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Forced to Fly Unsafe Airliners, Pilots Tell Panel

October 16, 1987|DOUGLAS JEHL | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Two Eastern Airlines pilots told a Senate committee Thursday that they are being pressured by the airline to fly planes they believe are unsafe and charged that at least 12 Eastern captains have been suspended recently for refusing to fly faulty aircraft.

The pilots contended that the coercion began last year after Eastern was acquired by Texas Air. But an Eastern official attributed the testimony to "safety scare tactics" by airline labor unions.

"Eastern will never direct any pilot to fly an airplane that he believes is unsafe," said Stephen J. Kolski, vice president and counsel for regulatory compliance.

A company spokesman in Miami said pilots have the final authority to decide whether a plane should take off but said Eastern pilots--"like any other employee"--are held accountable for their actions. Four Eastern pilots have been suspended in the past eight months "for making poor decisions in the cockpit," apparently relating to a plane's airworthiness, the spokesman said.

Opens Series of Hearings

The testimony about Eastern came as the Senate Commerce Committee opened a series of hearings on the state of the air transportation system, focusing Thursday on the effect airline deregulation has had on air safety.

Capt. Donald McClure, an Eastern pilot for 23 years, told the committee that he was removed from a flight in August "for refusing to fly an aircraft with one of its navigation systems inoperative.

"I was sent home, leaving 149 passengers and six crew members on the aircraft. The next captain also refused to fly the same aircraft," McClure said, and the plane was finally fixed before it took off.

The other pilot, first officer James Sexton, testified that, after he insisted last month that his plane be repaired, airline officials warned him he that had been "red-flagged" and would be "called in" if his aircraft checks caused any more flight delays.

Discovery Called Lucky

The plane needed a hydraulic pump, Sexton said, and a chief pilot later told him: "You just lucked out that you discovered a bad pump."

Federal Aviation Administration chief T. Allan McArtor, speaking to reporters after the hearing, said he could not confirm the pilots' charges but that the agency would investigate them. "Sometimes we find fire behind the smoke, and other times it's just smoke," McArtor said.

Eastern early this year agreed to pay a record $9.5-million fine to the FAA for violations of safety regulations.

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