Norfolk Newspaper Article


Aug 22, 2002
From the Norfolk VA Virginian Pilot newspaper:

By DEBBIE MESSINA, The Virginian-Pilot
© November 17, 2003

NORFOLK — For months, Frederick Murry Sr. and many of his co-workers at Northwest Airlines in Norfolk complained to their company and union that they were stretched dangerously thin.

On Sept. 12, the airline crew was short-staffed again. Frustrated, Murry told a supervisor, “You’re not going to kill me today.â€￾

A few hours later, Murry saw fellow ground crew worker Denise Bogucki crushed to death against the nose of an airplane while she prepared to push the jet back from the gate.

She was the only Northwest employee around the plane at the time, Murry and other employees said.

She was trying to do a job alone that many in the industry say takes at least two people to do safely. While no government regulation requires two people to prepare and push back a plane, other airlines operating in Norfolk use at least two employees.

A study by an independent airline safety group documented that accidents were more likely to occur when there were fewer ground-crew members working. More than half of accidents studied over a 10-year period happened when only one or two employees were present.

“Working for an airline on the ramp is a very dangerous situation,â€￾ said John M. Massetti, secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 143.

“It’s organized chaos, really. In this business you’re always fighting the clock. There’s a lot of activity going on and a lot of tight spaces.

“Accidents happen when one, two, three or more people are working – it’s the nature of the beast. But when you’re working alone, it compounds the probability factor because there’s nobody watching your back.â€￾

Bogucki – “Dennieâ€￾ to her family and friends – was the mother of two grown boys. She had worked for Northwest Airlines for 13 years.

Murry criticizes airline officials’ decision not to hire more workers, despite several written and spoken pleas from the Norfolk staff. “They allowed unsafe conditions to exist all summer,â€￾ he said.

The incident appears to be the first work-related death of an airline employee at Norfolk International, based on information from accident records and airport officials.

Since Bogucki’s death, Northwest has changed its policy to require two workers to prepare an airplane for pushback, employees and union officials said. The airline has also beefed up its staff.

Two more full-time employees were hired, and seven part-timers were elevated to full time, according to company documents and union officials.

The cause of the accident is under investigation by several agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. It has not been determined whether Northwest’s staffing levels contributed to Bogucki’s death.

Northwest is under scrutiny in Tampa, Fla., as well. The St. Petersburg Times reported Friday that OSHA is looking at Northwest’s operation there because its employees, especially baggage handlers, were getting hurt or sick at twice the rate of other airline workers.

Union officials say job cuts are largely to blame, forcing workers to shoulder more work, according to the news report.

Company officials declined to answer questions about staffing or airline operating procedures.

“The safety and security of our employees and passengers is the top priority of all Northwest Airlines operations,â€￾ the airline said in a statement about Bogucki’s accident. “Everyone at Northwest Airlines is saddened by this loss.â€￾

Airport work was in Bogucki’s blood. Her husband, Richard, and her aunt also work for Northwest in Norfolk. Her mother works in the airport’s administrative offices. Her aunt’s husband works for the post office at the airport.

On the night of Sept. 12, Richard Bogucki had just returned from job training in Detroit aboard the plane that, minutes later, would fatally crush his wife.

Four Northwest employees were on duty for the afternoon and evening shift, according to interviews with several Northwest employees. Five were supposed to work, but no one volunteered for the overtime.

Bogucki and Murry were assigned to what’s called the ramp – outside duties such as bringing in arriving planes, loading and unloading bags, and pushing back the departing planes. The other two agents worked inside at the ticket counter and gate.

Around 7:30 p.m., Flight 1569, bound for Memphis, Tenn., was preparing for takeoff. Bogucki was about a half-hour from finishing her shift.

She was on the ramp readying the plane to be pushed back from the gate while Murry was retrieving the last of the luggage from another area of the airport.

Bogucki was using a piece of heavy machinery called a pushback tug or pushback tractor to move the plane away from the gate toward the runway. A long, straight tow bar connects the tug to the airplane’s front-wheel assembly.

One end of the tow bar was already attached to the airplane. Bogucki was driving the tug slowly toward the unattached end, trying to attach it to the tug, when the accident occurred, Murry said. Bogucki was supposed to align the tug to the end of the tow bar, stop the tug, and climb out to lock it in place.

