Torqued: Are recent accidents fallout from the down economy?

 - May 1, 2009, 6:30 AM

I can’t help noticing that our accident rate seems to have taken a nosedive recently (for first-quarter statistics from safety analyst Bob Breiling, see page 6), along with several unfortunate aircraft. It is still too early to tell, of course. But it’s never too early to sit up and pay attention. Any spike could be just a fluke or the beginning of a trend. I’d rather sound the alarm early and be wrong than wait for a disastrous trend to take hold.

My concern is that the fallout from the economic slump is playing out in the cockpits and hangars of our aircraft fleets. Could economics be driving cockpit distractions or the skipping of maintenance procedures or the use of less qualified crews (and I don’t mean the amazing US Airways crew that landed on the Hudson)? Are aircraft being overloaded to save time and money or in the mistaken belief that getting a passenger to his destination trumps the safety rules?

This certainly would not be the first time that costs have driven safety decisions, and I think it’s time for everyone in aviation–even the FAA–to step up awareness and be more vigilant.

As I walk around airports and FBOs, I can’t help noticing that there are fewer English-speaking employees. Certainly this is the result of the drive to hire cheaper and cheaper labor. But at what cost? This isn’t an attack on immigrants. It’s just Aviation 101: employees need to be able to read directions, manuals and other documents. If they can’t read English, then the documents must be translated into their native languages.

Employees come from a universe of countries, and if they’re to do their jobs safely, they must have the right tools. Those tools include written safety guidelines and the ability to read and understand them. One of my nightmare scenarios involves all those drums of fluid stored in hangars and used to dispense everything from engine oil and hydraulic fluid to hand soap; the possibility of error is greatly magnified if the person doing the dispensing cannot read English.

If courses in English as a second language are too expensive, then basic technical and safety information has to be translated into the language workers read. There’s no way around this. There are a number of companies that provide specialized aviation translation services (my favorite is Continental Translation Services in Manhattan) and the costs are not prohibitive. An accident caused by a failure to follow proper procedures because the person doing the work didn’t understand the language would certainly generate a more exorbitant cost.

Foreign repair stations have the opposite problem. Workers at those facilities do use guidance in their native languages, but do the overseers–the airlines and FAA–know what the guidance says? How are they determining the adequacy of the work performed if they can’t read what’s being written?

It’s time we all realized that although English is supposed to be the universal aviation language, it just plain isn’t. Wanting it to be so is not going to make it so. ATC routinely has problems with foreign airline crews not being fluent enough in English and operating at our most congested airports; the problems are just magnified on the ground, where our critical but often woefully underpaid ground crews have even less of a working knowledge of English. Until we have a truly universal language, we need to invest in properly translated documents so we all understand each other and protect the flying public.