Aviation News

November 16, 2015

Captain: A Double-Edged Sword

Trump Fired
Captain. Not only is this word a verb and a noun, it can also be used as a double-edged sword. The Pilot in Command (PIC) earns the slightly bigger paycheck, but in return for carrying the ultimate responsibility for the operation and safety of their aircraft, when a mistake or wrong interpretation is made by anyone that affects the flight, the captain receives the punishment.  But, the question before the world right now is: Should a pilot lose their job if they err on the side of safety?

For airline executives,who have never commanded an aircraft, it’s difficult to understand the encompassing responsibility of the PIC. It’s not something they can read about or believe they understand, they have to actually be in that seat to realize the depth of responsibility that comes with the name “Pilot in Command.” Part of the captain’s job is to trust their crew. Pilots must trust the flight attendants’ input if there is a circumstance which might affect the safety of the aircraft or passengers. This ideology is currently being put to the test now that Captain Jason Kinzer has been terminated, and has recently filed a wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against Allegiant Air.

N426NV_McDonnell_Douglas_MD-83_Allegiant_(9067963598)The overview of the incident is this: After departure, Capt. Kinzer received a call from the back of the aircraft stating that flight attendants and passengers were smelling smoke. An onboard inflight fire is one of the more dire situations, so Kinzer made the decision to declare an emergency and return to the airport. It must be reinforced, that this is right after departure, in a busy flight environment. The captain doesn’t have time to get up out of their seat to question what the flight attendants are stating. This is part of crew resource management (CRM) which taught to all flight crew members. A possible onboard fire isn’t something you wait and see about. You land.

After a routine landing, an emergency responder confirmed that smoke was coming from the plane’s #1 engine. The flight crew can’t see the engines and doesn’t have the luxury of questioning the emergency responder’s training or education, the flight crew must trust the report coming from ground emergency responders and react. The appropriate response, given the information, is to evacuate. After Kinzer made the decision to evacuate, an unknown male voice is heard on the radio transmission which states, “Hold off on that evacuation, please.”  Kinzer requests verification as to whose voice is giving the order, but they don’t respond. Without confirmation, he continues with the evacuation. The report of “smoke” from the engine was probably a misinterpretation of normal burn off after engine shutdown, but the responder probably didn’t know it and the captain can’t just sit around and see if the engine catches fire or explodes. Don’t forget, they are fueled up for a flight.

A flight crew cannot and should not have to factor in what it might cost to evacuate an aircraft in an emergency. If they had not done what they did, and there truly was a fire in the back of the aircraft, lives could have been lost and the aircraft could have been a complete loss, so the incident and cost was minor compared to what could have been.

There will always be analysis of each aircraft emergency and a lot of could’ve, would’ve, should’ves will exist, but that’s what makes aviation safer every year. We’re supposed to review and analyze. We learn with each anomaly and recognize how we can make it safer. We’re not supposed to fire pilots for erring on the safe side. Allegiant’s response to Kinzer was a termination letter: “As an Allegiant captain, you are considered the ‘on-scene commander’ and should always demonstrate professionalism, maturity and concern for our customers and your co-workers during their daily work assignments. You do this by operating each aircraft safely, smoothly and efficiently and striving to preserve the company’s assets, aircraft, ground equipment, fuel and the personal time of our employees and customers.

“You failed to exhibit these behaviors during Flight 864. You ordered an evacuation that was entirely unwarranted and, as a result, your conduct and decision-making on June 8, compromised the safety of your crew and your passengers and led directly to the injuries. Furthermore, during a review of the event and in subsequent conversations you have repeatedly insisted that you made a good decision to evacuate the aircraft and, if faced with a similar situation, you would follow the same course of action.

“It is for these reasons that your employment with Allegiant is terminated effective immediately.”

The evacuation turned out to be unwarranted. The captain made an error, but he erred on the side of safety. So what. No pilot should ever be worried about losing their career to erring on the side of safety. It’s what any good pilot should do. There isn’t a pilot out there who would prefer an evacuation to another day of flying.  

The irony of the entire situation is Allegiant’s frustration that Captain Kinzer’s brought more media attention to the company for mechanical issues.  By the simple act of firing one of their own for keeping passengers safe, they have brought the wrath on an entire industry into an incident which wouldn’t normally get a second look.

From the front desk of an FBO to the captain’s seat of a commercial airline, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything in between. Her book “A Chick in the Cockpit is available in paperback and on Kindle now. If you have questions or comments, she can be reached at [email protected] Follow A Chick in the Cockpit on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Original Donald Trump photo “Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

 Allegiant Air MD83 photo “N426NV McDonnell Douglas MD-83 Allegiant (9067963598)” by aeroprints.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


  • ewrcap

    Airlines have tried over the years to reduce the number of evacuations since they are often unnecessary and cause more injuries than the abnormal event would. But I have never heard of a pilot being fired for calling an evacuation out of extreme caution AND with smoke reported. The average time between a fire being discovered and complete loss of the airplane is around 17 minutes. Think Swissair 111.