April 9th, 2008
01:24 PM ET

“No Blood No Foul” approach to air safety

American Airlines

If you fly every week, or sometimes three times a week, like I do, you must be wondering “what is going on?” Day after day another report of aircraft being grounded, inspections missed and safety warnings being issued.

It’s no different on this story, only this warning is coming straight from the cockpit. American Airlines pilots are telling us they are losing faith in the safety of their aircraft, and the fear is American Airlines is a trendsetter in the industry.

Tonight, we report on one specific problem: landing nose gear that won’t retract into the aircraft after take off. At American there have been nearly 2 dozen of these incidents in just the past month. And though American Airlines tells us it is not a major concern, Captain Sam Mayer will tell you how he nearly had a catastrophic event take place when his landing gear incident led to much more serious problems on a freezing day in Minneapolis.

What has struck me about this story is the nature of the responses we got from both American Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration. It reminded me of what my high school water polo coach used to say in practice: “No blood no foul.” Coach Bubba-Fish, as we called him, liked to play rough. If he didn’t see anyone bleeding in the pool, no fouls were called.

The FAA told us since all the American Airlines MD-80’s with nose gear issues landed safely, there really wasn’t a safety issue.

American told us its fleet of 300 MD-80’s complete 1200 flights a day and 23 landing gear issues over the course of a few months really isn’t a big deal.

Like Coach Bubba-Fish used to say, “No blood no foul.” I wonder if you feel the same way.  
Click here for more updates on this story

– Drew Griffin, CNN Special Investigations Unit

Comments to the 360° blog are moderated. What does that mean?

Filed under: Airline Safety • American Airlines • FAA
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Jason Choo

    Let's not forget that AA's pilots are in contract negotiations at the moment and are saying and doing some pretty nasty things just to generate media coverage. If they really had no faith in the aircraft they would not endanger themselves by flying it. Simple as that.

    More on that point, what is the incentive for airlines to let unsafe planes fly? One at-fault accident could put a company out of business.

    As for one commenter's suggestion that the FAA is turning its head... I think we can put that theory to rest based on the politically motivated groundings of the MD-80s this week.

    April 10, 2008 at 12:23 pm |
  2. David Cannan

    Drew, I fly frequently as well and AA is my airline of choice because I'm in and out of two of their hub cities every week. You must know that their pilots have been involved in acrimonious contract negotiations with their employer. To say that the pilots are "losing faith" without mentioning the elephant in the room, i.e. the APA is looking for an industry leading contract at a time when the industry is in peril, doesn't serve your readers very well. If the pilots are concerned about their safety, and the safety of the flying public, then why don't they quit and look for employment elsewhere? Because it wouldn't be financially feasible? Tell the truth!

    April 10, 2008 at 7:46 am |
  3. Rick Lucas

    Hi Anderson.

    I enjoy your show and your “no blood, no foul” comparison of airline safety and lax agency oversight is unfortunately, right on the money.

    The FAA is tasked by the F.A.A. act of 1958 to maintain safety at the highest possible level. Why is airline oversight by the FAA not insuring airline compliance and resulting in the highest level of safety?

    The answer to that question is complex and it has three integral parts:

    (1) LACK OF QUALIFICATIONS – The airline industry is self-regulating; however oversight by the FAA is ineffective due to a lack of expertise and marginal inspector qualifications;

    (2) LACK OF LEADERSHIP – Agency inspectors have been allowed to become too cozy with the airlines. There is an obvious conflict of interest in the present environment. The inspectors attempt to gain favor with the airline. Airline managements use this atmosphere to proffer perks and job offers in exchange for leniency; and

    (3) THE BOTTOM LINE; SAFETY COSTS MONEY. The FAA, as directed by their founding act, is required to demand that airlines spend huge sums of money to maintain the highest level of safety. The airlines, especially post-deregulation, are all about saving money and lowering costs. The inherent tug-of-war is not pretty and it exposes weaknesses in the system.

    It is, unfortunately, a system that has never responded well to safety problems. Throughout history, it has never responded until there are bodies lying all over; surrounded by a smoking hole in the ground and aircraft wreckage strewn all over the countryside.

    April 10, 2008 at 3:53 am |
  4. Kedren Reade Sitton

    I agree, Dianna.

    I recall we started impeachment proceedings on a government official not even 10 years ago now for "setting a horrible example for our children".

    I think I speak for you as well to say it's an understatement to say we're at that point in 2008.

