Opinion: Ayn Rand and the crash of Flight 3407

Something I wrote a while back and never got around to posting, but still relevant.

Ayn Rand and the crash of Flight 3407
By Tyler Barnett

My little sister is a flight attendant for Colgan Air, the regional airline responsible for the plane crash in Buffalo last year that killed every passenger aboard. She recently sent me this Frontling PBS video. I don’t know her reason for sharing, whether the report made her worry or she just knew I’d be interested, but it came at a good time. I’d just finished Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Rand has been belittled with labels like hack and armchair philosopher, but with all the crashes lately (economies, planes, Toyotas) it’s worth looking at a book that describes a similar scenario.

Atlas Shrugged depicts an America in which the working mind has gone on strike. With no incentive to work due to government looting, industrialists abandon their factories and mills. Under a system that rewards need instead of production, the capable pretend to be incapable instead of being exploited. The world crashes; first in small and patchable ways, then in supply-chain failures and food and fuel shortages.

Here are notable similarities between the decaying socioeconomic mindsets described fictitiously in Atlas Shrugged and those of the real-world made obvious in the Flight 3407 video:

Liability more important than safety

In the book, executives and managers are more afraid of being held liable than of being responsible for catastrophe or injury. To keep costs low and meet deadline, they take risks that jeopardize safety while covering themselves from legal fault.

The video explains that regional airlines like Colgan are used by larger airlines (Continental = Colgan) to decrease flight cost, thus remaining competitive. This lower cost is made possible by hiring less experienced pilots, working pilots more hours
, offering less benefits, and cutting corners. Essentially their willingness to operate in this manner is what keeps them in business and makes them profitable to bigger companies. Since Continental could be ruined if they compromised safety, they hire a smaller company to do it and remain free of legal liability in the case of a crash.

Deference of responsibility

In the book, commands are given ambiguously for legal purposes, and upper management remains intentionally ignorant (at least on paper) of the shortcuts being taken by employees. Responsibility is passed along until it is neglected or ignored by someone who is paid or kept around as a scapegoat (think Enron).

In the crash report video it seemed that everyone wants to pass the responsibility on to someone else. The FSA  agent in charge of inspecting Colgan blames the higher ups. Workers blame the hours and pay. Those higher-up promise to keep a better eye on those underneath them who are screwing things up.

Work as slavery

In the book as in the video, an environment was created in which employees didn’t report problems from fear of losing their jobs. The fear of losing a job is amplified in a bad economy due to debt and difficulty of finding another job.

Other negative systems shown in Rand's dying society include need based reward, entitlement, and mentality of money as evil. In order to change the system from rewarding initiative and work to rewarding those who have a need, a mentalitiy of entitlement is created. People are convinced that they have a right to a certain stardard of living without working for it. 

I will still fly regional. For me, the reduced price is worth the slightly higher risk. My sister still works for Colgan. For her, working in her dream profession is also worth the risk. Whether it’s driving a car or sitting in a chair, we all assume risk for convenience. But at what price does the risk become too great and how can we really assess the risk?

UPDATE: My sister no longer works for Colgan. After other safety incidents she saw first-hand, the travel and risk were no longer worth the pay. Flight attendants at Colgan only start getting paid when the plane door closes and stop getting paid when it opens. They are not paid for the time required to wait on standbye in the airport or while preparing the plane.