Tuesday, December 6, 2011

DUIs, Bankruptcies, and Little Old Ladies Who Claim to be Strip Searched

UPDATE: Babbitt resigns at 5:00pm EST

Excerpt from his statement

"I am unwilling to let anything cast a shadow on the outstanding work done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by my colleagues at the FAA.  They run the finest and safest aviation system in the world and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work alongside them." 
Assorted notes on the latest round of breaking news on the aviation beat. Where to start?

Okay, Randy Babbitt. What is there really to say besides bemoan the tragedy that his arrest in Virginia on Saturday for driving under the influence of alcohol will likely cost the FAA administrator his job.

I have a few correspondents who are delighted schadenfreude-style that the nation's most highly-visible former airline pilot (okay, second to you-know-who) is now on administrative leave which can only be to provide time to collect facts and figure out what statement will accompany his resignation.

On the other hand, I have correspondents who are as gob-smacked by the news as I was when it hit the wires on Monday. Granted, running the FAA with all that's going on these days is one ongoing reason to drink. But with just news accounts to go on, my initial reaction is that the administrator has made a terrible error in judgment. Had the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board not been in a tizzy for the entire length of Mr. Babbitt's time at the FAA over the very subject of judgment, there might be forgiveness for this lapse.

With the crashes of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2010, Comair flight 5191 in 2006, overflying pilots and sleeping air traffic controllers all seeming to demonstrate a decline in standards of professionalism, there is just too much riding on the maintenance of impeccable behavior by the top dog at the FAA. And in that, he has certainly failed.

Sad. That was how I felt about this yesterday and that's how it feels today.

Incensed is how I was feeling on Sunday when I heard the report of the little old lady en route to Florida who claimed security agents at the JFK airport checkpoint strip searched her before allowing her on jetBlue flight. Incensed because there's nothing about this story that rings true. I am baffled by standards of professionalism in journalism in which the comments of one side in a dispute are reported without evidence or logic to support the validity of the claim.

Lenore Zimmerman, 84, requested a private pat-down screening at the airport and two female agents accompanied her into a room to conduct it, I am told by Greg Soule of the Transportation Security Administration. (You can read the TSA's version of the story here.)

The screening apparently involved the removal of Ms. Zimmerman's back brace or money belt. In an effort to understand the gap between two versions of the story, my mind makes the leap that from the removal of that device, Ms. Zimmerman has come to believe that her privacy was invaded. Perhaps it may even have seemed, upon reflection during a 2-hour flight that the agents looked in her pants and underpants during the process because that is what she told reporters. She wound up her story with a promise to sue.

But the information from the TSA doesn't support the passenger's claim about the length of the screening or that she was asked to remove her clothing during the search. She did not complain to anyone at the time, or appear disturbed upon exiting the screening room.

"Nothing unusual was depicted on the CCTV (closed circuit TV) as the passenger and two female officers entered and exited the room," the TSA blog reports. "The wheelchair attendant assisted the passenger in departing the checkpoint area for the gate."

Since Sunday the story has gone viral. And is that really a surprise?  The news - veracity notwithstanding - has fed the appetites of travelers who cannot get enough of TSA bashing.

There was a time when the likely accuracy of what someone said was a factor in determining what and how an event would be reported. No longer. Certain claims on certain subjects require little more than that they be made. Transportation security and airline indignities are two such subjects.

I'm not starting off the week or leaving you dear readers on a downer. Rather, I'm going to recommend that you read the intriguing analysis of American Airline's bankruptcy filing by William Swelbar (some great name eh?) of MIT who writes on his Swelblog that the legacy carrier could emerge from its woes intact and unmerged.  A little optimism for the beginning of the week, well that's a good thing.


Jim Blaszczak said...

You are right on. It is very sad. Although Capt. Babbit's role as Administrator is as much political as aviation related, this incident is as relevant as it is sad.

It's sad because his allegeded DUI was 100% preventable. It's relevant because this incident exactly mirrors a major cause of accidents in the industry he is tasked to administer, poor decision making.

Aviation safety is all about resisting the threats and managing the errors that come with our humanity. This dynamic is the essence of Human Factors in aviation, a subjest that is addressed in this blog as well as it is anywhere.

I'm sure Randy Babbitt had no more intention of receiving a DUI that night than an airline crew begins their flight intending to run off the runway at their destination. Did he have a car service at his disposal? I think taxis are still available in his area. These options were available to him just the same as options available to crews before their accident.

Additionally, it's incredibly ironic. I've read speeches by Mr. Babbitt making these same points. It just demonstrates that we are all human.

Anonymous said...

I can't say that schadenfreude is what I am feeling. It is more like disgust. After all this is the guy who has the whipping stick on FAA enforcement issues and from what I understand they do not go easy on pilots driving drunk.

He has made some statements on professionalism in the past that have rubbed my fur the wrong way. The one that comes to mind is when he said he was "infuriated" and "personally outraged" over the sleeping controller at Reagan.

Personally outraged? You would think that the head of the FAA would understand that the air traffic system operates 24 hours a day, while the human body does not. A more measured approach, such as, "We are going to investigate and discover the cause of this and if fatigue was a factor we are going to take steps to ensure that controllers working on the back side of the clock are well-rested," would have been appreciated.

Of course I realize that I am getting his statement through the filter of the news media, but that was the headline. When you put yourself in that imperious position on the issue of professionalism, you better be squeaky clean yourself, and he's not. And he was driving on the wrong side of the road, according to the reports. He could have killed somebody.

Grumpy said...

Let's remember that Capt. Babbitt's recent prior position was head of ALPA. As such, his fugitive judgment betrayed his role as one of those in the pointy ends in whom we invest our trust.
IMHO he has likely received the memo offerring the choice of resign or be fired. The contents of his desk are already probably in carry-outs.

Anonymous said...

The demands of high moral standards both on and off duty by all and the negative press are part of the daily life of an aviation staff, these were beautifully painted in this piece.