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June 1st, 2009
06:58 AM ET

Airline workers feared for passengers' lives

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="CNN's Allan Chernoff continues his investigation into pilot training."]

By Allan Chernoff – CNN Sr. Correspondent

Mary Hebig remembers the day three years ago when she knew she had to quit her job as a scheduler with Gulfstream International Airlines because of worries about the airline’s safety. A flight, whose pilots she had scheduled, had lost one of its two engines. It was the second time in two weeks the plane’s engine had failed and Hebig was certain maintenance had not fixed the engine.

“It was 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning and I was praying that everyone got back safe. And I thought if they get back safe I am out of here. I don’t want to do this any longer here,” said Hebig, “I couldn’t sit there night after night, and I had the evening shift, and watch these pilots come in and know that there was an accident waiting to happen.”

Hebig is one of ten former and current Gulfstream employees who have told CNN of serious safety concerns at the Fort Lauderdale-based airline.

Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream operates “Continental Connection” flights to nine cities in Florida, 10 destinations in the Bahamas, and between Cleveland and 5 small cities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.

Continental Airlines told CNN, "We expect our partners to adhere to the highest safety standards.”

Yet former Gulfstream pilots say their complaints about aircraft safety were sometimes dismissed by mechanics who were pressured to get planes into the sky.

“We would voice concerns to maintenance about systems that were not testing properly and were told by individuals in maintenance that were Gulfstream mechanics to not worry about it, to just go,” said Ken Edwards, a former Gulfstream pilot. “It happened to me more than once. One time it was a fire indication system that was not going to work properly in the air.”

Dan Brisco, who worked as a mechanic for Gulfstream in 2006 and 2007, claims maintenance standards at Gulfstream were the worst he’s seen in 30-years as a mechanic and pilot.

Related: Florida's "pilot factory"

“I saw engines having to shut down in flight in engine failures and landing gear collapses, all traceable back to maintenance or improperly completed maintenance,” said Brisco.

“I saw the landing gear on one of Gulfstream’s airplanes collapse on the runway in Tampa due to a lack of maintenance. The pilots had been complaining about that problem for a long time and it was just summarily dismissed. They said well it's working now that's good enough.”

In a statement, Gulfstream International Airlines told CNN, “To the extent such events have occurred at Gulfstream they had nothing to do with improperly completed maintenance. We have an outstanding maintenance program.”

Yet, the Federal Aviation Administration has just cited Gulfstream maintenance after an investigation of the airline. The FAA found that Gulfstream used relatively inexpensive automobile air conditioning compressors on its Beech 1900D turbo-prop aircraft. “The automotive air conditioner compressors were not approved for use on aircraft,” charged the FAA.

Gulfstream maintains it used the proper parts, but didn’t install them according to FAA approved procedures.

The airline is also confronting FAA findings that it violated flight rules intended to prevent pilot fatigue.

The FAA has strict limits on pilot flight time— no more than 8 hours-a-day, 34-hours-a-week. But, current and former Gulfstream employees allege the understaffed airline frequently pressured pilots to work past those limits, even when they were clearly tired.

“I saw a number of instances when the hours were changed. It would force a crew member to fly when it would not have been legal to fly,” said Edwards.

As a crew scheduler for Gulfstream Hebig knew when pilots were up against their FAA flight limits- and not supposed to continue flying. But she says dispatchers often would change logs of previous flights- shave pilot hours- to make it appear pilots were “Legal to start, Legal to finish,” in the words of Gulfstream’s Flight Operations Manual.

“They were fudging the books to make it legal,” said Hebig.

Pilots who complained too much, Hebig and other Gulfstream veterans say, were let go, which led other pilots to comply. “They knew if they spoke up they would be fired,” said Hebig.

“It was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to expedite flights,” said a former Gulfstream pilot.

Gulfstream told CNN, “No pilot has ever, or even could be, pressured to…exceed FAA hour limitations.”

