Who’s Flying Your Plane?

That’s today’s headline in the local paper. It’s about, of course, the commuter plane crash near Buffalo, a few months back, in which all passengers and crew died. The crew included two pilots with minimal experience and low pay, lousy test scores, long commutes, and almost no chance to rest between flights. Apparently many small commuter airlines have similar staffing problems. They pay their starting pilots between $16,000 and $30,000 per year. The airlines in question piously hope that publicizing this kind of information won’t make the public reluctant to fly small airlines, whose staffing is just as good as that of the rest of the industry.

Right. Just as good as Sully the Miracle Man who, during the same period, with all engines stopped by bird strikes, managed to save all passengers and crew aboard his plane by landing it in the middle of the Hudson River at rush hour in New York. He, of course, has been flying for U.S. Airways or its predecessors for nearly 30 years, plus military flying service. We don’t know his income, but we can reasonably assume it’s well into the six figures. He obviously deserves every penny of it. But an airline spokesman says there is no connection between pilot pay and flight safety. Yeah, right.

Which raises the question—most of us fly at most a couple of times a month, and more often a couple of times a year. While the professionalism of our pilots on those occasions is an essential concern, it isn’t a constant concern. Unlike, say, the question of who’s caring for your toddlers, or your parents, or your disabled family member.

According to the Service Employees International Union, the average home health care worker earns between 6 and 8 dollars an hour, rarely works a full week of 40 hours, and gets no benefits whatever. And no, these not teenagers working their way up to better things; most of them are over 45, and many are over 65. For them, this is as good as it gets. Many of them have disabilities of their own, which they cannot afford to attend to.

While a pilot is responsible for a lot more lives, s/he also shares that responsibility with a co-pilot and an engineer. Even the cheapest of the regional airlines examined by the Chicago Trib pays $78 per hour in training and salary per crew member for its flight crews, or roughly $250 per hour total. That’s well over 30 times the hourly wage of a home health care worker, who probably cares for three or four clients over a week. If one of those clients is a member of your family, are you sure this makes sense?

Let’s get back to the issue of connection between pay and safety, either in the cockpit or behind a wheelchair. The main reason workers get paid at all is to enable them to maintain, day to day, their own ability to work. If they don’t get paid enough to maintain stable housing (note that an increasing proportion of homeless people have jobs, and that one of the pilots in the crashed Colgan flight had spent the previous night on a couch in the staff lounge), that will be reflected in the quality of their work.

The other reason workers get paid, of course, is to motivate them to show up and do their jobs competently. Most economic historians have concluded that ante bellum slavery in the American South, lacking this motivation for its workers, was grossly inefficient and might well have died on its own in a few decades, had the Civil War not intervened.

Unlike the airline industry, the home health care “industry” lacks any governmental statistical oversight. So we don’t really know much about the risks to client health and safety caused by poorly trained, underpaid, overworked home health care workers. But while you’re on the ground, gentle reader, you should have time to stop worrying about whether your pilot has been properly trained, housed, and rested. Why not use that time to worry about whether the person who takes care of your mother-in-law, or your nephew, or who will someday be taking care of you, is able to do the job safely.

Red Emma

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