Tucker Carlson’s Air Travel Safety Rant Was Unhinged, But Diversity Hiring Is Real

When I saw Tucker Carlson’s Tuesday evening piece on air travel safety making the rounds, I didn’t give it much mind. But as it’s picking up steam, it seemed important to cover. Because while nearly everything he says in the segment is wrong, if his staff spent a little bit of time researching instead of picking up online complaints by United pilots who do not like the politics of their airline or President Biden, he could come up with a much better-grounded argument.

Here’s the completely off the rails segment, where Carlson lays the blame for recent air travel near-misses at the feet of the President, arguing that “Biden imposed the principles of equity on the airlines, and that meant dramatically lowering hiring standards for pilots and air traffic controllers.”

That’s wrong, which I’ll get into in a moment, but first here’s the piece:

Carlson went on to read a pilot rant from December about United Airlines “Under its woke CEO Scott Kirby, United Airlines has allowed politics and racialist ideology to trump safety concerns.”

  • United Airlines has pursued a broadly liberal social agenda. They supported affirmative action on the California ballot in 2020, for instance. And they’ve aligned themselves closely with the Biden administration, which is understandable – the federal government is both the source of oversight and massive subsidies for the industry and United wants more money for fuel and environmental programs. Their head of communications used to be President Obama’s spokesman.

  • United was out way ahead of the Biden administration with vaccine mandates. This angered many pilots. Major airline pilots tend to skew older, white, and Republican.

  • But there is zero indication that this has been connected to safety, and Carlson doesn’t even try to make the case (other than repeating a statement from a single pilot who offered merely the assertion that it could in the future).

He then talked about the United Airlines Boeing 777 flight off of Maui that nearly plunged into the Pacific, suggesting the captain was “brand new” and the first officer was a “new hire.”

  • We don’t yet know the cause of problems with the United Maui flight – whether it was wind shear or an issue of the co-pilot incorrectly setting flaps. But there’s zero indication that diversity had anything to do with it.

  • We don’t know who the pilots even are but rather than being brand new to flying, the two had a combined roughly 25,000 hours of flying experience. If it turns out they were new to the 777 that’s not a function of diversity, but early retirements taken during the pandemic.

The piece offered the quote that “they’re hiring people straight out of high school now.” I assure you, major airline pilots flying you on your next trip are not straight out of high school.

And then this: “Southwest Airlines’ in-house training program…has dramatically lowered its standards.”

  • Airlines have not reduced the requirements to become a pilot, the federal government still sets those.

  • Southwest reduce the requirement for applicants to its training program to already have 500 hours of turbine time rather than 1,000 prior to being accepted. They still need as much flying time to operate as a commercial pilot, they’ll just bring them into the program earlier.

  • There’s been a pilot shortage so airlines have been willing to broaden the pool they recruit from. Pilot standards are still far more stringent – for reasons other than safety – in the U.S. than in Europe, where flying is safe.

Carlson’s piece was reckless, but if he did a little bit of research he could actually point to diversity hiring in air traffic control. That didn’t begin under the Biden administration, it started in the Obama administration. But there really hasn’t been an indication that it’s led to problems with safety (the track record over the past 10 years suggests otherwise). Technology, leadership, and lack of controllers leading to fatigue are surely bigger issues at the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

Nonetheless, the FAA did actually move to ‘off the street’ hiring with diversity as a criteria, passing over graduates of FAA-approved university air traffic control programs, during the Obama administratoin.

The FAA launched the Collegiate Training Initiative in 1997, working with colleges and universities to offer air traffic control degrees, and making their graduates the primary source for hiring controllers. This trumped the previous requirement of a high school degree and three years of (unrelated) work experience.

In 2005 the FAA Inspector General recommended adding coursework to these schools to reduce training time at the FAA’s academy. Since the FAA didn’t do this, Congress directed a study of the move in agency’s 2012 reauthorization.

Instead the FAA started an Air Traffic Controller Recruitment Campaign which bypassed graduates. A decision made by the FAA, and not by the Air Traffic Organization, meant that both high school graduates and those with air traffic control degrees had to apply through the same program and pass both the standard aptitude test for controllers and a biographical test. This had the effect of bypassing hundreds of controller graduates. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) expressed concern with the FAA’s change in hiring practices at the time.