What actually happened next is under investigation. It’s not clear whether the tow bar assembly broke or disengaged or was never engaged. It’s also not known whether there was a problem with the tug or its brakes or whether Bogucki made a mistake.

For whatever reason, the tug continued moving toward the plane. Bogucki’s head struck the aircraft’s nose, and her upper body became trapped between the tug and the aircraft, according to Murry and an OSHA report.

Murry watched it happen from a distance as he approached the gate in a luggage cart. “She was going slow, she was doing everything right, then all of a sudden I see the tow bar swing out and I knew something was wrong,â€￾ Murry said. “The tug she was on was still going.â€￾

He said she threw her arms up like she was trying to get away, then got trapped by the airplane.

He said he ran over to Bogucki and knew immediately that she was mortally injured. He called out to her and checked her pulse but got no response.

He then ran inside to get help. “I knew it was too late,â€￾ Murry said, tears welling up as he recalled the events. “But I wanted to get that plane off of her.â€￾

Murry said he worried about Bogucki hooking up the tow bar by herself, but he and other employees said it was not unusual for Northwest crew to handle the task alone when they were shorthanded.

Many industry and union officials say that attaching the tow bar and pushing back a plane calls for at least two workers: one to drive the pushback tug, and the other to guide and attach the tow bar.

“The more workers you have on the ramp, the better for everybody,â€￾ said Ron Cirrone, general chairman of IAM District 143.

Other airlines that operate out of Norfolk, including U.S. Airways, Delta, Southwest and Continental, said they use at least two people for pushback. The total number of ramp workers depends on the size of the aircraft and the number of passengers.

Southwest, for example, which uses only one type of aircraft, typically has six workers on the ramp for a speedy turnaround of flights, with at least three assigned to pushback.

Earlier this year, as Northwest’s schedule in Norfolk grew from four daily flights in February to seven by June, workers complained about being understaffed and overworked.

They expressed their complaints in a letter to Northwest’s chief executive officer, Richard H. Anderson, and in an official union grievance.

In June, three months before Bogucki’s death, longtime employee Cecilia Giefer wrote to Anderson that staffing was “at the starvation level and no one seems to understand the problem.â€￾

Northwest officials conceded that staffing was “leanâ€￾ but maintained that it did not jeopardize safety.

Like many airlines, Northwest has struggled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The company has lost $1.4 billion since early 2001 and slashed its work force by 26 percent, from 53,500 at the close of 2000 to 39,442 by the end of June.

“I recognize that our current 'lean’ staffing is stressful for employees and I appreciate how hard all of our people are working during these challenging times for our airline,â€￾ Anderson wrote in an e-mail response to Giefer’s inquiry.

Norfolk’s staffing was reviewed, and the company concluded that it was “appropriate,â€￾ he added. However, he said a part-time position was being added, and once an employee on light duty returned to full duty, conditions “should be less stressful.â€￾

He also said that additional staffing “is a common request from most employee groups.â€￾

In August, Northwest’s Norfolk station manager, Robin Chapuis, wrote in response to a grievance: “Our current staffing does not jeopardize the safety and health of our employees.â€￾

Anne Mancini, Bogucki’s aunt and a Northwest employee, said staffing and safety issues often were raised by employees at staff meetings. She said Bogucki had expressed concerns to supervisors in a meeting eight days earlier.

“Dennie said, 'I’m damned tired of killing myself every night,’â€￾ Mancini said. “How sad to foresee what would happen.â€￾

Mancini said, “She was trying to do the job of two or three agents.â€￾

Employees said that because Northwest was short-staffed in Norfolk, it was not unusual for them to work nearly every aspect of operation, from the ticket counter to loading bags to boarding passengers at the gate to pushing off planes.

Murry said he has performed each of those duties, and more, on a single flight.

Giefer also wrote a letter to union officials two days after the accident: “Northwest Airlines’ staffing model says we can work a flight with five agents. … So we were only missing one agent by their standards. The reason we were missing that one agent is we are so worn out, burned out, physically and mentally exhausted by Northwest’s staffing policy, that we will no longer work overtime. And the fact of the matter is that Northwest Airlines is delusional if they think we can handle a flight with five people in the first place.â€￾

Leaders of the union that represents Northwest employees said the airline has long had a reputation for doing more with less.

