All Safe

Tom Kubik

I NOTICED AN AD from a discount airline the other week for a ticket from Cincinnati to Fort Lauderdale for $76 roundtrip. Folks, you can’t drive between those two cities for $76. The same carrier was advertising a bunch of other roundtrip tickets with similar prices.

Crazy cheap.

I get questioned all the time: Are these airlines safe? Do they have good pilots? Are their jets kept in good mechanical condition? Are they as safe to fly as American Airlines—my old employer—or Delta or United?

My answer: Yes. I have no issue flying on these budget airlines.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees the airline business. It makes and enforces the regulations, overseeing pilots, mechanics and aircraft. It has the authority to completely shut down any airline, aircraft or individual if it deems that safety is compromised, and it’s done so on numerous occasions.

The FAA is the ultimate authority regarding airline safety. But the companies themselves—at least in the U.S.—are easily as responsible and thorough as the FAA. Safety is first and foremost at each airline. It has to be. Lives depend on it.

Why exactly are these discount airlines equally safe? Let’s start with the pilots.

It isn’t an easy road to the captain’s seat of an airline, regardless of the company. While the time it takes from first learning to fly to gaining that seat varies according to supply and demand, the experience level required is regulated by the FAA. You need an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license, and that requires anywhere from 800 to 1,500 hours of flying time, depending on your educational background.

In addition, you need a specialized “type rating” license for the aircraft you’ll be commanding. That requires at least a month or two of specialized training specific to that aircraft. In all, to be the pilot in command, you’ll need to prove your skills to a number of pilot inspectors over the course of your training.

Different FAA or management pilots will judge you, in a simulator and the aircraft, on your abilities. That’s in addition to your knowledge of the aircraft and its many systems, such as fuel, electrical and hydraulic.

Most important, they will evaluate you on your judgment. Suffice it to say, the pilot who is flying your airplane is extremely competent, or he or she wouldn’t be there. Keep in mind these are just minimum standards.

After these requirements are met, every six to nine months, each pilot must be assessed and tested in the simulator. I assure you that your jet’s captain and first officer have experience far beyond the minimum, regardless of the airline.

Also, all pilots have required medical examinations. To hold an ATP license, you must have a physical exam every six months. If you don’t pass the exam, you’re prohibited from flying until you do. And you can’t fly airliners if you’re too old. FAA mandatory retirement is 65.

One Tuesday, at age 64, I had 300 folks in my A-330 crossing the Atlantic Ocean going from Rome to Charlotte. They were all depending on me to get them there safely using my skill and experience. On Wednesday, I was no longer “safe” to fly because it was my 65th birthday. The FAA decided this was a reasonable medical requirement. It’s an example of the seriousness of the people overseeing the industry.

The same safety culture is required of the aircraft and the mechanics who work on them. Again, the FAA has responsibility for oversight and compliance. The mechanics who are employed by American, United and Delta—or Allegiant or Spirit—must all pass the same stringent FAA testing and licensing requirements. To be a mechanic at any airline requires the same rigorous level of licensing and testing as a pilot.

You must pass many tests and have many hours of experience working on aircraft to attain the licenses, and then compete with many other applicants to get hired by an airline. Once hired, these folks are continuously evaluated and tested, just as the pilots are. In fact, some of the low-fare airlines actually have better working conditions for their maintenance personnel than some of the major carriers. The dedicated people who maintain the mechanical integrity of aircraft—regardless of the carrier—are competent and qualified.

The aircraft in service at these low-fare carriers must pass the same inspections and comply with the same required maintenance schedules as those flown by the major airlines. The Airbus 320 that’s flying in a Spirit Airlines paint job is maintained and inspected to the same standard as one with a United Airlines paint job. While the configurations of the aircraft may differ—seating, lavatories, galleys and so on—the requirements for safety set forth by the FAA are exactly the same.

The discount carriers have a different business model than the majors. They keep their costs down in many ways that differ from larger, established carriers. How they do that is a topic for another article. But the one thing they don’t skimp on is safety.

It’s absolutely essential that safety comes first for every airline company, not because the FAA requires it, but because it’s the very first rule of the business. If you aren’t safe, you aren’t going to be in business. It’s a simple concept, and the airlines in the U.S. are the gold standard for safety.

There’s a bunch of reasons to spend more or less on an airline ticket. Schedule, convenience, legroom, first-class comforts and other factors will help you decide how much you want to spend on your trip.

Safety is not a consideration. All of our airlines are safe. My family will fly on any U.S. airline if it meets our needs, regardless of the name on the side of the aircraft.

Tom Kubik recently retired from American Airlines after 42 years as a pilot. Working on both the management and union side of the business, he saw prosperity, bankruptcy and the disappearance of pension plans. Faced with this upheaval, he also had a side business as a homebuilder. Today, Tom and his wife still travel extensively. Three children and seven grandchildren keep them on the go. Tom’s previous articles were Cutting Their CutWhy Am I Late and The Unfriendly Skies.

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