Air management

Pilots: Horizon Air management undermines safety programs

By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times

The union representing the pilots of Horizon Air, the regional carrier of Alaska Airlines, sent a memo to its members on Thursday alleging that the airline’s management is undermining the industry’s long-standing safety programs by focusing on the penalization of individuals.

The note includes a link to a letter the union wrote this summer to the Alaska Air Group board of directors and CEO Brad Tilden drawing attention to “the deteriorated state of Horizon Air’s safety programs.”

Pilot unions and airline management usually work closely together to ensure safety. Yet the July union letter, obtained by the Seattle Times with Thursday’s memo and previous union documents, reveals a very suspicious relationship at Horizon between management and its pilots.

The union’s post Thursday was in reaction to a Seattle Times story that day highlighting an internal memo to senior pilot executives, in which John Hornibrook, Horizon Air’s vice president of flight operations, was concerned about ‘a lax safety culture among airline pilots and listed a string of incidents in the days leading up to Thanksgiving that he deemed dangerous.

Hornibrook wrote that “if we sit down and do nothing we will have an accident”.

In response, the Executive Board of the Airlines Professional Association Teamsters Local 1224 which represents Horizon pilots told its members that “we are truly appalled by the presumptive nature, negative attitude and general descriptions of our pilots in the air. ‘Horizon’. He said the incidents listed by Hornibrook “are not often the result of pilot error or lack of professionalism”.

The Teamsters post refers to the letter the union wrote to CEO Tilden and the Alaska Air board of directors in July with specific concerns alleging that Horizon management was undermining a key safety program called FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance, pronounced FO-KWA) which is designed to spot and remedy any dangerous trend in flight operations.

Tilden responded in July with a letter saying the union’s concerns “are taken seriously”. He organized a meeting between the pilots’ union representatives and Horizon CEO Gary Beck which took place on October 4. The union said a “dialogue has been initiated” with a follow-up meeting scheduled before the end of the year.

Since then, Beck has held a management role at Alaska Airlines and was replaced last month at Horizon by Joe Sprague. The union’s letter to its members stated that given the change in leadership and the memo from Hornibrook, “we may be back to square one.”

The Teamsters union did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. Alaska Air Group spokeswoman Bobbie Egan has categorically denied the union’s allegation that it is abusing the safety program designed to monitor the airline’s flight activities.

The FOQA program “operates under FAA guidelines to increase the level of safety throughout the operation,” she wrote in an email.

Trust and openness

The dispute over pilot evaluation between union and management is over the balance between fostering an open safety culture and holding individuals accountable for mistakes.

The FOQA system, implemented throughout the airline industry and administered by an external company, automatically collects data from each flight and reports any unusual conditions such as excessive speed, stalls or problems engine. This data is compiled and analyzed and used to spot trends that indicate any safety or maintenance issues and to inform pilots through training or sending alerts.

At each carrier, a FOQA team of senior pilots from both the union and management work together to analyze the data for this specific airline and to disseminate all the necessary alerts and actions to its pilots. Importantly, although the FOQA team may describe a specific incident, unless it is very egregious, they do not identify the individual pilots involved.

This is a guiding principle of American aviation: the belief is that it is safer to encourage pilots to be open about errors and to report them, without fear of being penalized for doing so – so that they do not hide errors or problems.

Each FOQA team has “gatekeepers” of union pilots who have access to the identity of the people concerned; if an incident is out of the ordinary, they will talk to the pilots about what happened. If a safety incident is serious enough, pilots can be penalized or fired. But other than that, FOQA data almost always remains anonymous to encourage openness and trust.

An Alaska Airlines senior captain, who contacted the Seattle Times after Thursday’s article, described how it works, citing how, following a 2002 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) directive on Boeing 737s, the Alaska clarified that its pilots should not deploy the spoilers. on the wings at speeds above 270 knots.

The following month, Alaska released FOQA data for its pilots showing 45 cases that month where this rule was broken, mostly just for a few seconds, but in a few cases longer. After this alert to the pilots, “the next month it boiled down to an incident,” he said.

The FOQA system is “not something punitive,” said the captain. “It’s about seeing the trends and doing something about it.”

Toxic relationship

The Teamsters’ July letter to the Board of Directors alleges that after a “critical safety event” in the summer of 2018, which is not further detailed, Horizon management “maliciously and improperly used protected information (FOQA) “against the pilots involved. Following this breach of protocol, the entire FOQA team, both union representatives and company representatives, resigned. The letter calls the action “unprecedented in the history of the airline”.

The letter alleges that in several communications with Horizon pilots, Hornibrook overrode the decisions of FOQA guards and misused protected FOQA data which “berated, embarrassed and misled Horizon pilots. “. He cites a few instances where the management of pilot training courses described safety incidents and identified the crew.

The union called such conduct “unprofessional” and said it “would undermine confidence” and was “counterproductive to the safety of Horizon Air”.

Alaska Air’s Egan has denied the union’s claims.

“No protection has been removed from our FOQA program,” she said.

Regarding the “critical safety event” in 2018, she said “the company had no idea who the crew was.”

“FOQA is essential to our safety program,” Egan wrote. “We have never taken and never will take punitive action against a pilot due to events identified by the FOQA.”

Another Alaska Airlines pilot wrote to The Times after Thursday’s article, expressing concern over how the rapid expansion of the U.S. airline industry has led to an influx of new, less experienced pilots into regional airlines. Across the country. He called it “a time bomb”.

“I fear we are coming dangerously close to seeing crashes involving regional airlines caused by a combination of inexperience and complacency,” he wrote.

This is the background to Hornibrook’s push to “get the pilots in the game before we have an accident,” as he put it in his memo. Yet antagonism with the pilots’ union could limit progress.

A Horizon pilot, who like others interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous to protect his work, said the relationship with Horizon management was now “toxic” in some ways.

The concerns of the Teamsters union at Horizon have been around for a long time. In a January newsletter to members, he filed the same complaints about the abuse of FOQA data management.

This bulletin notes, however, that the union and the company agree on the desired result: “maintaining the highest level of safety is not negotiable”.

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