“They’re understaffed everywhere,â€￾ Cirrone said. “They expect 200 percent productivity out of them. Our workers work harder than at any other airline.â€￾

There are no government or industry standards for staffing ground services. Airlines determine their own staffing needs.

“Each carrier has their own business model and it can vary from airport to airport based on the size of their operations,â€￾ said Diana Cronin, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the leading U.S. carriers.

A 1996 report published by the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent nonprofit group, showed a link between the number of ground-crew members and the number of incidents in which there was an injury or damage to equipment.

Of 182 accidents studied over 10 years, 36 percent occurred when there was one ground-crew member present. Nineteen percent occurred with two ground-crew workers, 5 percent with three workers and 2 percent with four or more. The rest either did not require ground crew, or the ground crew numbers were unknown.

“Most of these accidents are avoidable,â€￾ said Bob Vandel, executive vice president of the foundation, which is leading an international campaign for ground safety. “We see them as being human error.

We’re going about finding ways to avoid them.â€￾ A search of federal accident reports and other research reveals that Bogucki’s is not the first accident that involved a tug hitting an airplane.

A 1994 Flight Safety Foundation report examined 46 pushback accidents around the world. The pushback tug or the tow bar was involved in 11 of them.

In three accidents, tug drivers were injured as a result of inadvertent movement by the tugs, and drivers were crushed between the tugs and the aircraft.

The study’s author, Geoff Dell, who was then the safety manager for Quantas Airways, surveyed 24 airlines worldwide about their pushback staffing.

Two-thirds of the airlines used three or more ground crew workers – more than were working the night Bogucki died. The remaining airlines used two or fewer workers.

Dell advocated using tugs that don’t require tow bars, which he claimed would prevent some injuries and deaths.

Today, Dell is a safety consultant in Australia. Since his study appeared, he said, airlines started limiting the number of personnel on the ground because many pushback accidents involved workers being run over by airplanes. Airlines may have gone too far and now have too few workers on the ground, he said.

Dell is still trying to find safer ways to run airport ramps. He continues to advocate tugs that don’t use tow bars, saying they would require fewer people on the ramp while safely pushing back planes.

But he said most airlines find such tugs, which cost about $500,000 each, prohibitively expensive, especially during today’s challenging economic times.

“Many airlines still have antediluvian ideas about handling aircraft on the ground that fit well with Sopwith Camels in 1918, but are sadly well past their use-by date for modern jet aircraft in 2003,â€￾ Dell said in an e-mail.

Since the accident, Northwest has made several changes to its Norfolk operation.

In addition to increasing staff and requiring two employees to hook up the pushback tow bar, the company now has workers use a tug with an enclosed driver’s cab, not an open-air tug like the one Bogucki was driving.

The airline is considering several other changes systemwide, including adding cabs to all pushback tugs, standardizing the tow bar length and modifying the hitch assembly on the pushback tugs, an airline union newsletter reports.

“Ever since this happened, they’re doing anything and everything they possibly can,â€￾ Cirrone said.

Massetti, the IAM District 143 secretary-treasurer, said the union is working with Northwest “to make sure the appropriate amount of personnel and equipment is being used.â€￾

Murry, Mancini, Bogucki’s husband and several other Northwest employees say they cannot handle returning to work yet and are using medical and family leave. Northwest is supplementing the Norfolk staff with workers from other airports in their absence.

“I don’t care how many times they power wash it, Dennie’s blood is still on that ramp,â€￾ Mancini said.

Bogucki’s mother, Jeanne Earley, has reported back to work at the airport as the executive assistant to the executive director. She said she sometimes visits a parking lot that overlooks the gate where her daughter died.

“I walk around a lot and just cry,â€￾ Earley said. “Dennie was working by herself and she died by herself.â€￾
I thought this news article was nice. It is very sad it took this tragedy to wake up the mgmt in msp. at my station, we are working with a team of only 3 or 4 at most includin the lead agent and that was even when my station had a few mainline
jets. Even now with only a couple of RJs and the 12 or so DASH-8s we are stil severly under staffed but our inside agents are full staffed. i sincerely hope that a tragedy like this never occurs again.