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:
Airlines are dramatically lower hiring standards for pilots in the name of equity. At some point, many people are going to die because of this. pic.twitter.com/1lBMU5D0LG
— Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) February 15, 2023
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?