One of the pillars of modern aviation safety, cockpit resource management was introduced to commercial aviation more than two decades ago. Among other things, CRM was meant to draw the curtain on the era of the submissive copilot and flight engineer cowed by an overbearing “gear up, shut up” captain. It also addressed the disturbing incidence of three-pilot airline crews, nursing deep grievances born of unwanted post-deregulation mergers, refusing to speak to each other on the flight deck.
In aviation, silence is golden only under the flight path and in the comforts of an aircraft’s cabin, and CRM encourages everyone in the cockpit, regardless of seniority, to work together and speak up if they see something that strikes them as amiss, questionable, wrong, illegal, stupid, negligent or any other troubling adjective that could create a hazard or confusion. Post-9/11 security billboards have adopted this theme too: “If you see something, say something.”
All of this well intentioned stuff, along with the OSHA-enforced whistleblower provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR21), serves as backdrop to a recent OSHA decision that ordered AirTran Airways (the former ValuJet of Everglades inferno infamy) to rehire a pilot it fired in 2007 following what it described as a sudden spike in his mechanical-malfunction reports. A week after the airline hauled the pilot in for a 17-minute hearing on the matter, it fired him for not adequately explaining the surge in reported squawks. OSHA disagreed, asserting that the airline’s decision to fire the pilot was retaliatory, and ordered AirTran to pay the pilot more than $1 million in back wages, plus interest and compensatory damages.
“Airline workers must be free to raise safety and security concerns, and companies that diminish those rights through intimidation and retaliation must be held accountable,” said David Michaels, the head of OSHA.
Since news of the agency’s decision broke, discussion among those with careers in cockpits has run the gamut: to some, this pilot deserves admiration for taking a stand; others question why only he among all AirTran’s pilots seemed to find so much wrong with his airline’s equipment; others label him a troublemaker; others wonder if he has won this game but spectacularly lost the wider set and match of a long and rewarding piloting career, suggesting he may never find another piloting job beyond AirTran and Southwest, which bought AirTran last May.
Labor Department policy prohibits it from releasing the AirTran pilot’s name, but it’ll percolate out through other channels. If you were running a flight department, would your gut regard him as a courageous whistleblower or a malcontent? Would you at least interview the fellow? Or would you reject him out of hand because he was fired by an airline? Scroll down this page to send your thoughts.