Aircraft Accidents and the Minimum Wage

A Realistic View of Raising the Minimum Wage to $15.00 per Hour.

In March of 2018, actress Jane Fonda, other celebrities and local politicians wrote to New York (NY) Governor Cuomo, demanding that the minimum wage for NY’s waiters and waitresses be raised so that the food servers would not have to rely on tips for pay. The progressive celebrities wrote, “Women deserve to earn a fair base wage so that the tips they still collect don’t come at a personal cost.” They felt that the food serving industry was unfair, discriminated against waitresses. In response, per the metro.us website: “‘Leave our tips alone!’ Waitresses reject Hollywood actresses’ plea to end tip credits”.

In May 2019, NY Representative (Rep), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a minimum wage regulation forcing employers to ‘make up’ the difference of tips earned by – Servers and Bartenders. According to the NY Post, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal met strong opposition from … Servers and Bartenders.

Why did these celebrities and politicians intervene in matters they did not understand? Were they being condescending or were they just uninformed? Ms. Fonda’s politics have been questionable since Hanoi, while Rep Ocasio-Cortez has a history of misreading her constituents’ needs, e.g., the Amazon debacle. How demonstrative that celebrities and politicians know so little about average Americans, that their causes du jour are so … wrong! Do entitled celebrities and politicians even know what minimum wage law (MWL) is or how it came about? Have these pampered folks ever earned a minimum wage?

According to Cornell Law’s website, “The national minimum wage was created by Congress under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938”. Eighty-three years ago, minimum wage began at $0.25 per hour; eighty-three years ago, America was coming out of the Depression. Was the minimum wage intended as a stepping-stone, a first rung on the ladder to earning better living wages, as some suggest? No, there is nothing to suggest that; the minimum wage may unintentionally promote good work ethics in people, but it was not designed that way. Others say that a fair minimum wage is a Constitutional right, that it will raise the lower class. No, the minimum wage is a law – not a right; there is a vast difference. And there is no proof the lower class will be ‘raised’ or ‘razed’.

What does Cornell Law say about the MWL’s origins? “The purpose of the minimum wage was to stabilize the post-depression economy and protect the workers in the labor force. The minimum wage was designed to create a minimum standard of living to protect the health and well-being of employees.” The point: eighty-three years ago, the minimum wage was never meant to become the norm; it was to serve during a crisis, a roadmap for successfully exiting the Depression. Do workers still need this outdated law? Who knows? No one will talk about it. What does this have to do with aviation? Everything.

In fast food restaurants, counterpersons rarely take orders; food requests are typed, then paid for on a touchscreen. Aviation, itself, has reduced manpower through the years, subtle processes that took decades to introduce. In 2001, some major airlines still did their own maintenance. Today, maintenance is farmed out to domestic contractors and/or repair stations located in low wage-paying countries. Remember when there were three pilots in the cockpit? Now every airliner has two; technology and research will reduce that to one pilot … or none. Subtle. How long before machinery completely replaces us? Consider: Except for extending flaps and lowering gear, what can pilots do that computers cannot? What avionics problems can a mechanic troubleshoot that the onboard computer cannot do better? Machines do not take coffee breaks, expect raises, call in sick, time out, demand medical or go on strike.

There are those in Congress who, not only feel the MWL is necessary, but are pushing to raise the federal average minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to $15.00 per hour – a 107% hike. Both sides of the aisle support this. Why? Are business owners so unscrupulous to deny worker raises if a hike truly profited the workforce? What facts – not feelings – support this argument? Consider this: Government shouts about the benefits of raising the minimum wage, but the costs get drowned out by thunderous applause. During the Depression, the MWL boosted the economy; it helped the workforce recover when the country needed such guidelines. Are there factual arguments for keeping the MWL as a law?

