Blood on the Tarmac

Did TWA's push to be the best on-time airline contribute to a worker's death?

As the warm and muggy August-in-St. Louis day played out at Lambert Airport, a trace of rain doused the burning rubber on the tarmac. It was a routine, dreary, noisy Monday. Over at Gate C23, passengers on TWA Flight 520, bound for Fort Lauderdale, seat-belted in cool comfort, were biding their time, unaware of the tragedy about to unfold 15 feet in front of the plane.

At 12:55 p.m., when the plane pushed away from the gate, it was dutifully logged as an "on-time" departure. George "Mack" McCarrison, a TWA "pushback mechanic," waved the plane back, directing it toward the runway. Then a baggage tug driven by 25-year-old Joseph Stockley arrived with some bags to be loaded. The plane stopped, and the co-pilot waved Stockley around to the back of the plane.

After loading the baggage, Stockley backed the tug away, about 50 feet, but then felt it begin to jerk. He put the vehicle in drive, and it lurched ahead on its own. The accelerator's sticking, he thought. He slammed the brake down, again and again. The tug wouldn't stop. It plowed straight into McCarrison, hurling him to the ground. A horrified Stockley, who was a friend of McCarrison's, jumped from the tug and, on seeing blood flowing freely from the mechanic's head, went down on his knees, sobbing. The plane curved around the two and proceeded to taxi toward the runway.

When the airport police came, Stockley told them that that was what had happened. Then the medics came and took McCarrison to DePaul Hospital, where he remained in a coma for weeks.

On the surface, it was a tragic accident -- except for a couple of things.

First, an internal TWA memo suggests that improperly maintained ground equipment (including failing parking brakes on the baggage carts hitched to tugs) is a problem at TWA, a problem that was noted as recently as last month. TWA is a struggling, cash-strapped airline, and ramp-equipment maintenance may not be at the top of a cash-strapped airline's list of priorities.

Second, Dennis Bryant, the co-pilot on Flight 520, posted an Internet note to other pilots two days after the Aug. 21 incident, laying the blame squarely on TWA management. Safety, he said, is being sacrificed by the airline's "obsession" with being on time. And that obsession is something one might find at the top of a cash-strapped airline's list of priorities. (Last year, TWA was the nation's No. 1 "on-time" airline, as it has been for most of this year, a fact it has proudly promoted.)

Bryant's note was impassioned, yet reflective. "It was an accident and I am aware that no matter how safe of a working environment exists, accidents will happen," he wrote. "I am here to say I believe this accident should be laid at the feet of our management who foster an unsafe working environment. This obsession for "On-Time,' "Close the Door,' "10 Minute Countdown' set the scene for accidents to occur. Whether it be the boarding agents being docked break time for late departures or bag handlers having to move thousands of connection bags in a short time period or SWAT teams delivering bags to pushed-back planes, the inevitable chain has been building."

When Bryant saw the accident from the cockpit, he alerted the TWA ramp tower (which guides the airline's planes around the terminal), only to be reminded of the airline's "on-time" monomania. "As we sat parked 15 feet from our mechanic who lay on the tarmac with blood flowing from his head, the ramp tower implored us to taxi around him because we were blocking the inbound lane," Bryant continued. "As the tug driver was uncontrollably crying while kneeling over the fallen mechanic, the ramp tower again asked us to taxi so Gate C25 could push "On-Time.'"

On the evening of Sept. 27, after five weeks in a coma, George "Mack" McCarrison, 54, died at DePaul Hospital as a result of injuries sustained in the accident.

TWA's dire financial straits are well documented (see Adam Pitluk's "Gremlin on the Wing," RFT, March 1). But some of the internal consequences of those hardships haven't seen the light of day. Now comes a window-opening memo.Last month, three TWA officials -- led by Hugh V. Schoelzel, vice president for corporate safety -- conducted a one-day safety survey (called "walkin' the walk") of the airline's Lambert facilities, during which they talked with about 300 ramp and maintenance employees. Their findings, as reported by Schoelzel in a Sept. 5 internal memo, are shocking. For starters, Schoelzel wrote, "when asked how they would have us spend a fictitious million dollars to improve TWA, none asked for wages, benefits or working conditions. To the man, they wanted their equipment repaired, and then they wanted training."

Then Schoelzel, who clearly has a sense of humor, notes a few specific deficiencies: "Speeding is "rampant' on the ramp. Lousy pun and lousy practice," he wrote. "The most dangerous spot on the airport is the tunnel under terminal C. Red octagonal signs must mean "speed up,'" he wryly noted. Last, he observed, "We were given 15 baggage cart discrepancy tags for lack of brakes -- for one day. All were returned to service without repair!"

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