Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pilots Didn't Want to Fly With Capt. Who Crash-Landed SW Flight 345

Flight 345 on the runway NTSB photo
The Southwest Airlines captain who flew a Boeing 737 into the runway nose first at LaGuardia Airport last summer had been on the receiving end of multiple complaints by first officers at the airline who did not want to fly with her, according to an employee at the airline who asked not to be identified. The process, called a bid avoidance, is not unique to Southwest. Delta Air Lines, United and others also give their pilots a way to opt out of sharing the cockpit with captains they find difficult to work with.



Brandy King, a spokeswoman for the airline explained as part of its labor contract with pilots, first officers can "express a preference not to fly with up to three captains without the necessity of providing any reason for such preference." She told me, "the program is not intended to address safety concerns."


It's not clear to me that all pilots understand that distinction. One who filed two bids to avoid other captains over the years described something close to a dysfunctional atmosphere when flying with them. One captain, "actively degraded you personally throughout the entire flight, second guessing every decision you did." In the second instance, the senior pilot was "intentionally non compliant".

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating what happened on Flight 345 to make the plane go crashing nose wheel landing gear-first, onto runway 4 on a grey day in July 2013.
Damage to Runway 4 NTSB photo
It will be examining why the crew did not initiate a go-around after the captain noticed the airspeed was for flaps 40° even though the flaps were set at 30°, below 1000 feet on final approach. A summary of her three-hour interview with the NTSB investigators says, the captain considered doing a go-around and that "by the book, it would have been".

It is not hard to imagine this accident being tagged with the dreaded "pilot error", but the way this particular captain presumably made other subordinate pilots feel on the flight deck, should not be discounted as unique. Every airline has the kind of pilot, best described in Skygods, Robert Gandt's book on the collapse of aviation giant, Pan Am. Call them arrogant, call them as----s as my friend did, whatever you call them, they are pilots for whom communication and collaboration better known as crew resource management, did not take root and flourish.

"There are certain people who should not be flying airplanes," an airline pilot told me. "They're qualified but not adaptable," to create and execute a shared view of a successful flight.

I've harangued before on the fallacy of using pilot error as a probable cause in accidents but that doesn't mean sometimes the pilots aren't a contributing factor. Even more reason then that when an airline has information about difficult captains it should use it to provide said captains with more training, counseling or if necessary, to show them the door, before a difficult situation becomes a catastrophe.


There is "lots of stuff here that no one wants to talk about," an airline captain recently told me. And indeed, the Air Line Pilots Association declined to speak to me when I put questions about this policy to the union on Tuesday. The opt-out practice at Southwest is part of the pilot labor agreement.

Southwest Airlines says giving first officers the ability to decline to fly with captains does not require them to declare the reason, which is a shame since Southwest and every other airline doing this could be sitting on a treasure trove of information about whether crew resource management is being purposefully ignored or simply misunderstood.

From a United pilot comes this troubling comment, "I have always thought that this was a fundamental threat to safe operations when recalcitrant pilots are not remediated by management. And trust me, they know who these people are!"

"These avoidance bid things, they are a clear indication of CRM failures," my friend at Southwest told me of  Flight 345, which cost the pilot her job, destroyed the 13-year old airplane, injured nine, but took no lives. "It doesn’t get handed to you on a silver platter better than this."





7 comments:

Jim Blaszczak said...

Great piece Christine!

If this crash was indeed caused or exacerbated by a Captain who was known by the company to have deficiencies in command skills, that is NOT a CRM issue, it's a MANAGEMENT issue. This accident along with so many other approach and landing accidents is much more a function of leadership, command and judgement than it is airmanship.

CRM is a threat identification and management strategy that is only as good as the people using it. It is not intended to make up for known deficiencies. Placing crewmembers on the flight deck with known weaknesses in leadership and command is no different that placing substandard parts on the aircraft.

Andy H said...

Thank you (again) for drawing a distinction between blame and contributing factor.

Ira Rimson said...

Agree wholeheartedly with Jim B.
CRM requires a buy-in by all crewmembers.

patrick c said...

Nice article. I think a distintion should be made though. SWAPA is the southwest pilots own union. You should question them on their own pilots behavior and policies, not ALPA. This crash reminds me of the crash in San Francisco where no one questioned captain "Way too Low"

Samir Kohli said...

I am sorry, but I can not agree with views expressed. Human error is a symptom, not a disease. It is a symptom of a disease called "Poor Organizational Management". The question we need to ask is, "Does the society and the traveling public need protection from the erring human, or does it need protection from a system that allowed the human to be in the position she was in despite having many indications that she was an under-performer and lacked CRM/team skills?"

The basic issue is, why is this being talked about AFTER an accident? Were the airline managers sleeping before the accident? Why no one acted before? This is a classic example of "If the Pilots are alive, hang hhem. If they are dead, blame them!"

Safety is not Everyones business. Safety is the business of the Accountable Manager and the Accountable manager needed to speak, think and act BEFORE the accident, not now, when it has already occured.

This is exactly what I also tried to explain in my book "Waiting...To Happen!". Such accidents will continue to happen unless we can think beyond the Pilots. All human performance happens inside the framework of an organizations Policies and Procedures. Unless we correct those, there is no way to stop these events from occuring. They reamin Waiting...To Happen! And will happen. Because poor organizational management will sooner than later defeat the human and precipitate an error.

Sean Sullivan said...

In a case such as this at LaGuardia with a hull loss, does the plane get stripped at the site and carted off on trucks? With the NTSB involved, does the plane need to stay at the airport for a certain time for investigation? I would think space would be a problem.

Josef Escanini said...

A management issue? How about a union issue? I'm in no position to know for sure but I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that it was the pilots' union that made it impossible for Southwest to get rid of this problem captain until she actually trashed a valuable asset. In fact, I think it was labor, not management, that bargained for the bid avoidance provision that dispensed with the need to give an explanation for an expressed preference.