Former NTSB Chair sounds alarm on airline safety amid staffing shortages

Southwest pilots had 738 fatigue pulls in October, compared to the historical average of 100 for that month

Chaos at Southwest and American Airlines in recent weeks, which stranded thousands of travelers with flight cancellations, has raised concerns for the airline industry beyond the busy holiday season. 

There are new worries the recent cancellation chaos could be indicative of an even bigger problem regarding safety.

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Former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jim Hall is sounding the alarm. He says the furloughs, layoffs and early retirements at the beginning of the pandemic have left airlines short-staffed and without some of their most experienced pilots, mechanics and flight attendants. At the same time, demand for air travel is taking off.

"It appears that some of the airlines are attempting to meet this demand, not in a very structured way, but in a haphazard way," Hall told FOX Business. 

Hall tells Grady Trimble that ramping up too quickly could have catastrophic consequences comparable to Boeing’s 737 Max crisis.

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Meanwhile, unions for pilots and flight attendants complain they’re being spread thin. The Association of Flight Attendants says its members are "exhausted." 

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association says pilots are removing themselves from the flying schedule because of fatigue at a much higher rate than normal, which is referred to as a "fatigue pull." There were 738 fatigue pulls among Southwest pilots in October, compared to the historical average of 100 for that month, according to the union.

"The good news is our pilots are prioritizing safety over compensation," Capt. Casey Murray, president of the union, said. "The operation is still safe, but there's a lot of stress on it."

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Southwest Airlines pilots perform a pre-check in a 737 aircraft before a flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.  (AP Photo/Mike Stewart / Getty Images)

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, wouldn’t share fatigue pull numbers but said they were also higher this summer compared to 2019.

"More fatigue calls are good to bolster your safety margin, but it also tells us you’re running an operation at a rate that is not sustainable," Capt. Dennis Tajer with the union told Trimble.

Both pilot unions blame the added stress largely on uncertain, last-minute scheduling and an impending vaccine mandate.

FOX Business reached out to Southwest Airlines and the FAA for comment on this story, but neither has directly answered questions about safety concerns.

The FAA referred FOX Business to a letter dated August 2021, which was sent to the airlines, outlining "safety elements" airlines should monitor during the pandemic recovery.