Safety and Health Experience of Pilots and Flight Attendants

Article excerpt

Air transportation workers have a comparatively high rate of disabling injuries and illnesses; pilots and flight attendants commonly sustain serious sprains and strains

Since passage of the Airline Deregulation Act, economists and public policy officials have been debating its effects.' The debate has been confined to the effects of deregulation on industry concentration, productivity, pricing, and passenger safety. Several studies have been conducted regarding labor-management relations in the airline industry following deregulation,[2] but only one study has investigated the health and safety of the workers.1

While studies have focused on the risks of flying from the passenger's viewpoint, occupational safety and health hazards faced by airline workers have been ignored. However, some of the same conditions that cause occupational injuries and illnesses in the airline industry may prove harmful to passengers.4

This article briefly discusses the structure of the airline industry. It also identifies the characteristics of injuries and illnesses experienced by pilots and flight attendants such as: principal physical condition, part of the body affected, source, and event. The airline industry There have been three distinct periods in the airline industry since deregulation.1 The first period (1978 to 1981) witnessed the creation and entrance of new, low cost, mostly nonunion carriers, for example, People's Express, Muse, Midway, and New York Air. By paying low wages and leasing planes and maintenance services, these new carriers enjoyed cost advantages which reduced the profit margins of the established carriers.' The established airlines suffered losses, and each responded differently to the new competitive climate.[7] To compete with the new carriers, several innovative plans were introduced: frequent flier programs, computer reservation systems, the hub-and-spoke system, and holding companies (used to establish nonunion companies).

The second period (1982 to 1985) was initiated with Braniff Airlines filing for bankruptcy.' A deep recession, rising fuel prices, and new, low cost competition forced existing airlines to cut wages, change work rules, implement two-tier wage programs, and to eliminate jobs.9 As Seth D. Rosen argues, From a labor relations standpoint, the years from 1982 to 1985 were the worst of times for [airline] unions."[10] Management of the established carriers also sought to increase employees' productivity by changing work rules, increasing hard flying time, and instituting an overall speedup of the work process.[11]

The third period (1986 to 1992) is characterized by consolidation and expansion through merger. There were 15 mergers in 1986, more than in any other year in aviation history.12 As a result of the mergers, industry concentration has increased, producing what one analyst has termed a "tight oligopoly." The largest eight airlines now account for 92 percent of the domestic market. 14

What does the future hold for the airline industry? The U.S. airline industry may undergo further consolidation with American, Delta, and United emerging as the dominant carriers.[15] These three airlines are currently the only U.S. carriers with strong balance sheets.[16] Competition in the airline industry is also expected to become more globalized.[17]

Although the airline industry has gone from regulation to competition to oligopoly since 1978, studies have not shown any evidence of deterioration in air travel safety as measured by either the number or the rate of fatalities. Specifically, from 1978 to 1988, the number of departures increased from 5,015,939 a year to 7,200,000 per year and the number of aircraft hours rose from 6 million to 10 million per year, while the accident rate remained relatively unchanged at 0.314 per 100,000 hours of operation."

However, it is argued that although accidents have not increased, the margin of safety has deteriorated, especially during the 1980-86 period. …