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US Airways


pilots are calling for the dismissal of the carrier's chief safety officer, saying the safety culture has deteriorated markedly since a 2005 merger.

The airline, however, said that Paul Morell, vice president of safety and regulatory compliance, is staying and the charges are baseless, motivated by ongoing contract talks with the U.S. Airline Pilots Association. "It's unfortunate that our pilots' union is using safety as a negotiating tactic," said airline spokeswoman Michelle Mohr. "It's a real disservice to the 32,000 employees of US Airways."

Tom Kubik, USAPA safety chairman, insisted that pilots safety concerns are unrelated to negotiations. "What we are saying is that they're putting so much emphasis on economics and on-time

performance that they're losing sight of the safety culture that existed here," he said.

Kubik acknowledged that the safety level of U.S. commercial aviation is high and that "every airline has a great safety record." But he said US Airways' standing results from highly experienced pilots rather than from its faltering safety culture. Historically, he said, the safety level has varied, peaking when the airline vastly intensified its focus following a series of five fatal crashes between 1989 and 1994.

This spring, USAPA spent about $30,000 to hire a consultant to conduct a safety culture survey, which showed that "we have a safety culture in need of intervention," Kubik said. He acknowledged that while 38% of the carrier's 4,116 pilots responded, the response rate was only 7% at America West, which merged with US Airways in 2005. The two pilot groups have been sharply divided because of a controversial seniority list devised by an arbitrator: most America West pilots back the seniority list and oppose USAPA.

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Here are examples of three specific safety issues that concern USAPA. They are among 17 issues the pilots reported to the airline's board in seeking Morell's dismissal.

The airline's 767s are not equipped with a satellite phone. This is not a problem on the trans-Atlantic, where high frequency radios work, but it is a problem on the Charlotte-Rio flight because, on some nights, the pilots cannot communicate with US Airways dispatchers. Kubik said potential solutions include putting a $50,000 satellite phone on the airplane or switching to the newer A330, which has the phone.

In an effort to ease ramp congestion and improve on-time performance in Charlotte and Philadelphia, US Airways has planes push back early. This means that sometimes the planes might be stuck at the gate with no jetway access, which could present a problem if an evacuation is required, because there is no room for chutes from the front exits and too much ramp activity to deploy chutes at rear exits. (This problem apparently did not occur to the


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flight attendant who

needlessly deployed a chute at Kennedy Airport last August, and was subsequently fired.) Kubik said pilots should refuse to push back until runway clearance can be assured.

On some US Airways A330s, which are aging, seals have worn out on a center fuel tank, which has been sealed off. As a result, in some cases fuel can seep into the tanks. Kubik said the carrier has not informed pilots of this problem, which could pose a danger in combination with other fuel tank problems. In April, Kubik, backed by a dispatcher, declined to fly a Charlotte-London Gatwick flight because the plane developed a second potential problem related to fuel transfer.

Mohr declined to comment on the specific points. However, in a recent letter to USAPA President Mike Cleary, Morell wrote that "US Airways' highest priority is the safety of our employees and passengers" and noted that "we have an industry-leading safety program that reflects the company's commitment to operating with the very highest standards of safety, and our pilots are an integral part of that process." Morell said pilots are encouraged to report safety problems.

On Monday, US Airways said that preliminary results indicate it scored well on the recently completed 2011 International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit, in which 2,600 safety-related items are checked by independent inspectors.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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Ted Reed