, attracting cyber criminals. Read more in FlyersRights' January newsletter: All Mine.
When Machiavelli wrote that it's better to be feared than loved, little did he know he was foretelling the airline business.
The theory is that basic coach service, without fees, must be sufficiently torturous enough to make people want to pay to escape it.
So that's where the suffering begins, a strategy that can be only be described as "calculated misery."
The airlines deliberately cultivate bad service, multiple add-on fees, exorbitant change and cancellation penalties as an underhanded way to make you pay more to to escape the misery.
Calculated misery is when a business intentionally designs a miserable experience to increase profits. Of course, in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid.
This explains why, over the past decade, the major airlines have done everything possible to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience.
This puts the airlines in a heated race to the bottom, where everything is considered a optional extra, and the consequence is a steep reduction in baseline quality, comfort, legroom, and things which are difficult to quantify, until it becomes unbearable.
This model has worked well in the banking industry, where one of the main reasons consumers don't bother switching financial institutions is that it would be a huge pain to do so.
Same with the cable companies, that want you to fear them (and their onerous processes) rather than love them for being convenient.
Allegiant's Pilots Warn of Safety Concerns
Two weeks ago Allegiant Air's pilot's union published a letter to passengers warning that the carrier's profits "are propped up by the extra workload placed on its understaffed, underpaid and overworked workforce and its minimalist approach to maintenance and safety."
The pilots claimed that Allegiant is forced to "cannibalize" parts from other planes in its fleet to fix aircraft, owing to a deficient system of maintenance.
These pilots exposed plenty of abuses involving their airline's low-cost business model, including overworked, underpaid staff and lax maintenance practices.
A pilots strike was called for April 2nd, but fizzled when Allegiant management won a temporary restraining order.
The business model of budget airlines such as Germanwings, Ryanair, Alligent and Spirit Airlines has proved lucrative around the world, but only because of those carriers' relentless push on keeping costs as low as possible.
As former United Airlines pilot, Amy Fraher toldFlyersRights last week, "The public needs to recognize you get what you pay for. So the public needs to pay more, and we need better airline leadership to improve the airline culture for employees. At the moment, it's a race to the bottom."
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How Will The Germanwings Disaster Affect Budget Travel?
April 7, 2015
Budget airlines have a reputation for pushing for the lowest pilot pay and the most arduous working conditions to keep a cap on costs.
Of course consumers want cheap airfare, and sometimes they do get what they pay for. For example, flights that used to have three qualified pilots, a captain, first officer, and flight engineer - went down to two.
The three-person cockpits are a historical artifact now, but aviation experts have often debated whether the airlines' continuing drive to economize with automation and smaller crews has taken a toll on safety.
With last week's ceaseless media coverage of Germanwings, emerging facts point to a breakdown of screening and detecting an obviously sick pilot, as well as an airline policy that failed to properly manage its employees.
The Germanwings accident also brings up the issue of large airlines shifting more operations to low-cost carriers.
Shifting Flying To Subscontractors
Here in the US we have United Express, American Eagle, Delta Connection - the regional jets contracted from the legacy carriers.
FlyersRights has written much on the subject of the harsh working conditions and poverty pay for regional pilots. Yet the trend continues unabated, along with the outsourcing of gate agents, ticketing, ramp operations and bag handling.
The Germanwings disaster should spur some basic reforms including:
1) redesign of cockpit doors and a ban on only one person in the cockpit,
2) mandatory reporting of pilot mental health conditions by flight training schools and other pilots of severe depression, suicidal or homicidal ideation to regulatory authorities as well as to the airline employers,
3) minimum wage and working conditions for pilots,
4) rigorous skill testing of pilots to deal with unusual flight situations, not just hours of flight time,
(It has been reported to Flyersrights.org that some Korean airline pilots cheat on skill tests, and that some foreign pilots have gamed the system by paying to sit in the co-pilot seat to accumulate the requisite hours of flight experience, instead to receiving pay.)
5) development of auto-pilots to prevent not just warning of impending crash, but auto-correction.
6) raising no fault compensation from $150,000 to at least $500,000 per person for air disaster deaths and eliminating the ban on punitive damages in cases of gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing by an airline.
In sum, a combination of automated fail safe systems and procedures, minimum pay, and better pilot skill testing and monitoring is needed to maintain and improve the record outstanding safety record of commercial air travel.
This need not significantly raise air fares.
Paul Hudson, Pres.
At What Cost?
Almost all major international airlines are eager to exploit the cost advantage of employing younger, less experienced - and therefore cheaper - pilots, says Amy Fraher. But at what costs?
FlyersRights spoke with Dr. Amy Fraher, retired Navy Commander, Naval Aviator and former United Airlines pilot on the subject of budget carriers.
She has over 6,000 mishap-free flight hours in four jet airliners, five military aircraft, and several types of civilian airplanes.
FlyersRights: You say in a recent column that what concerns you is how a pilot with only 630 flight hours was in the position to kill 149 people, in a state-of-the-art Airbus A320. Could this pilot have been hired by a US low-cost carrier?
Amy Fraher: Up until a short while ago, yes. But after the Colgan Air crash, public pressure caused the FAA to revisit the minimums and recently changed it to 1500 flight hours for all US carriers.
Interestingly, neither of the Colgan pilots had less than 1500 hours, but they were not good pilots and had very limited operational experience, which prompts the question of quantity versus quality of flight experience. That has yet to be adequately resolved.
For example, military pilots often have less total flight time than civilian pilots, but the intensity of the operational tempo - flying off ships in bad weather, etc., typically means they have greater breadth of experience.
