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Is JetBlue gambling on passenger safety?

If you flew with JetBlue in May 2005, you may have been one of the thousands of passengers treated like human guinea pigs by the airline, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

JetBlue assigned pilots to work 10- to 11-hour shifts on more than 50 flights, exceeding the eight-hour limit allowed by federal regulations. The hope was to prove that pilots could fly safely for longer than the government currently allows. Financially, such a change in government rules could save the airlines a lot of money. Ethically, the airline’s approach is questionable at best.

Here’s the problem: JetBlue conducted the test without approval from the higher-ups at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), instead circumventing the system and getting the OK from low-level FAA officials who did not have the authority to make such decisions. The FAA has subsequently concluded that the tests amounted to a “backdoor effort to skirt safety rules,” according to the Journal‘s report.

And to make things worse, the airline ran these pilot-fatigue tests using real flights with real passengers; it looks especially bad when you consider that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is increasingly citing pilot fatigue as a factor in aviation accidents.

A JetBlue spokesperson calls the FAA situation a “miscommunication” and notes that the airline always had a fresh pilot standing by in case of emergency. I don’t buy the miscommunication angle for one minute. You’re telling me the airline just happened to seek out the FAA officials most likely to approve the scheme, and forgot to mention it to the FAA headquarters? I don’t think so.

Look, leather seats and cheap tickets are all well and good—but not if we have to be test subjects in order to get those perks. In fact, just two little words might have saved everyone a lot of trouble: “Flight simulation.” The fatigue tests should have been conducted under simulated conditions, not with real passengers.

Next time, JetBlue, do things the right way, or all the free satellite TV in the world won’t be enough to get me onboard one of your planes.

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