Yet an FAA investigation found multiple cases of pilots flying beyond their legal limit and flight dispatchers working past their 10-hour daily FAA maximum.

For alleged scheduling and maintenance violations the FAA has proposed a $1.3 million fine against Gulfstream- a substantial amount for the small airline.

Gulfstream, which is challenging the FAA’s findings and its proposed fine, told CNN, “Occasional errors can sometimes occur” when flight times are manually entered into computer systems, but none were made intentionally.

Gulfstream has not suffered a fatal accident on any of its commercial flights. But, the company has faced scrutiny in the industry after former Gulfstream pilots were involved in three of the most recent fatal accidents on commercial airlines in the United States.

Filed under: Airline safety
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Hey Ryan

    Ryan, have you heard of instructing, pipeline watch, ferrying aircraft, glider towing, skydive operations, VFR 135, banner towing, etc. Once you get hired by an airline you will be provided the training required, you don't have to buy it.

    June 2, 2009 at 12:42 pm |
  2. kelly

    U O.K John? Your hands seem at un-ease...

    June 2, 2009 at 7:26 am |
  3. Ryan

    Mr. Chernoff,

    What are your recommendations to young pilots aspiring to fly for the airlines who have low hours just coming out of school.
    How else do you suggest they receive their advanced training to qualify them for the next step, if airlines like GIA don't provide the opportunities to be trained?

    June 2, 2009 at 12:59 am |
  4. erik

    This article is dead on. I knew Mary when I worked at Gulfstream as a Flight Attendant when they flew the Embraer 120 (which they phased them out because of how horrid the planes were due to lack of maint). I can recall many times when we would tell pilots of safety concerns they were usually fixed with "tape". Then there were the majority of the pilots who would refuse a plane because of unsafe problems, alot of those were released by the company. I eventually left the company after 1 year of working for them and clearly stated my leaving because of how Unsafe I felt on their airplanes. The stories I could tell you about this place, youd never imagine!

    June 1, 2009 at 6:40 pm |
  5. Air Cowboy

    "Respectfully Withheld" – You said all!!!! Real opinion from one person that work for a Regional.

    I will have to hide my name too. Guess what? I work for a Regional too.

    These people are trying to flame Gulfstream for which accident? They didn't have any!!! The media is talking about fatal accidents the first one was the CRJ – both engines flameout – company Pinnacle, second CRJ – wrong runway – company Comair (owned by DELTA), last one Q-400 "buffalo" – company Colgan (owned by Pinnacle).

    What's wrong with the picture all those pilots before fly for those companies they had to pass each company's training, by the way all of them have to use FAA standards. The same impose for Majors Airlines.
    Why Gulfstream?.....Ops Southwest Airlines fine for some issues months ago issues – Aircraft Logbook, Maintenance issues too........

    June 1, 2009 at 5:56 pm |
  6. brett

    i work for a major airlines maintnance is going out the window thanks to corporate greed .the will do anything to save a buck just to put it in there pockets

    June 1, 2009 at 1:35 pm |
  7. Davey

    Scary story is right. That is what makes news. I did not see any facts that were real facts. Everything with the exception of "potential" FAA fines, everything else was backed up by disgruneled employees. If this is so unsafe, why are there no accidents that you can point to. All you can say is that pilot that have left Gulfstream have had accidents. Just shows CNN hates business. I guess they want Obama to run the airlines too.

    June 1, 2009 at 11:02 am |
  8. Moe

    So after watching this report this morning, let me make sure I get this right, we can question and attempt to drag thru the mud a potential supreme court justice for comments that she made YEARS AGO, that have NOTHING to do with her judicial record, but we allow an airline with a horrible safety record and multiple infractions to continue to fly and risk the lives of thousands of people a day...??? INcredible !!!!!

    June 1, 2009 at 9:05 am |
  9. Robert Holland

    Scary story. Even more scary is that those of us that frequent the Bahamas consider this airline (Continental Connection) the safest choice.