    April 9, 2008 at 9:29 pm |
  5. Dianna Barker

    Does the FAA really think we believe that just one supervisor in the FAA was to blame for this widespread problem?? Why isn't Bush investigating this? Why isn't he firing people!! I want to see people FIRED!!!
    I want to see a congressional investigation and the Attorney General hounding these guys. I put my kids on planes many times a year, my husband travels frequently for work. We depend on the FAA and airlines to keep our families safe.

    I am so sick of corruption in our government.

    April 9, 2008 at 8:29 pm |
  6. Robert Chase

    I have flown for many years , mostly without incident. Formally, I worked for a small airport on the Fire Department. There are many incidents which never make the news. Most do not effect the safety of an aircraft.
    However, in recent times the whole airline industry has done everything possible to cut maintenance expenses. The current problems are just the beginning of a major problem. The FAA is " in bed" with the airline industry and has looked the other way concerning safety issues. The only thing which will turn the situation around is a crash due to safety short cuts. When that happens the American people will make Congress and the President do their jobs of working for the citizens, not some industry which provides campaign contributions. Sad, but true.

    April 9, 2008 at 7:13 pm |
  7. Craig Olson

    It amazes me the way the media always manages to ask pilots about these kinds of issues. The focus should be on the people directly involved with this: the technicians and mechanics working on the planes. The reason the focus is not there is two-fold. First, the lack of a strong union like ALPA which can broadcast to the public the difficulties and problems these individuals face every day. Second, there are fewer and fewer technicians and mechanics in the industry. Find some of these individuals and talk to them, find out what they have to say. They don't have the glorious jobs that pilots have which means they don't get the appreciation of the public, they don't get the salaries they should, they don't get the job protection they deserve.

    And the flying public must take some of the blame here. People expect to fly for less than it would cost to take a bus. You have allowed the people at the top of this industry, those in upper management, those sitting in the cockpits, to protect their jobs and salaries at the expense of customer service and maintenance personal. It's true – maintenance is one of the first things to be cut. The public is going to have to face the fact that higher ticket prices are necessary to support every aspect of flying. Flying is still very safe, but we might have to begin paying more to keep it that way.

    April 9, 2008 at 4:33 pm |
  8. Wayne Burgess

    I was on an American 757 flight out of Dallas to Phoenix about 4 years ago. Fifteen minutes out there was smoke in the cabin and a frantic and scared pilot comes on the intercom looking for the co-pilot who was in the john at the time! Scared the hell out of all of us! We turned around and returned to Dallas. It turned out there was a fire in the cockpit right in front of the pilots nose which it turns out cracked the windshield, sound familiar? Obviously this situation has been an on-going problem for years! What would have happened if the windshield broke I shudder to think. Once landed with all the emergency trucks at the ready, we disembarkred and within an hour were on another 757 but one of the stewards refused to go. maybe he knew then something which we didn't. I don't fly with American anymore for obvious reasons but maybe it is the manufacturers fault> Everyone is very skilled at shuffeling the blame but now 4 years later it becomes news?

    April 9, 2008 at 4:09 pm |
  9. Taj

    Oh boy ! During the last 2 weeks I change my airline reservation 2 times (Aloha, ATA) & finally booked on AA. I had had it. I now feel lot safer to travel in my 1968 Mustang (350,000 miles), drive cross country. I know my baby (Mustang) will make it.

    April 9, 2008 at 3:38 pm |
  10. A. Meyer

    I just read a story on cnn.com that landing gear issues have been occurring in recent months. I was a passenger on a flight in California in December which circled the Bay Area for hours as they tried to determine what to do regarding the landing gear. I did not get overly worried at the time but recent coverage is not making me feel good about it. I wrote into American Airlines for a better explanation and while they apologized and gave me free miles (in their frequent flier program) no further explanation was offered. I'm not sure I will use those miles.

    April 9, 2008 at 3:07 pm |
  11. Brian Abernathy

    I hate to be a statistical nitpicker but I think it is disingenious to make statements like these:

    According to Wagner's statement, "We have had no similar issues in well over a month. Our fleet of 300 MD-80s departed on more than 150,000 flights in the last five months, and the landing gear retracted perfectly on 99.9999 percent of those flights."

    What he is stating is that the landing gear did not retract properly on every flight or he would have said 100%. Using 99.9999% versus 99.9993% (the number required for one plane on one flight out of 150,000 not to have worked properly) just hides the fact that he was unwilling to specifically identify the number of planes that have had this problem. Was it one or two or twenty? I doubt that 0.15 of one of the planes didn't retract its landing gear properly. Aircraft like to work as a whole, not a statistic. Just give us the number and stop hiding.