Still, this seems the least of the agency’s challenges and not something that can be tied to current near-misses. But anyone trying to make a ‘Tucker Carlson case’ would seemingly need to at least be familiar enough with the issues to start there?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Consider the source and get the facts. This is basic to logical thinking for oneself . But don’t expect it from people whose minds are already made up, no matter what their politics

  2. @Gary: Your problem is, the pilots disagree with you, and their complaints have enormous credibility for the following reason: The current system is set up to prevent the surfacing of affirmative action quotas, so when they exist the whistleblowers have no formal channel in which to whistle. They are compelled to go to a journalist who still thinks for himself (rare nowadays) rather than kowtows to the woke mob.

    Congratulations to the brave pilots and to Tucker Carlson for having the courage to pursue the issue.

  3. I bet the good people on the flight that almost crashed into the Pacific Ocean agree with Tucker!

  4. No @L3 “the pilots” do not disagree with me, a handful of randos on the internet offer claims without warrants. If they – or Tucker – would offer factual specifics to back up their claims that would be another matter!

  5. On the UA 777, Juan Browne (a AA 777 first officer) of the Blanco Lirio YouTube channel, suggests that the autopilot setting for altitude was set for 0 feet. He didn’t say it, but perhaps a prank from the previous flight crew if they knew a new captain was flying. This also matches up with a comment elsewhere where a person heard the engines spinning down. When they engaged the autopilot (oversimplifying), it did what it was set to do, and headed down to the sea. This rings lots of bells, and they recovered the aircraft, possibly with an over-G force on the airframe. There have been previous occurrences of the altitude being set to zero causing incidents, a Saudi aircraft had the same issue, with not as benign results. Perhaps the autopilot should not engage when the altitude setting is lower than a few thousand feet over the current terrain.

  6. Yet another disgusting racist screed from TC and Faux News. By covering it, you only give the ditto-heads a platform to amplify that harmful trash.

  7. Wow, we have gone completely round the bend. Race has nothing to do with what is going on, and I find it insulting, but not surprised that you would state something like this. The crux of the problem is, the airlines are understaffed and obviously overwhelmed. They are just trying to find bodies to fill the void. It doesn’t have anything to do with race, it has to do with body count. And I am beyond disgusted with people like you who peddle this junk.

  8. @Gary: They cannot release this type of information without losing their jobs. As I said, that is how the system is designed. And, it is a real safety problem.

    If they weren’t correct on the facts you can bet the airline/FAA/NTSB et. al. would rush to get the facts. They won’t, because it would be as embarrasing as when firemen divulged that the Fort Worth fire dept. had reduced physical strength requirements in order to meet affirmative action quotas.

    Hope your extinguishers are working!

  9. Yes I read your article, and you can read the comments to see what happens when you throw around “diversity hire”. The truth of the matter is they are hiring bodies to fill the hole because of all of the retiring pilots and air traffic controllers. Don’t fall into the trap of using the trope words that send out signals. The lack of adequate training, I will agree with, and that is dangerous all the way around. But I am not going to buy the race bull, and if you are going to spit that out…then you better have facts to back it up.

  10. Tucker ..with all due respect to the rest of the folks in your profession….if you had the slightest idea of what you were pontificating about you might actually be deemed intellectually wise.

  11. If diversity hiring is real, then safety NECESSARILY decreases. This is simple logic. Airlines used to have exactly two priorities:

    1. Make money
    2. Fly safely

    It happens that these two priorities reinforce each other. So there’s no problem. Now if you add diversity into the mix, that’s an entire new axis of consideration. Something’s gotta give.

    Diversity hiring has been tried in other human life safety critical fields, namely medicine. Look at the data on MCAT scores of doctors by race. There’s no evidence that this disparity in scores translates to subpar medical care…but we all know that such evidence will never see the light of day due to political influences.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

  12. This is the definition of conclusion shopping. Tucker has an axe to grind and every problem that the US faces or will face is obviously the fault of people who don’t look like him. It’s also telling that the facts of the story are not even halfway out and he wants to say he mysteriously knows who the pilots were, what they looked like, how much experience they had, how they were hired, and so forth. He doesn’t. But he doesn’t have to. He just points to the usual specter of a shadowy liberal cabal behind the scenes working to ruin the country and lets his viewers eat it up.

  13. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Absence of evidence is evidence of… nothing.

    Several people in this thread have taken the position that the fact that no real evidence has come out is evidence that their position, a priori, is correct. With that kind of thinking, you can literally rationalize… anything you want to be true.

