Friday, May 29, 2009

Capitalism and regional airlines

Sam of Blogging at FL250 offers a deep and perspicacious analysis of the structural issues and properties of regional airlines that contributed to the recent crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407.

Sam is unequivocal about the airline's structural contributions. Although
This crew did undoubtedly make a number of serious mistakes, some commonplace and others nearly inexplicable, which compounded on each other and resulted in tragedy. Yet these mistakes did not take place in a vacuum; there were a number of circumstances that may have contributed.
and Sam has previously cited training errors and crew distractions as contributing factors, Sam identifies deeper structural issues underlying the proximate causes.

Sam cites a series of practices at Colgan Airlines (and many regional airlines) aimed at reducing costs, including:
  1. Hiring inexperienced pilots (although Colgan is not nearly the worst)
  2. Extremely low "poverty-level" crew pay
  3. Outsourced and minimized crew training
  4. Operating relatively few pilots per airplane
  5. Aggressively limiting absenteeism
  6. Aggressively maximizing crew flight time

On the one hand, human beings have some... nonlinearities... in their perception of risk. Air travel is still relatively safe; by passenger-kilometer roughly two orders of magnitude safer than cars*. Regardless, human beings have notions of acceptable risk, and the Colgan crash is clearly unacceptable.

*By passenger-hour cars are about three times more dangerous than airplanes, and by passenger-journey airplanes are about twice as dangerous as cars. We make many more, shorter and slower journeys by car than by airplane. But even by the most dangerous metric, an individual would have to make about 50,000,000 (fifty million) aircraft journeys to have a 50% chance of dying during one. Also note that these statistics were collected in 2000; air travel has been considerably safer since, with only one major loss-of-life accident (Colgan 3407) since 2001.

Even if Colgan were to make a conscientious and well-informed person such as Sam their CEO, there would be little he could do as an individual to improve safety:
It's easy to vilify regional airline management for this behavior, but the reality is that it is generally borne of financial necessity rather than a perverse hatred of pilots or the pursuit of personal enrichment. Regional airlines live and die by their cost structures because the major airlines they contract with have made it this way. Virtually all regional airline management is cheap; the main difference between them is the degree of their aggressiveness in cutting costs and how vile they're willing to be to their employees. The most foul - i.e., the most cheap - have reaped the most growth in recent years as they lap up contracts with major airlines. In the case of Colgan, this came in the form of 15 Q400's to be flown as Continental Connection.

We not only face safety issues, but Sam also paints a compelling picture of the misery and indignity pilots face at many of the lower-end regional airlines: long hours, low pay, bullying by their superiors. The first officer on Colgan 3407 was supplementing her income as a barista. Keep in mind that pilots require more training — and on general principles* seem to have as much or more potential for causing premature death** — than physicians.

*I have not actually computed the statistics; let me know if I'm mistaken.

**In expected years of life lost. Pilots are typically responsible for healthy people with many expected years of life; physicians are typically responsible for sick people with few years of expected life, especially if untreated.

Sam correctly notes that both the degradation of the pilots and the compromise of safety result from the structural characteristics of capitalism. There are only two ways of generating surplus value: increasing labor output and decreasing labor costs and pay, and the survival of any individual capitalist enterprise depends on generating more surplus value relative to one's direct competitors and in the short term. Colgan President Buddy Casey could afford to evaluate the risk of a crash only in the next quarter; if quarterly profits (or revenue) had fallen relative to his competitors (causing a movement of financial capital to his competitors) he would certainly have been out on his ass.

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