Horizon Air VP’s Shocking Safety Memo

Filed Under: Alaska

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

He concluded:

“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.”

Bottom Line

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?

Comments
  1. It’s a good memo issued at the right time; immediately following the string of incidents. He didn’t let the situation “age” to see if things got better. He addressed it head-on as a good leader will do.

    Kudos to Horizon Air. I’d fly them any day.

  2. Personally, I’m disappointed that this is being published in the media. For passenger safety, it is in our best interest that aviation leaders feel candid to raise their safety concerns internally. He’s raising his concerns in order to try to avoid an accident. By this being published by the media, the next time another executive or airline has a similar concern, they will think twice about raising such a concern so broadly or bluntly. Is that in the interest of safety? I don’t think so. Regardless, kudos to the leader for raising the issue.

  3. As you say, aviation remains incredibly safe. Good for Horizon for getting out ahead of things. Imagine if anyone in power showed anything close to this level of concern about the far more dangerous state of our roadway design and car culture.

  4. It’s actually a false statement that ‘regional airlines are hiring pilots with less experience than ever before’. Since the the Colman Air crash in 2009 the FAA has mandated Airline Transport Pilots have 1500 hours of flight time to get their ATP certificate. (There are reasonable exceptions to this rule i.e. military experience or higher education). Heck, Mesa used to higher pilots with 250 hours. Nothing to be concerned about as a passenger here. US airlines will continue to have the overall best safety records in the world.

  5. It’s actually a false statement that ‘regional airlines are hiring pilots with less experience than ever before’. Since the the Colgan Air crash in 2009 the FAA has mandated Airline Transport Pilots have 1500 hours of flight time to get their ATP certificate. (There are reasonable exceptions to this rule i.e. military experience or higher education). Heck, Mesa used to higher pilots with 250 hours. Nothing to be concerned about as a passenger here. US airlines will continue to have the overall best safety records in the world.

  6. Excellent memo. Direct, pervasive, and followed right after the incidents. When a company gets complacent you need things like this.

  7. As a MM on AS which includes a lot of flights sitting those damn hard seats on the Q’s I have no issue seeing this memo leaked. At least he is trying to get ahead of the curve in this. If you want to fly with low hour pilots try flying to safari camps in Africa. I once flew with a pilot ( and she was pretty good, I flew right seat with her) she had to sit on a phone book to see out the windshield !!

    What’s going on with the pilot shortage was “seen” by the airlines long before it actually happened and there are a number of pilots getting out sooner than later that’s another problem going on. When I got out of the AF you couldn’t buy a seat in the cockpit and those days there were three of us there!!!

  8. Aircraft are generally designed to take lightning strikes, so that should not be at the same level as the other concerns.
    Lucky, @Joseph makes a great point that even to be a first officer you need to have 1500 hours, which is far more experience than the old 250 hours requirement. Even the lower 1000 hour requirement for higher education isn’t for anyone who graduates college, but only applies to those who get a degree in aviation. Only a few colleges, such as Embry-Riddle and the University of South Dakota, offer aviation degrees.

  9. Most of those incidents are unrelated to last week’s serious weather events throughout the West. The serious weather events are unrelated to climate change. Climate change is unrelated to atmospheric pollution by aircraft. Now that we have that sorted out, let’s all try to keep this a secret.

  10. STOP. There is no such thing as a “shortage” of pilots or anything else. What they actually mean is there is a shortage of pilots at the salaries the airline is willing to pay.

    Simple supply and demand, raise the salaries ,you fill the positions.

  11. This is actually a really smart memo to publish. He is making this clear that Health & Safety is critical and they need to be better then they have been. From a personal liability standpoint, he needs to be able to show he took it seriously.

  12. I canceled my Alaska flight next week so instead I can now get sucked out of the window seat on my Southwest flight instead

  13. …’ there aren’t any airlines I’d avoid for safety reasons’

    So you’d gladly hop on another Royal Jordanian flight, Ben?

  14. …’ there aren’t any airlines I’d avoid for safety reasons’

    No the slightest bit worried about Lion Air or Air Asia? You’re a brave man. I wouldnt and I dont care if they are paying me to fly with them.

  15. I am actually happy to see this. It’s a reflection of the correct approach to safety and a safety culture that tackles issues head-on. There is no sugar-coating anything here, nor should there be. Setting the tone from the top that it’s OK to take the time to do things right, and nothing is more important than safety, is the right thing to be doing. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly Horizon.

  16. No, this was an internal email and should have never been leaked. The response from their leader should have been, “we have great pilots who strive to be safe, but there is always room for improvement.” But instead, he threw the whole pilot group under the bus. To me, that is poor leadership.

  17. The only thing that I’m worried is the grammar. Not sure whether the mistake was Capt. Hornibrook’s or Ben’s, but you an airplane can’t be hit by a lightning strike. You can be hit by lightning or you can be struck by lightning ,but not both.

  18. More typical of “leadership” is hear nothing see nothing.
    Kudos to CA Hornibrook and Horizon.

    Now – see why few respect the press?
    Spin is placed to try and generate that addictive “righteous indignation” the public so craves.

  19. I’ve got news for you. It’s not just about the number of hours for hiring pilots. That’s an outsider perspective. The comment about they are hiring people they would not have 10 years ago and the safety culture are the real issues. As someone who has spent time in the military and is a pilot, I can assure you that the more systemic issue is the market-driven concern of hiring less qualified and less smart people than they used to. That’s systemic issue number one. Issue number two is keeping pilots in a training culture where safety is religion, not a bandaid to a problem later. That’s exactly where his memo is coming from and too bad he was probably pressured into redaction by profit wonks. Safety first, profit second. Expect to see more of this. It’s rare to find an organization that is exceptional operationally. I’d put my bet on the VP of Ops.

  20. My husband and I avoid Horizon at all costs after many bad experiences. So many of my flights would be delayed out of Portland due to mechanical problems, and the final straw was an experience with bad turbulence. We are very thankful Alaska has been switching out to its 737s on some of our regular routes.

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