FAA History Lesson -- September 24

There are a couple of very interesting subjects on this date in history. I decided to go with the part about Frank Lorenzo. If you don’t know who he is, you might want to look him up and get some background on him. I think it safe to say, at least as far as aviation workers, he’s one of the most hated figures in aviation history.

We must first start in 1981 while remembering two significant events. The Airline Deregulation Act became law in 1978. The PATCO strike happened on Aug. 3, 1981.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Aug 6, 1981: The Civil Aeronautics Board approved acquisition of Continental Airlines by Texas International, a subsidiary of Frank Lorenzo's holding company, Texas Air. The transaction was consumated in Oct 1981. A year later, Lorenzo merged Texas International's operations into those of the much larger Continental. (See Sep 24, 1983) ”

Three days after the PATCO strike, Lorenzo gets Continental. The deal is approved by the Civil Aeronautics Board, which was busy going out of existence. The CAB ceased to exist on Jan. 1, 1985. That’s the background for today’s lesson.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

“Sep 24, 1983: Continental Airlines filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 and suspended flights. Frank Lorenzo (chairman of the airline and its parent company, Texas Air) announced on Sep 26 that a "new Continental" was resuming operations, on a discount-fare basis, to about a third of the cities formerly served. He offered to rehire 4,200 of the firm's 12,000 employees at salaries below those paid under their union contracts. Continental's pilots and flight attendants began a strike on Oct 1, but failed to shut down the airline. By the end of 1983, the company employed approximately 700 pilots and 800 flight attendants. (See Feb 6, 1984.)“

Two years and two months after buying it, Frank Lorenzo took Continental into bankruptcy. It might make you wonder about his business skills. But there was another agenda at work here. You must remember, the FAA had just broken its union (PATCO.) Businesses had been given the “green light” to break theirs. As the above says, “(See Feb 6, 1984.)”

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

“Feb 6, 1984: FAA conducted an intensive inspection of Continental Airlines, lasting through Mar 9. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) was on strike against Continental (see Sep 24, 1983), and accused it of unsafe practices. The FAA report cited discrepancies but concluded that overall safety was adequate. (Two members of the inspection team later charged that higher officials had altered their report to make it more favorable to the airline; however, an FBI investigation found no basis to prosecute for impropriety.) In Jun 1984 congressional hearings, ALPA charged that FAA was covering up safety violations by Continental, while FAA testified that the airline was safe. (See Mar 18, 1985.) “

I could “see Mar 18, 1985” but let’s cut to the chase. Let’s go to Nov 15, 1987

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

“Nov 15, 1987: A Continental Airlines DC-9 crashed on takeoff at Denver Stapleton airport, killing 28 of the 82 persons on board. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the probable cause of the crash as the captain's failure to have the airplane deiced a second time after a delay before takeoff. Contributing factors listed by the Board included the absence of regulatory or management controls governing operations by newly qualified flightcrew members and the confusion that existed between the flightcrew and air traffic controllers that led to the delay in departure. (See Dec 12, 1985 and Mar 22, 1992.)“

I know you thought you were done but not yet. Remember that real life is complicated. Historians try to cover complicated periods and events to get down the crux of things. But sometimes, the brush is just too broad. For instance, did you really catch the significance of “Contributing factors listed by the Board included the absence of regulatory or management controls governing operations by newly qualified flightcrew members... ?

Regulatory -- FAA, Airline Deregulation
Management -- Frank Lorenzo

The “absence” of those led to the “captain’s failure.” Read this from the NTSB’s report concerning the accident. Sorry for the ALL CAPITALS and the abbreviations. That’s the way the NTSB writes the report. “CAPT” is Captain of the aircraft. “F/O” is the First Officer (or copilot.) “PLT” is pilot.


The Carter Administration deregulated the airline industry. The Reagan Administration declared war on unions. The FAA, which had busted its own union, overruled the concerns of Continental’s pilot union (ALPA) and said “safety was adequate.” Two members of the FAA’s own inspection team make charges serious enough to bring about an FBI investigation. When additional charges of an FAA coverup were made, the FAA still told Congress that Continental was “safe.”

Three years later a Continental DC-9 is upside down in the snow and 28 people are dead. I can’t help but wonder how happy people were with their “cheap” ticket.

The consequences of our actions aren’t always immediately visible. In an endeavor as safe as modern aviation, it can take years to see how a policy plays out. History is being played out -- right now -- in front of your very eyes. The consequences may take years to notice. Or maybe not. But there will be consequences. History is the only guide as to what they may be.

Don Brown
September 24, 2007


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