Air passengers’ safety is at risk; Senate should reject ‘flags of convenience’

Mechanics work on an airplane engine.
Mechanics work on an airplane engine. Getty Images

The airline industry has long been a key driver of economic growth in Florida, supporting more than 750,000 jobs across the state and accounting for nearly 7 percent of our state’s GDP. Today, those jobs — including mine — are under attack by what are known as “flag of convenience” schemes. This is where airlines take advantage of loopholes when establishing their businesses to save money by cutting corners.

Left unchecked, flags of convenience could kick off a race to the bottom in airline standards and decimate our industry. The U.S. Senate has a chance to protect it — but only if it acts quickly.

Under these schemes, airlines choose the location of their headquarters in countries with relaxed regulatory structures, allowing them to pay workers — including pilots and flight attendants — lower wages, sometimes forgoing long-held labor and safety standards. This approach also allows airlines to hire crews from countries around the world where such standards do not apply.

As a pilot, this is a non-starter. This approach undermines what we call a “safety culture,” which is centered on putting passengers first by upholding rigorous safety requirements and immediately reporting any concerns. Contract pilots flying for decentralized, flag-of-convenience airlines are incentivized by those airlines to care more about their next flight than the airline’s entire operation.

It troubles me to see airlines skirt these standards and employ pilots who are either inadequately trained or punished for reporting safety or mechanical issues. By doing so, some airlines are jeopardizing the American economy and the safety of the flying public.

We’ve seen before how this practice can decimate a U.S. industry. In 1955, U.S. maritime vessels carried 25 percent of the world’s tonnage — before ship owners realized they could register vessels in countries that offered the least restrictive labor laws.

The result? Wages plummeted and working conditions deteriorated as the U.S. maritime shipping industry all but collapsed. Today, the U.S. shipping industry accounts for just 2 percent of world tonnage.

We can’t let the same thing happen to our airline industry, which directly employs more than 700,000 people across the United States and helps support more than 10 million American jobs through tourism, small business development and international trade. In fact, for every 100 airline jobs, approximately 300 more jobs are supported outside of the airline industry.

Airlines are already beginning to take advantage of flags of convenience. For example, one airline has “headquartered” its operations in Ireland in order to take advantage of that country’s less-restrictive labor and regulatory laws, despite having no other ties to Ireland. This has enabled them to use flight crews employed under contracts governed by the laws of various countries, including those as far away from Ireland as Singapore. Airlines including SAS and Air France are already reportedly looking to take a similar approach.

Lawmakers are watching this closely — and some have fought to prevent this practice from spreading. Almost 400 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have already taken a stand for American aviation workers. They passed a funding bill that includes a provision that would prohibit the Department of Transportation from issuing foreign air carrier permits to airlines unless they determine that the airline is not establishing itself in a particular country just to avoid regulations. Under this legislation, pilots and flight attendants would be more experienced and better compensated. As important, it would save good-paying airline jobs in Florida and across the country.

Now, the U.S. Senate has a chance to stand strong and protect this critical Florida — and American — industry. There is wide bipartisan consensus when it comes to protecting American jobs. That’s why, for the sake of our airline industry, passenger safety and our jobs, I urge the state’s senators, Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, to ensure that the Senate acts on this critical legislation. Florida’s airline industry and economic future depend on it.

Capt. William “Billyray” Read has been an American Airlines pilot since 1991 and is chairman of the Allied Pilots Association's Miami Domicile.