Aside from election talking points, does the MWL serve a Government purpose; does the MWL produce tax revenues? The Government can only tax companies, like a ‘Brand X’ Airlines (BXA), just so much. How, then, do they raise more tax revenue? By raising the minimum wage; by exploiting wage earners to generate more tax revenue. The more money BXA employees are paid, the more taxes the Government collects from BXA, like double-dipping. Cynically speaking, this would enable Government to subsidize more entitlement programs. Can this be demonstrated? As an example, consider the NY City (NYC) Triborough Bridge. In 1936, NYC instituted a temporary $0.25 bridge toll to pay for construction. The bridge was paid off years ago, yet the toll remains (now $9.50). Multiply that revenue by all NYC’s bridges and tunnels, the tolls – like taxes – are pure profit. Why, then, is NYC broke?

All can agree that the extra $7.75 per hour has to come from somewhere, but where? From Government? No, the money will come from companies, like our invented BXA. For instance, ramp employees with training, experience and/or seniority, make salaries that exceed the present minimum wage. These ramp employees, like gate agents or mechanics, have responsibilities and skills vital to BXA’s operation. Would these skilled employees see an equivalent pay raise of $7.75 per hour? There are no guarantees their pay would increase. In the end, BXA’s gate agents, mechanics, pilots and even management would see their hard-earned pay differentials decrease, their pay step grades flatten. If BXA did compensate, the money would have to be redirected from elsewhere. Skilled and/or senior employees would helplessly watch their cost-of-living raises dwindle, medical benefits reduced, promotion opportunities vanish and overtime cut. The good news is that elected officials in Congress will keep their pay and perks; celebrities will still make movies. But workers with years of job security in a failing company, will hit the Welfare Lines. Incidentally, isn’t Welfare another government program that outlived its original purpose?

Why? Because Government cannot force employers to compensate skilled or senior worker salaries equal to the new minimum wage hike. Unions might negotiate salary increases, but success is never certain and would take time. Consider this: the first two things to suffer during an airline’s financial crisis are Training and Maintenance. Those are huge consequences.

If BXA continues to fly, how could they save the $7.75 per hour? Some operators closed their doors during the COVID crisis. The ones that survive a minimum wage hike will outsource maintenance to repair stations in other countries, whose leaders refuse to pay a $15.00 per hour minimum wage; more American jobs going to foreign countries. The flying public’s safety could be at risk; these foreign workers’ work quality may be in question, their skills, unknown. Communities that rely on domestic certificate holders could suffer financially. Closings or mergers, like Hawkins and Powers (Greybull, WY), Northwest Airlines (Memphis, TN), Eastern Airlines (Miami, FL), etc. impacted communities.

What about skilled workers? After Air Midwest 5481, much was learned about how worker quality was tied to pay. Cut hours did not guarantee quality. Skilled workers sought higher paying jobs; mechanics, who, for years, built up seniority and experience, looked for jobs in other industries, like elevator or auto repair. Air Midwest was left with unskilled workers who lasted days, not years.  New hires left with their new training; quality dropped; complacency threatened passenger safety; planes were flown unsafely.

Such is the effect of financial instability. Experienced pilots will look elsewhere, decreasing the qualified workforce. Employees raising families will double-up on their work, resulting in more hours worked, less hours resting. One domino strikes the next domino in line until all are knocked over.

Aside from salaries, what other consequences are there for certificate holders rocked by financial stress? As go salaries, so go the quality of benefits – they are usually a package deal. Hospitalization, well visits, prescription copays and paid dental visits will suffer. When employee benefits are reduced, out-of-pocket expenses go up. Home repairs, children’s education, etc. still exist. Food, gas, and utility costs will, directly or indirectly, be affected by across-the-board, across-the-country minimum wage increases.

But what if the minimum wage law was overturned? If no one has conducted a factual argument against/for a minimum wage, this would be the time to have that discussion. Is the MWL hurting wage earners? Businesses? The American economy? What if employees entering a particular field that requires training and security checks, encouraged companies to raise employee pay rather than surrendering their trained employees to their competitors? Would that inspire employees to better their skills, to rise above minimum wage, become irreplaceable, attain higher pay in their present position?

