CHARLOTTE, N.C. (
) -- For the first time, a
captain has publicly described an incident where two security officials escorted her from the airport's secure area after she would not fly a plane from Philadelphia to Rome because of electrical system problems.
Captain Valerie Wells, a 30-year pilot, discussed the
June 16 incident on Friday in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, where she was the star witness in the pilots union's defense against the airline's suit alleging that a safety campaign is actually an illegal job action.
The airline is seeking an injunction to halt the "safety slowdown." Testimony will continue Monday.
"I was exercising my authority as captain to operate the aircraft safely," said Wells. "It was indeed my obligation, but I feel stronger about it than my job. Those passengers are friends of the family. (And) that's an aircraft the company owns."
Besides the passengers and the aircraft, Wells said, her concerns included the airplane's crew. "I felt especially that night that all those things were in danger," she said.
The case has become a cause célèbre because, on July 22, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association took out a full-page advertisement in
The ad described the incident and proclaimed that US Airways put "revenues first, safety second." The airline has called the ad's claims "outlandish, false and a disservice to (its) 32,000 hard-working employees," but has said little about specifics of the Wells case. In court on Friday, the airline's attorneys declined to cross-examine Wells.
On June 16, Wells was scheduled to fly an Airbus A330 with nearly 300 passengers. But the auxiliary power unit failed with the plane at the gate waiting to push back, she said. In an aircraft, the engines are the primary power source: the APU is a backup source of electrical power.
The APU's failure, Wells indicated, exposed a second failure in the "hot battery bus," another source of electrical backup. With both systems out, navigational screens in the cockpit went blank, the cockpit radio failed to operate and the cabin air conditioning shut off. The only way to communicate, Wells said, was to open the cockpit's sliding window and yell to ground workers.
Subsequently, two mechanics boarded the aircraft and restarted the APU. Since the airplane can fly without a functional APU, the mechanics wanted to put the failed device on a list of matters to be addressed at a future date so the flight could depart. But Wells, who during the afternoon had heard various reports of electrical system irregularities, no longer trusted the aircraft.
So Wells spoke by phone with the airline's chief pilot in Philadelphia. Wells said he kept asking whether she was refusing to fly. "I responded that I want to fly," she said. "I want an airplane that's good. I want this airplane fixed (or another airplane). He asked me five times, with me giving him the same answer." Given that the union's safety campaign was underway, the airline was apparently concerned that pilots were causing frequent delays by being excessively meticulous in pursuing safety concerns.
Wells returned to the cockpit. Mechanics had turned the APU off, so the cabin lacked air conditioning. A flight attendant said some passengers showed signs of heat stress, and Wells decided to let passengers disembark. By then, the departure had been delayed about five hours. As Wells waited in a secure area, two airline security officials approached, and told her "the ramp tower had said to remove me from the gate area. I said 'Why?' They did not know why."
It is extremely unusual for airline security to escort captains from the airport. "In all my years, I had never seen or heard anything like this," Wells said. "I got my bag and my first officer walked with me, and the two men followed us ten feet behind." The airline removed her from flying status, the prelude to a disciplinary action, on June 16, but then restored her on July 6, she said.
The airline has said only that Wells' removal "has nothing to do with safety," and has not commented specifically on the safety event. However, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued a statement, saying the APU shutdown in the aircraft "is a failure that pilots are well aware can happen and that they are trained to recognize. The battery apparently was depleted by attempts to restart the APU." The agency said aircraft often fly with inoperative APUs, without a safety risk, but "the captain simply chose to exercise her pilot-in-command authority of not accepting an aircraft." It said US Airways maintained the aircraft in accordance with regulations. The FAA did not mention the hot battery bus failure.
Subsequently, another crew also declined to fly the airplane, mechanics replaced an electronic computer board in the cockpit, the batteries were inspected by a third party, and the flight departed with a third crew the following morning.
In the Charlotte case, the airline is alleging that a union safety campaign is actually an illegal job action that violates the Railway Labor Act, because the two parties are still negotiating a contract and the union therefore does not have the right to change the status quo or take job actions.
The airline's witnesses Friday included an aviation statistician who said that since May 1, the airline has seen a vast increase in flight delays in Charlotte, where the union has its most loyal following. Airline executives said the delays have meant lost revenue and a decline in customer satisfaction. They said a predecessor union, the Air Line Pilots Association, sought to work together with the airline on safety and to separate safety from "political" and contract issues.
Following the hearing, the pilots' attorney, Brian O'Dwyer, told reporters: "We showed there has been a lack of a safety culture at US Airways, and pilots went out of their way to make sure each and every aircraft was safe." He said delays in Charlotte could be explained by weather, frequent thunder storms, congestion and runway construction.
In discussing flight 718, Wells was a convincing witness, but the airline's suit alleges that pilots violated the Railway Labor Act. Its attorneys will no doubt seek to keep the case focused on that issue.
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.
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