FR: Some of the airlines in China, Indonesia and many developing countries are facing a severe pilot shortages, and are taking students right out of high school and placing them in Airbus or Boeing high-tech simulators. After about 300 hours they receive their Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL) and for the first time, sit in a real cockpit with paying passengers in the back.
AF: This is a huge problem. I interviewed several furloughed (laid-off) US pilots flying for asian carriers and they have noted a real discrepency in these pilots' skills.
They are typically very good at checklists, company policies, etc., but when the smallest thing goes awry, they hve very limited out-of-the-box thining capacity.
FR: Can a MPL co-pilot in a year or two be pushed into the left seat as a Captain? Considering the huge growth of these low-cost carriers?
AF: We've already seen it!
FR: As a veteran pilot yourself, is there any safety device or security protocol that could protect the flying public against a pilot intending to do harm?
AF: The public needs to realize that they aren't going to attract the best and brightest to pilot jobs with the given pay and work conditions.
They need to recognize you get what you pay for. So the public needs to pay more and we need better airline leadership to improve the airline culture for employees. At the moment, it's a race to the bottom.
FR: There is a consortium in Europe for advancing autonomous ships. And we currently have automatic trains with no drivers. Is it just a matter of time before planes become pilot-less?
AF: Probably at some point. It will start with Fed-Ex and UPS flying drones/UAVs and then they'll make the case for passenger flight based on their success. But what people don't realize is you don't pay an experienced airline pilot to fly the plane - you pay him or her to make safe decisions on your behalf, based on their sound judgement, good intuition and extensive experience.
That doesn't come cheap because people who have those skills can be successful in lots of environments and they won't work in today's poor industry conditions.
FR: PBS did a documentary on the growth of regional airlines and the safety concerns with operators like Colgan (which stopped flying in September 2012) that underscored the problems of new pilots at regional airlines, especially their low pay and high debt. Are these stressers dangerous?
AF: The problems are system-wide. Regionals have certain issues, but pilots have been flying more for less and dealing with the stress and distraction of bad managerial conditions since 2001.
FR: A ripoff we're seeing are legacy airlines charging the same price whether you are on a mainline flight or one of their subcontracted regional jets on the same route.
Shouldn't passengers pay less when flying on a regional jet, when the operating costs are much lower? (Aka United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle).
AF: Personally, I think customers should be happy to pay more in order to ensure they get safe pilots.
It's in part this search for the lowest possible fare, and assumption that you'll always get a good product-- that creates this environment.
If you spend $5 at McDonalds, you know you're not getting the same burger that you get at Ruth Chris.
Along the same lines... you don't get Capt. Sully for a $99 airfare - you get First Officer Lubitz, of Germanwings.
FlyersRights asked Patrick Smith, airline pilot, air travel blogger of 'Ask The Pilot', and author of Cockpit Confidential, for his thoughts on the Germanwings disaster:
March 26, 2015
I'M NOT SURE WHAT TO SAY. For pilots, that a colleague may have intentionally crashed his plane and killed everybody on board, is not only horrific but embarrassing, offensive, and potentially stigmatizing to the entire profession.
This would not the first instance of a crewmember committing a murderous act. In 1994, an off-duty FedEx pilot, riding along in a cockpit jumpseat, attacked the crew of a DC-10 freighter with a hammer and spear gun. A PSA jet once crashed after a disgruntled employee shot both pilots. And most notorious of all, a suicidal first officer brought down EgyptAir flight 990 flying from New York to Cairo in 1999.
I worry now that every time a plane goes down and the reason is not immediately obvious, people will begin proposing suicide as a possible cause. Try to remember that even if we include the SilkAir crash or the or unsolved MH370 disaster, acts of crewmember sabotage account for a tiny number of incidents over many decades.
But it was, for lack of a better description, a freak event, something highly unusual. Hopefully the traveling public realizes that the rest of the tens of thousands of airline pilots out there take their profession, and your safety, as seriously as they possibly can.
People will be asking: how many pilots out there are ready to crack? Is the mental health of pilots being evaluated properly by airlines and government regulators?
In the U.S., airline pilots undergo medical evaluations either yearly or twice-yearly. A medical certificate must be issued by an FAA-certified physician. The checkup is not a psychological checkup per se, but the FAA doctor evaluates a pilot on numerous criteria, up to and including his or her mental health. Pilots can be grounded for any of hundreds of reasons, from heart trouble or diabetes to, yes, depression and anxiety. It can and does happen.
In addition, new-hire pilots at some airlines must undergo psychological examinations prior to being hired. On top of that, we are subject to random testing for narcotics and alcohol.
As for the stresses of the job, it's no different from any other line of work. People are people, and there's always some element of one's personal life that is brought to work. Sometimes pilots are dealing with one or another problem or stress issue. That does not mean the pilot is unsafe, or is going to crash the plane. Most airlines, meanwhile, are pretty proactive and accommodating when it comes to employees with personal or mental health problems.
I'm uncertain what more we should want or expect. Pilots are human beings, and no profession is bulletproof against every human weakness. All the medical testing in the world isn't going to preclude every potential breakdown or malicious act.
For passengers, at a certain point there needs to be the presumption that the men and women in control of your airplane are exactly the highly skilled professionals you expect them to be, and not killers in waiting.
We are commited to solutions for promoting airline passenger policies that forward first and foremost the safety of all passengers while not imposing unrealistic economic burdens that adversely affect airline profitability or create exhorbitant ticket price increases.
All American air carriers shall abide by the following standards to ensure the safety, security and comfort of their passengers:
Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.
Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.
Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.
Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.
Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.
Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.
Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price.
The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.
Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.
Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.
Require that these rights apply equally to all airline code-share partners including international partners.