Out of curiosity, why $15.00 per hour; where did that number come from? $1.00 or $1.50 minimum wage increase would be a sensible, doable raise, but an increase of 107%? Who does that benefit … and why? Do the Jane Fonda’s and Rep Ocasio-Cortez’s ideals represent American workers? These questions should be asked. What about the outdated MWL? None of what was discussed in this article was made up; it was based on history. It is very possible. You don’t believe a word said here? Good, then let us have that discussion.

Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned XLVI: British Midlands 92

British Midlands flight 92 resting on a bank short of East Midlands Airport’s runway 27

On January 8, 1989, British Midlands flight 92 (BRM92), a Boeing 737-400, registration number G-OBME, crashed one-half mile east of East Midlands Airport (EMA) near Kegworth, Leicestershire. The flight crew was attempting to land following an ambiguous engine failure with ‘moderate to severe vibration and a smell of fire’ on climb. In addition, the aircraft experienced longitudinal and lateral flight control issues normally associated with aileron and elevator input.

As BRM92 was diverted to EMA, the flight crew misidentified the failed engine as the number two engine (No 2) and shut it down. When BRM92 turned right to approach from the east, the number one (No 1) engine’s power was increased; at this point the mistake was discovered. 2.4 miles from the end of the runway, the flight crew tried, unsuccessfully, to relight the number two engine. The number one engine lost power and the aircraft bellied in short of the end of runway 27.

On page 148 of the Department of Transport Air Accident Investigations Branch’s accident report 4/90, the Cause stated, “The cause of the accident was that the operating crew shut down the No 2 engine after a fan blade had fractured in the No 1 engine. This engine subsequently suffered a major thrust loss due to secondary fan damage after power had been increased during the final approach to land.

The investigators added two contributing factors:

  1. The combination of heavy engine vibration, noise, shuddering and an associated smell of fire were outside their [flight crew’s] training and experience,” and,
  2. They [flight crew] reacted to the initial engine problem prematurely and in a way that was contrary to their training.

That the investigator team (IT) described the flight crew’s failed reaction to the problem was curious; it demonstrated the IT’s unfamiliarity with an inflight engine vibration event. It also put into question the IT’s experience from a B737 pilot’s perspective.

The root cause of the BRM92 accident was not that the flight crew shut down the wrong engine; the flight crew’s reaction was contributory. The root cause: The No 1 engine failure was brought about by the fan blade separation; this failure of the No 1 engine translated into the pilots’ confusion. Assuming the Operations investigator understood, firsthand, an air carrier pilot’s training – there have been Operations investigators without this experience – why the IT focused on training as a major contributor was not made clear in the report.

The IT report relied heavily on speculation, not facts. For instance, on page 57, the report section 1.16.1 Engine Tests to Identify the Cause of Fan Blade Fatigue, documented testing the IT accomplished to identify why the suspect blade – number 17 – failed. The report determined that there was no “… material or geometric deficiency in the blade, or to any maintenance related actions.” Here the IT ruled out the blade’s material, geometric integrity and any maintenance performed. The report then stated that the manufacturer checked the fan abradable liner; “No evidence of any such influence [fan abradable liner] was found.” The IT’s engine test results established that a fan imbalance recorded on BRM92’s Flight Data Recorder (FDR), was, “… consistent with that obtained on testing an engine with a single fan blade outer panel missing.” These tests produced probable causes; they were not conclusive. How, then, does an engine’s fan suddenly become out of balance? A fan blade could have become loose in its mount; a metal abnormality subject to temperature could have caused a failure or a migrating crack reached too far across the blade’s span. These and many more reasons could have led to the imbalance, but the report did not say. The suspect blade was recovered; metallurgical tests, even in 1989, could have narrowed the focus on why the suspect blade became damaged.

The IT investigators were as listed: Investigator in Charge; Operations (qualified?); Engineering – Powerplants; Engineering – Systems; Engineering – Structures; Medical – Survivability and Flight Recorders. No one represented Aircraft Maintenance; there was no one on the IT who had balanced engine discs or blended fan blades. This conscious decision by investigative agencies to compromise safety by dismissing Aircraft Maintenance investigators has always been an unfortunate mistake.