  14. Airline pilot hiring standards have fluctuated wildly through the years. UAL hired 200 hour pilots in the 60’s. It’s always been supply and demand. Now all the airlines are scrambling for pilots for the future and starting their own versions of a pipeline of pilots to fill that gap. UAL’s decision to focus on diversity means the minority pilots that have the ability to succeed in United’s program potentially have skills learned that others that weren’t challenged as much growing up have. Diverse backgrounds introduce diverse thinking, that is good for the profession. The vast majority of all pilots are good at what they do if they have made it that far. The few that are weaker has nothing to do with race or gender, but who they are as a person. For every weak minority pilot you can find a weak white guy too, maybe more.
    Tucker Carlson is way out of his league trying to make a case about the qualifications needed to be an Airline Pilot. He simply doesn’t know what he is talking about but he is playing the angry white guy card that has been so successful for him in finding an audience As he testified in court, he is not concerned about facts as he is entertainment, not news.
    Oh, and I’m a white guy that started my career as a co pilot in a DC 3 when I was 19 (privately owned) and flew commercial airliners from age 23-65. I’ve seen a few things but I know enough that I most certainly don’t have all the answers…I’m just very weary of those that think they do.

  15. @ Gary — Is anyone surprised? Whenever Tucker Carlson opens his mouth, lies come out. He is nothing if not repulsive.

  16. re ‘But there really hasn’t been an indication that it’s led to problems with safety (the track record over the past 10 years suggests otherwise)’
    Perhaps air control technology has helped us avoid disaster, but I think your blanket statement would need some context (recent near collisions of airplanes, Houston runway incident, etc.).
    All it takes is one major ‘whoops!!’ and Tucker wins his argument big time. If I were you, I’d be more circumspect about cheering on new DEI and such programs.

  17. TC has one job to do…attract as many eyeballs as possible and how do you do that?…you sell and peddle fear.

  18. Why isn’t anyone concerned about nepotism hiring, which skews much lower for experience/qualifications than any kind of “diversity hiring” ever has?

  19. Tucker Carlson is part of Fox News’ commentary and opinion programming. CNN does the same thing.
    You and Ben and everyone else that covers Tucker’s story just adds to the leading position he has at the top of cable news – he is the most-watched personality on cable news.

    Southwest has lowered its internal requirements for turbine time – but other airlines already did it. If they have lowered any quantitative metric that previously reduced prevented some pilot candidates from ever getting an interview, they have lowered standards. No pilot flies for any of the big 4 or probably any other large jet airline with FAA minimum requirements.

    As for the Maui incident, either the facts of the pilots’ age and experience are true or they are not. Carlson used a source to say that the experience was racially driven which is a pretty heavy charge but the amount of experience on the 777 including in both seats is relevant.

    Tucker is far more successful at getting his message out and making money doing so than any aviation blogger. You don’t have to agree w/ him to recognize that he has a following and talking about what he gets right or wrong only validates his success in shaping public conversation.

  20. Tim, of course we don’t have to agree with him. I can’t see what the point of your first and last paragraphs – spent defending / propounding the virtues of Tucker’s business model, as it were – can possibly be, other than an appeal to authority. In other words, “he’s successful, you guys, therefore he might be right on some stuff.” If they’re anything other than that, then they’re just… irrelevant.

  21. @Nick Hoogs – “All it takes is one major ‘whoops!!’ and Tucker wins his argument big time”

    Incorrect. Tucker Carlson’s argument is about specific causation. The existence of a safety incident doesn’t mean his analysis of what caused the incident is right. In fact it isn’t, but he literally made up out of whole cloth this idea that airlines are ‘lowering their standards’ for who can fly a plane (they aren’t) as a result of pressure from the Biden administration (also wrong).

  22. Former Airline Employee (Corporate) – “If diversity hiring is real, then safety NECESSARILY decreases.”

    Except (1) air traffic control candidates go through the same FAA academy, and (2) we’ve had a decade of date/experience that tells us otherwise.

  23. @Kimberly Chandler – “The truth of the matter is they are hiring bodies to fill the hole because of all of the retiring pilots and air traffic controllers. ” I literally wrote this. So where is the incorrect facts you think I offer?

  24. @Tim Dunn – sorry but you have to acknowledge that Tucker Carlson conflated a lot of things and got them wrong here. And “Tucker is far more successful at getting his message out and making money doing so than any aviation blogger” is correct. He makes a lot more money than I do. How on earth does that support the claim that he’s right and I am not?

    You know darned well that high school kids aren’t flying commercial widebodies, and that brand new pilots aren’t either. We know that the two pilots on that United 777 had 25,000 hours of flying between them (though not necessarily on that aircraft).