    April 9, 2008 at 2:54 pm |
  12. Khajak Boghossian

    The position of indifference taken by American Airlines and the FAA is quite unsettling. Rather than taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety of their passengers, they have chosen to wait until the situation calls for it. I'm no expert, but if American Airlines pilots are losing faith in the safety of their aircrafts, so will the thousands of passengers they serve. American Airlines executives are obligated to investigate these problems, regardless of how minor they appear to be.

    April 9, 2008 at 2:30 pm |
  13. Jeff Schroeder

    I was on an American Airlines MD-80 flight from Minneapolis to Chicago back in February that had to make an emergency landing at O'Hare due to issues with the landing gear. I fly a lot for work - I'm still pretty young and I already have something like 800,000 miles under my belt - but I've never been as scared for my life as I was during the end of that flight. We made two aborted landing attempts before heading out over Lake Michigan - presumably to dump fuel, I imagine - and coming back in to make a third and final attempt even though, as the pilot told us, there was a "landing gear warning light" on at the time. It's scary enough to have to land with all the airport's emergency vehicles lining the runway ready to put out the flames, but the most unsettling part was when a nervous American pilot who was sitting in coach along for the ride was employed to manually check and see if the landing gear was down. Apparently, on those planes, there is a hatch they can open in the floor and physically look down to see if the landing gear is extended. So we're coming in for a landing and this pilot is on his hands and knees on the floor looking to see if we actually could land. I don't know what he saw, but we landed safely and without incident. I'm inclined to think it was more luck than anything else, though.

    Wiring issues, nose-gear problems - whatever it is, American definitely has a problem. I know I will not fly that airline again for a long time unless it's absolutely necessary - and even then it won't be on an MD-80.

    April 9, 2008 at 2:27 pm |
  14. Kedren Reade Sitton

    Thank you for your piloting, Mr. Agnew, first of all!

    Let me tell you, though, you say stuff like "not a safety issue" but when someone "hassles" someone else, and I surely wonder! Most importantly I wonder how ON EARTH the one being "hassled" has yet to learn from the hassling!

    As far as I'm concerned (NON-pilot), I'd suggest the pilots UNION be running the airline in question! And first order of business for them would be fire every single one of those "hassled" execs!

    April 9, 2008 at 2:17 pm |
  15. Rob, Arvada, CO

    American is doing the right thing. Safety is far more important than revenue. I am glad they are being proactive and making sure all their planes are flight-worthy. This goes a long way to securing credibility for their company. Kudos, American.

    April 9, 2008 at 2:14 pm |
  16. Bob Rilling

    American's spokesman Tim Wagner is quoted as saying "on more than 150,000 flights in the last five months, ... the landing gear retracted perfectly on 99.9999 percent of those flights." (see main article)

    You do the math: the failure rate (.0001 percent of 150,000) is one-seventh of an aircraft, a ridiculous statement. Why should we believe Wagner's statistics? Can he state the number of aircraft out of the 150,000 that had a gear retraction problem? (We can then do our own conversion to a percentage).

    Really, why doesn't American build some confidence by getting rid of a spokesman who has no idea what numbers mean?

    April 9, 2008 at 2:11 pm |
  17. Lorie Ann, Buellton, California

    Hi Drew,
    What's the answer? Do the Pilots refuse to fly? Passengers too? Until the outcry is huge, what will happen is zip. Wouldn't it be great, if for once we didn't have to wait for a terrible wakeup call to do something beforehand.

    Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif.

    April 9, 2008 at 2:05 pm |
  18. William Agnew

    The American Airlines story is all about the pilot contract negotiations that are currently ongoing. I flew for American for 28 years and it's always the same story. This is not a safety issue except when the pilots union, through Sam Mayer, want it to be. Sam Mayer has always been a union radical and has no creditability among most other pilots at American Airlines.

    April 9, 2008 at 1:56 pm |
  19. Willie C Fields jr

    It is very stressful to know that if or a member of my family were to fly, will it be the last time we see them. The federal government should be doing more to crack down on all airline that fly within the US and make sure that foreign airline comply with safety regulations required in the US. With the high price of gas, it is safer to pay the addional fee than possible lose your life or the life of a love one.

    April 9, 2008 at 1:56 pm |
  20. Slater

    No, I feel that they are postponing the inevitable.

    The FAA is well known for turning it's head. The real problem gets covered up with pay offs and denials. Seems they are not paying their victims or their employees well enough these days to keep them in their confidences.

    Chances are after this you will see broader employment contracts in the area of confidentiality in the airline industry. Meanwhile you are going to see an onion of affle gaffle revealed in the next six months about this industry, I guarantee it.

    April 9, 2008 at 1:53 pm |

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