Accident investigations, such as Ethiopian Airlines 302, Lion Air 610, National Air Cargo 102, and others, were demonstrative of how investigators, lacking experience in any and all maintenance issues, continue to make investigatory mistakes, leaving aviation less safe. All Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airworthiness (Maintenance) inspectors are certificated for aircraft maintenance, yet Aircraft Maintenance is still dismissed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), by contrast, benefited from experienced aircraft mechanics during only one period, when former Board Member John Goglia (1995-2004) was on the Board. Member Goglia’s guidance and experience exposed the NTSB to the correct diagnosing of maintenance issues, like blade blending and fan balance.

In cases where blades are blended; fans are balanced or vibration troubleshooting is accomplished, engineers are not involved. Engineers, if consulted by the manufacturer, overhaul facility or air operator, could be a mile away from the engine, several states away or separated from the aircraft by twelve time zones. I know this because when I worked engine vibration issues in the 1980s, there were no engineers anywhere nearby; Aircraft Maintenance consulted the maintenance manual, prepared the engine, ran the engine and balanced the engine’s fan with no help from engineering.

There is a lot to be said about identifying vibrations during high-stress situations, like during the landing cycle. BRM92’s FDR showed that while climbing through 28,300 feet, the moment the engine failed, there were “… significant fluctuations in lateral and longitudinal accelerations.” There were no fire alarms – either audio or visual, that normally accompany an engine failure – to call attention away from flight controls to engines. Smoke in the air conditioning system and the vibration could have suggested an air cycle machine failure, the flight control problems to aileron, elevator or hydraulic issues. Could the crew have turned their attention to the engine instruments only after the No 1 vibration settled?

The report stated the number five factor that, “… contributed to the incorrect response of the flight crew” was, “They were not informed of the flames which had emanated from the No 1 engine and which had been observed by many on board, including 3 cabin attendants in the aft cabin”. If the flight crew was interpreting information available to them in the cockpit, making decisions during a high-stress diversion and landing, why would they consult the cabin attendants? That statement made no sense.

Airframe vibrations are not as revealing of engine problems as one would believe. When running a turbofan-powered aircraft on the ground, out-of-balance vibrations are more discernable because of the on-site conditions. Vibrations translate to the ground through the landing gear; the rigidity of the solid ground resists, reflecting the vibrations back through the landing gear and amplify through the airframe. An out-of-balance engine is much easier to identify in this situation for two reasons: First, the mechanic is well aware of which engine has the balance problem; the vibrations are expected. Second, the other engine(s), operating with correctly balanced fans, make the unbalanced engine stand out.

The report referred to several conflicting problems; per the FDR readouts, the IT felt the pilots’ attentions were misplaced. However, lateral and longitudinal fluctuations pointed to flight controls; smoke, that smelled like burning, without a fire alarm pointed to pneumatics or air conditioning. What kind of burning did they smell: plastic, metal, rubber, fuel? These separate events could have been why the pilots would not have looked at engine instruments first, which allowed the instruments to settle down. In flight, the airframe absorbs the engines’ vibrations, confusing their source; there is no ground resistance to reflect the vibration back. Engine vibration sensors may have originally isolated the disturbances, but vibration sensor measurements were not infallible. In addition, did the pilots’ confusion stem from the No 1 engine’s vibrations quickly dissipating? Did both pilots suspect another cause, such as the ailerons or elevators? Were their attentions pulled from the engines because there were no alarms? By pulling the No 2 throttle back, did this further mask the out of balance No 1 engine?

The report’s Safety Recommendations were ineffective; of the thirty-one recommendations, there was nothing that would have changed the way aircraft were inspected, pilots were trained, instrumentation reported anomalies or systems were certified, that would have increased safety. It appeared that by repeating what requirements were already in place, only with sterner words, was supposed to improve oversight and inspection, but the effort did not advance either.