    June 1, 2009 at 9:04 am |
  10. FL450

    Having flown at GIA years ago, I can attest to the fact that their operations is a cesspool. BUT, I also saw the report last week about how they put pilots in the cockpit with little "experience" While this report may be dead on as far as the shady operation of the company, especially maintenance, the report is 100% out of line to accuse the company of having pilots in the cockpit who don't have any experience. True, they have a lot of low time pilots come through there. But here is a simple question for this reporter to ask: How do you think people get experience in the first place to get to the majors?! Everybody starts somewhere and there is no way to get experience except to go do it. Maybe Chernoff should ask around in the industry to see how many ex-GIA pilots are now flying for major airlines (with experience). He would probably be very surprised. They are everywhere from American to Southwest.

    June 1, 2009 at 9:00 am |
  11. Graham Ginn

    Good story. The problem doesn't lie with the airline, the blame for such operations lies squarely on the shoulders of Joe and Mildred Beercan who DEMAND low airfares and the government does nothing to keep an airline from bowing to their ridiculous demands. i am an airline pilot and the expedias and pricelines of the world are undercutting the companies required to keep passengers safe in the air. The minimal profit margins that airlines are forced to operate at are what is causing this hidden danger. I just listened to Alan Chertoff say that the public expects safety yet also expects to pay the lowest price possible. That is a double standard. Expect the airlines to radically increase fares if they want this safety stuff to stop and CNN needs to comment on this. You need to prepare the public and go out and ask folks randomly if they would be willing to pay two hundred dollars or more for a ticket if it meant radical changes in safety and pilot pay.

    Take note here with regards to the Air France flight, get an actual airline pilot to comment on the crash, not some ridiculous self proclaimed aviation expert. The pilots stand around crew rooms scoffing at the comments made by total idiots regarding weather as the cause for the crash. The electrical system is what brought that ship down. Focus on that and not the weather.

    June 1, 2009 at 8:57 am |
  12. Joe

    For years, the only prerequisite for pilot applicants at Gulfstream has been the willingness of the applicant to pay for their job. Experience and skill do not matter.

    Gulfstream takes pilots with little or no experience and "trains" them to fly their airplanes.

    June 1, 2009 at 8:29 am |
  13. Respectfully Withheld

    I am a 14 year Regional Airline Captain with nearly 12,000 hours of experience. The issues with pilot scheduling and fatigue are not unique to Gulfstream. Scheduling and rest is directly connected to money. If they schedule better, it costs more. The FAA is worthless on this front because any proposal from them to improve conditions will cost the airlines money and the airline lobby is too strong to get anything changed. The FAA answer is more "studies" on pilot fatigue while we continue to be scheduled "on-the-edge". The Company's position is, "If it is legal, it must be safe". I assure you, it is not!. My name is "Respectfully Withheld" because I can't make waves and keep a job.

    June 1, 2009 at 8:02 am |
  14. Patrick

    I wonder if people know that Gulfstream International also has people sitting in the right seat, First Officer position, who have less than 300 hours of flight time and who pay the company around $30,000 to work for them. As an offset, they get a first year compensation of around $10 per hour worked. So, unqualified pilots flying from the right seat who PAY Gulfstream International to work there. Kinda stinks doesn't it?

    June 1, 2009 at 7:43 am |
  15. KJ

    I know personally two people who were employed at Gulfstream. They both brought to light Crew Scheduling irregularities and were both fired within weeks of making their concerns known. This has been happening for years and is really part of the Company culture that is Gulfstream and highlights the need for more FAA oversight.

    June 1, 2009 at 7:42 am |
  16. Karen Miller

    Why did you keep showing Continental planes in the video when the story was about Gulfstream? I fly Continental often and wonder should I be worried about the safety of their plnaes?

    June 1, 2009 at 7:40 am |
  17. Greg - Long Island, NY

    Pulling and reviewing the Payroll records should easily create a cross-check to review Pilot's hours and reveal hours worked. Employees may fudge paperwork under duress or pressure, but won't work without getting paid !

    June 1, 2009 at 7:40 am |