By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
The union representing pilots at Horizon Air, the regional carrier for Alaska Airlines, sent a note to its members Thursday alleging that the airline’s management is undermining long-standing industry safety programs by focusing on penalizing individuals.
The note includes a link to a letter the union wrote this summer to the board of directors of Alaska Air Group and CEO Brad Tilden drawing attention to “the deteriorated state of Horizon Air’s safety programs.”
Pilot unions and airline management typically work closely together to ensure safety. Yet the union’s July letter, obtained by The Seattle Times along with the Thursday note and earlier union documents, reveals a severely distrustful relationship at Horizon between management and its pilots.
The union’s Thursday message was in reaction to a Seattle Times story that day highlighting an internal memo to senior pilot leaders, in which John Hornibrook, Horizon Air’s vice president of flight operations, expressed concern about a lax safety culture among the airline’s pilots and listed a series of incidents in the couple of days before Thanksgiving that he deemed unsafe.
Hornibrook wrote that “if we sit back and do nothing, we will have an accident.”
In response, the executive council of the Airlines Professional Association Teamsters Local 1224 that represents Horizon pilots told its members that “we are truly dismayed by the presumptive nature, negative attitude and broad-brush descriptions of our Horizon pilots.” It said the incidents listed by Hornibrook “are not often the result of pilot error or unprofessionalism.”
The Teamsters message points to the letter the union wrote to CEO Tilden and the Alaska Air board in July with specific concerns alleging that management at Horizon was undermining a key safety program called FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance, pronounced FO-KWA) that is designed to spot and remedy any dangerous trends in flight operations.
Tilden responded in July with a letter saying that the union’s concerns “are being taken seriously.” He set up a meeting between pilot union representatives and Horizon’s then-CEO Gary Beck, which took place on Oct. 4. The union said a “dialog was started” with a follow-up meeting planned before year end.
Since then, Beck has moved over to a senior position at Alaska Airlines, and was replaced last month at Horizon by Joe Sprague. The union’s letter to its members said that given the leadership change and the Hornibrook memo, “we may be starting again at square one.”
The Teamsters union did not respond to a request for comment Friday. Alaska Air Group spokeswoman Bobbie Egan flatly denied the union’s allegation that it abuses the safety program designed to monitor the airline’s flight activities.
The FOQA program “operates in accordance with FAA guidance to increase the level of safety across the entire operation,” she wrote in an email.
Trust and openness
The dispute over assessment of pilots between the union and management centers on the balance between encouraging an open safety culture and holding individuals accountable for mistakes.
The FOQA system, implemented across the airline industry and administered by an external company, automatically gathers data from every flight and flags any unusual conditions such as excessive speed, stalls or engine problems. This data is compiled and analyzed and used to spot trends that indicate any safety or maintenance issue and to inform pilots through training or sending out alerts.
At each carrier, a FOQA team of senior pilots from both union and management collaborates to analyze the data for that specific airline and to disseminate to its pilots any needed alerts and actions. Crucially, though the FOQA team may describe a specific incident, unless it is very egregious they don’t identify the individual pilots involved.
This is a guiding principle in U.S. aviation: The belief is that it’s safer to encourage pilots to be open about errors and report them, without fear that they will be penalized for doing so — so they don’t conceal mistakes or problems.
Each FOQA team has union pilot “gatekeepers” who have access to the identities of the individuals involved; if an incident is outside the norm, they will talk to the pilots about what happened. If a safety incident is serious enough, pilots can be penalized or terminated. But outside that, the FOQA data almost always remains anonymous to encourage openness and trust.
A senior captain with Alaska Airlines, who contacted The Seattle Times after Thursday’s story, described how it works by citing how, following a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) directive in 2002 on Boeing 737s, Alaska specified that its pilots shouldn’t deploy the spoilers on the wings at speeds greater than 270 knots.
The following month, Alaska posted FOQA data for its pilots showing 45 instances that month when this rule was breached, mostly just for a matter of seconds, though in a few cases for longer. After this alert to pilots, “the next month it went down to one incident,” he said.
The FOQA system is “not something punitive,” the captain said. “It’s about seeing trends and doing something about it.”
The Teamsters July letter to the board alleges that after a “safety-critical event” in the summer of 2018, which is not detailed further, Horizon management “maliciously and improperly used protected (FOQA) information” against the pilots involved. As a result of this breach of protocol, the entire FOQA team, both union and company representatives, resigned. The letter calls this action “unprecedented in the history of the airline.”
The letter alleges that in multiple communications to Horizon’s pilots, Hornibrook overrode the decisions of the FOQA gatekeepers and improperly used protected FOQA data that “admonished, embarrassed and misled Horizon pilots.” It cites a couple of instances when management in pilot training classes described safety incidents and identified the crew.
The union called such conduct “unprofessional” and said it will “cause the undermining of trust” and is “counter-productive to the safety of Horizon Air.”
Alaska Air’s Egan denied the union’s assertions.
“No protections have been removed from our FOQA program,” she said.
Regarding the “safety-critical event” in 2018, she said “the company had no insight into who the crew was.”
“FOQA is critical to our safety program,” Egan wrote. “We have never, and will never, take punitive action against a pilot due to FOQA identified events.”
Another Alaska Airlines pilot wrote to The Times after Thursday’s story expressing concern about how the rapid expansion of the U.S. airline industry has resulted in an influx of new, less-experienced pilots at regional airlines across the country. He called it “a ticking time bomb.”
“I fear we are getting dangerously close to seeing accidents involving regional airlines caused by a combination of lack of experience and complacency,” he wrote.
That’s the background to Hornibrook’s push to “get the pilots heads in the game before we have an accident,” as he put it in his memo. Yet antagonism with the pilot union could limit progress.
One Horizon pilot, who like the others interviewed for this story asked to be anonymous to protect his job, said the relationship with Horizon management is now “toxic” in some respects.
The Teamsters union’s concerns at Horizon are longstanding. In a January newsletter to members, it laid out the same complaints about management abuse of FOQA data.
That newsletter notes, however, that both the union and the company agree on the desired outcome: “upholding the highest degree of safety is not negotiable.”