    And that airlines will take people into flight training that they wouldn’t have in the past – but that this is because of a pilot shortage, not because Joe Biden told them whom to hire. And there has been no diminution of the requirement for a commercial pilot certification. You *know this* so how can you defend that segment?

  25. If that is literally what you wrote, then diversity should never have been a part of the conversation. I find it interesting that you will go back and forth with me, but not with some of the others that are saying inflammatory, bigoted crap. There was no need for you to introduce diversity into the conversation because you don’t have facts to back up what you are saying. You opened the can, now walk your bigoted a$$ through the door.

  26. Kim, I lean liberal, though less liberal than some of the more extreme people on here. Gary leans conservative, though less conservative than some of the more extreme people on here. I completely understood that he brought up the diversity hiring stuff because (a.) Tucker did, and does as a matter of course, and (b.) in order to argue the opposite. I think he engaged with you because you went so aggressive straight out of the gate attacking his premise based on a mistaken reading of the article/post. Like, just relax, you’re OK, Gary is not a racist and he was not saying racist sh#t. I won’t agree with him on everything, but I do here.

  27. You do realize that mansplaining is as ridiculous as it is unnecessary. If the word diversity had never been included, then I would probably have ignored this conversation. I did not misunderstand anything that was said. So why don’t you chill and stay in your lane. One can be a bigot and it doesn’t matter what side of the spectrum politically you fall.

  28. Had a very strange experience on AA974 on February 10 that has shaken my own faith a bit. Nobody was in any danger at any time, but the pilot got lost on the taxiway out of GIG and wound up out of bounds such that we needed to wait for a tug to be brought from the gate to push us back onto the taxiway — a process that delayed us by 30-40 minutes — and proceeded to the runway for a normal takeoff. No announcement was ever made about what was going on, but I saw what was happening outside the window.

    Like I said, nobody was ever in danger but the aircrew clearly wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the airport diagram/chart and that could easily lead to an actually dangerous situation. Somebody screwed up. I wonder if there is more information about this posted anywhere.

  29. Wow left wing political hack points and miles guys are triggered by what Tucker Carlson said ! He has more viewers than all the left wing dishonest liberal fake news hosts combined ! I guess you are tired of the airport CNN shows? Have you guys ever written once about the failure of this so called transportation secretary Pete [Redacted -gl] and Biden admin about what has happened with airlines and transportation ? Never

  30. Kimberly Chandler, you’ve been sucked in. The real purpose of this article is to enhance Gary’s website metrics. Gary knows his crowd and he knows how to inflame them. Now you know.

  31. Meanwhile back in the Fox News central command room they are reading all the comments here and saying, “Got em…we won!” They gained exactly what they wanted…Gary refutes, people argue, and everyone disagrees on things they really know nothing about. Honestly, if I never read this here I would know nothing about it. As would 99% of the American public. Ignore idiots and they go away.
    Just like the crazy man screaming on a street corner that, “The end is near,” if you engage him he will offer his twisted reasoning. If you ignore him the end never comes and you do better things with your life than obsess.

  32. Gary,
    it is irrelevant how much military time or other flying experience a pilot has if they are brand new in the 777.
    I don’t know but I am tired of hearing that they are experienced pilots so pilot error can’t be the issue.

    I never said that Tucker should be given a pass for his comments.
    I did say that he gives opinions and he has a far greater reach.
    WITHIN THE REALM of opinions, he can do whatever he wants.

    Talking about him only makes him richer and gives him a bigger platform for his message.

  33. If any criteria besides merit is used to select pilots, this will result in lowering of the standards. Just take a look at where most of the plane crashes are, with third world countries and local pilots accounting for most of the commercial airline pilot error crashes. The United states had the highest level of training for qualification for commercial airline pilots. I don’t care if every pilot is a white man as long as I don’t have to worry about my plane crashing.

  34. looks like a United 777 exited a runway at HNL after landing from DEN this afternoon and crossed without authorization in front of another aircraft

  35. The people in charge said out loud that diversity is just as paramount if not more than merit. Does anyone even recall the last time merit was mentioned by anyone under the current administration.

    Tucker is spot on here. Mayor Pete
    Is too busy talking about “too many white guys in hard hats” and not actually addressing real
    Issues in transportation.

  36. @Alan olkin – it’s not clear that anything other than merit is used to select pilots, though! Merit is different than number of hours already flown.

