Horizon Air is Alaska Airlines’ regional airline, and they operate a fleet of Embraer 175 and Bombardier Q400 aircraft. Well, the details of a pretty damning internal memo have been made public this week, and some of the revelations are shocking.
The internal memo was sent by Captain John Hornibrook, Horizon’s VP of Flight Operations. Often when we hear about airline safety concerns it’s from a disgruntled ex-employee, but this guy has an active leadership role at the airline, so I’d take what he says pretty seriously.
Horizon Air Safety Concerns
HeraldNet has the details of the memo, which was sent by Hornibrook on Wednesday, November 27, 2019 (a day before Thanksgiving). It notes that a lax safety culture at the airline has led to several incidents, and says that if urgent action isn’t taken the airline could have a serious accident.
Included in the email is the following:
“We should be very uncomfortable with what has happened over the past two days. If we sit back and do nothing, we will have an accident. Nothing good can come of the trajectory we are currently on.
We do need to use the past 48 hours as a (wake-up) call before we have a more serious event. The leadership team needs to get the pilots heads in the game before we have an accident.”
Hornibrook says that the two days before Thanksgiving were “the most difficult 48-hour period I have seen in my tenure with Horizon Air,” as he goes on to list the safety-related incidents that the airline saw:
- One plane exceeded maximum operating speeds
- One plane exceeded maximum speeds allowed with flaps deployed
- Pilots on one plane experienced “stick shakers,” which is what happens when a plane is close to a stall
- One plane had a 4.5 ton discrepancy in weight that was discovered after takeoff; he noted “thank god this airplane was 9000 pounds under weight and not the other way around”
- One plane flew into severe turbulence near Palm Springs
- Two planes were hit by lightning strikes
“We have a problem. Most of these mistakes could have been prevented if our crews would have followed process.”
This Is Now Being Downplayed
Obviously this isn’t great press for Horizon (and Alaska Airlines, by association), so it’s no surprise that they’re trying to downplay this now that it has become public. Hornibrook said the following:
“The memo was meant to respond to the spike we saw in irregular events. I’m not sitting back and waiting for something bigger. I wanted everybody to take a pause, take a hard look at what was going on, refocus, and get back to the Safety First philosophy.”
Horizon Air’s CEO noted that this memo was a good sign of how safe Horizon Air is, saying that “a safe airline recognizes a spike and takes proactive action,” and said “that’s a positive from a safety culture standpoint.”
There’s A Pilot Shortage
We’re seeing a global pilot shortage at the moment, and that’s especially true at regional airlines, since the “major” carriers are hiring pilots with fewer hours than they used to.
This is especially true at Horizon, given that about half of their fleet consists of turboprops. Regional pilots would much rather be racking up jet hours than turboprop hours (it helps their future career prospects), so incentivizing pilots to stay on turboprops can be tough.
An Alaska Airlines pilot who used to work at Horizon is quoted as saying that while most pilots at Horizon are good, “they are hiring people they would not have hired 10 years ago.”
It’s not every day you see a VP of Flight Operations write an internal memo like this. It sure seems to me like he was frustrated by a very bad and stressful couple of days, and probably ended up regretting sending this, based on the fact that it went public.
That being said, the concerns seem legitimate. Personally I’d have no qualms flying Horizon, and don’t necessarily think they’re any less safe than any other regional airline (then again, there aren’t any airlines I’d avoid for safety reasons).
Nonetheless all of this does raise some concerns about the overall pilot shortage we’re seeing right now. Regional pilots are being hired with less experience than ever before, and that’s not great for safety.
Fortunately aviation remains incredibly safe, and regional airlines manage to operate with (surprisingly?) few major incidents.
What do you make of this memo from Horizon’s VP of Flight Operations? Would it change your willingness to fly with Horizon?