As a captain for Gulfstream International Airlines, Kenny Edwards decided it would be best to be safe — rather than sorry — when he attempted to cancel a flight from Tampa to West Palm Beach in December.
A cockpit device, designed to warn of potential collisions with other aircraft, wasn’t working, and the route called for flying through a busy student training area in South Florida, where a mid-air collision had recently occurred, killing two pilots, he said.
But his managers at Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream International Airlines, which does business as Continental Connection, ordered him to make the hop.
They said the airline was not required to have a working collision-avoidance device to legally dispatch Flight 9150, which had a crew of two pilots and 10 passengers on the manifest.
When Edwards refused to conduct the commuter flight in a Beech 1900 turboprop, his managers immediately fired him and called in another captain to take his place.
“In 20 years in aviation, I’d never seen this before, where a captain makes a decision based on safety and he gets terminated for it,” Edwards, 42, of Phoenix, said.
Shortly after being let go, Edwards filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration, charging that Gulfstream International Airlines engages in a number of unsafe practices, including maintenance shortcuts and overworking its pilots. The FAA is investigating his concerns.
Edwards also has taken his plight to Congress, asking the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to look into how Gulfstream operates. That committee already is undertaking a broad investigation into the airline industry after air carriers voluntarily canceled hundreds of flights in March and April to inspect wiring on their aircraft.
That, in turn, came after the FAA launched an audit of all U.S. airlines’ maintenance records, stemming from a controversy over missed safety inspections at Southwest Airlines.
Gulfstream International Airlines, a regional carrier, offers more than 200 daily flights to cities around Florida, including Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami, and also to the Bahamas, according to its Web site.
Despite Edwards’ allegations, Gulfstream is not under “special scrutiny or surveillance,” FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
Thomas P. Cooper, Gulfstream’s senior vice president of legal affairs, said the air carrier strictly adheres to FAA regulations. He said FAA inspectors routinely check the company’s maintenance procedures as well as its pilot-scheduling operations and have found no violations.
“In general, we operate within the guidelines of the FAA,” he said.
Ironically, well before he was terminated, Edwards had already turned in his resignation and informed Gulfstream that his last day would be Dec. 12. He had hoped to leave on good terms so he could use the airline as a reference.
Yet, airline officials fired him Dec. 10 after several events went sour, he said.
While flying from Nassau to West Palm Beach that day, the plane’s traffic alert and collision avoidance system, or TCAS, sounded a warning that another aircraft was in the vicinity. That prompted Edwards and his co-pilot to immediately climb out of the way of a small Cessna.
On their next leg, from West Palm Beach to Tampa, the traffic avoidance system stopped working, Edwards said. Moreover, the plane had a pressurization problem, which would have required that it remain at a low altitude on the trip from Tampa back to West Palm Beach.
That caused concern because two days earlier, on Dec. 8, a twin-engine Piper arriving from North Florida and a small Cessna trainer based in Lantana collided in a student training area over the Everglades at the Broward- Palm Beach County line. Edwards said he would not have been able to fly around that area in his relatively large twin-engine airliner.
Because of a combination of darkness, thick clouds and the student pilot training area in his path, Edwards told company officials he would not make the flight without the traffic avoidance system in working order.
“One of my reasons was obvious,” he said. “It had very likely just saved our lives.”
While the plane was parked in Tampa, a mechanic found the system was operating properly. Edwards, however, didn’t think it was and insisted he could not conduct the flight. At that point, Tom Herfort, the airline’s director of operations, fired Edwards, according to the federal complaint.
In a subsequent letter to Edwards, confirming his dismissal, Gulfstream Chief Pilot James Bystrom said “the aircraft was legal to operate in revenue service. Your decision delayed the flight for over two hours and inconvenienced our customers without just cause.”
Edwards said he now has been “blacklisted” from finding another pilot job because of a federal rule that makes his termination open knowledge to other carriers.
The biggest injustice, he said, is that Gulfstream ignored federal guidelines that call for the captain of a flight to be “the final authority” as to whether it can be conducted safety. Gulfstream officials said they had no comment about that.
“The captain is the one who decides if you should go, not whether you can go,” Edwards said. “I would not allow my family to fly on that airline, due to safety concerns.”