  37. @Tim Dunn – We don’t know that the pilots were new to the 777, I’m simply hypothesizing to be as generous to Carlson as possible. He says hte pilots were “brand new” which is 100% false. And there will always be pilots who are new to a given aircraft, that’s how seniority works. It has nothing to do with diversity, as Carlson claims.

    Don’t suspend your knowledge of the airline industry in your quest to gaslight for Tucker Carlson.

  38. Now that we have unanimous agreement on the matter . . . and clicks have plateaued . . . how about we move on to that new credit card offer from Southwest?

  39. I’m hot gaslighting for anyone
    YOU are making an assumption about the 777 pilots’ experience when we simply do not know
    How much total flying time on all aircraft simply is not near as relevant – if at all – as how much time they have on the 777 and at UA in their current seats.
    Experience on any other aircraft is not anywhere identical to time on the 777 and UA has its own procedures.

    btw, a UA 777 yesterday crossed a runway without authorization and in front of another landing aircraft at HNL.

    The FAA testified before Congress about recent airline related incidents and the FAA’s own NOTAM issue that grounded US planes a couple weeks ago.

    as much as people want to trash on Tucker Carlson, he has highlighted at least some issues which are problematic for the industry.

    He is an opinion talk show personality for Fox News – no different from what or Ben or anyone else in the aviation blogosphere.

    There are factual things that he raised including changing pilot requirements and the experience of the crew on the UA flight. Those are either factually true or they are false and the way to counter what he said is to provide actual facts not using loaded, undefined words like “unhinged”

    Apparently you do think enough about Ben S over at OMAAT that you used a very similar title that he used for his article.

    And he apparently saw your post showing that you get more pageclicks than he does… so he threw out an article to get the crowds talking, and it worked.

    I love a good catfight and glad to see you two scrapping for readership

  40. Gary, what evidence do you have that pilot selection is 100% merit based ? Tucker interviewed a Biden appointee and she said diversity was just as important as merit. Not saying that diversity based selection is the underlying cause, but you seem to undermine the role politics is playing in pilot selection.

  41. @Tim Dunn –
    “I’m hot gaslighting for anyone
    YOU are making an assumption about the 777 pilots’ experience when we simply do not know”


    Tucker Carlson said the captain was “brand new” and the first officer was a “new hire.”

    He did not say the captain was new to the 777. And he tied their being the ones in the cockpit to diversity. We know that the two pilots had a combined ~ 25,000 hours of flying experience, and were properly certified. These were ABSOLUTELY NOT ‘brand new’ hires flying commercial because of Joe Biden, as Carlson implied.

  42. a brand new captain does not necessarily mean new to UA.

    And, you are free to believe that 25K hours of flying experience between 2 pilots is sufficient even if it is almost entirely not on the airport but I would strongly bet that there will be recommendations from the NTSB to suggest that airlines should not pair 2 or more pilots that are both with less than X amount of hours on aircraft. And I think that is necessary.

    The Air Current is saying that the NTSB is focusing on slat and/or flap positions, indicating that they might have been retracted too early. If true, that should be a product of having at least one experienced pilot.

    Again, if you know the exact hours of the two pilots on the 777, in their current seats, at UA, and total time, then post it. Otherwise, it is reckless to make charges that Carlson is wrong even if he quoted an anonymous source.

    I don’t buy the race card one way or the other. that would be almost impossible to prove but I don’t think UA or any other carrier allows seniority to be trumped by race. If both pilots were on that aircraft on their present seats, it is almost certain they were there based on their seniority.

    and there is chatter on pilot chat forum that UA is regularly having captain positions going unbid by present pilots – which is highly unusual.
    And SFO is also going more and more junior.

    The other guy had an article about DL’s low seniority captains – which are almost entirely on the 757/767-300ER which is a common type for both DL and UA. The 764 is separate for DL but I believe common for UA. And because DL has such a large 757 fleet, these junior captains are very largely flying 757 or 767 transcon flights.

    It is very possible that the 2 pilots were low time on the UA 777 and that could well have been a factor.

    Not sure what was the case with the UA 777 yesterday that crossed another runway at HNL without authorization after landing.

  43. Once again @Tim Dunn you are talking circles far off away from what Tucker Carlson claimed. He claimed the captain was brand new. No matter what 25,000 hours means, it’s definitely not new. Carlson did not say new to the 777. But even if he did that would have had absolutely nothing to do with President Biden or diversity, and everything to do with seniority bidding.

    Everything else you are saying here is completely irrelevant to the question of whether what Carlson said is true. It is not.

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