Tragic conditions behind an airline joy ride

August 20, 2018

Steve Leigh asks why the politicians aren’t looking past security measures and background checks in response to the tragedy at the SeaTac airport earlier this month.

EARLIER THIS month, Richard “Beebo” Russell, a ramp attendant for Horizon Air, took a commercial airliner from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on a joy ride. This was unprecedented: No non-pilot has ever taken off in a commercial airliner on an unauthorized trip from a U.S. international airport.

Tragically, Russell ended up crashing on an island on Puget Sound after an hour and 15 minutes. He died in the crash. Thankfully, no one else was on board and no one on the ground was hurt.

Because Russell was white, government agencies quickly declared that this wasn’t a “terrorist” event. The news reports focused on two questions: “Why and how did Russell do this?” and “What was wrong with airport security?”

Maria Cantwell, a U.S. senator from Washington state, called for an investigation and new regulations. Airport officials and Horizon promised to make sure this never happens again. In defending themselves, airport and corporate officials note that Russell had passed an extensive background check before he was hired.

An Alaska-Horizon Air plane on the tarmac at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
An Alaska-Horizon Air plane on the tarmac at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Andy Nystrom | flickr)

How did Russell fly a commercial airliner? News stories have focused on how Russell trained himself to be a pilot using video games.

But answering the question “Why?” has been more difficult.

Media outlets interviewed family and friends, and listened to the flight recording for clues. Russell has been described as a good friend and family man who surprised everyone with his action. On the recording, Russell talks about discovering that he has a “few screws loose,” but there is little else about the “why.” He apologized to family and friends for his action.

One possible cause was noted in a few reports, but quickly faded from media coverage: Russell and his co-workers at airlines today are underpaid and overworked. In the flight recording, Russell at one point says: “Minimum wage: We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease some gears a little bit with the higher-ups.”

According to KING5 News, Russell’s co-workers told its reporters that “working on the ramp at Horizon is an understaffed, grueling grind where employees aren’t treated with respect. Some said the work culture most likely prompted Russell to teach the bosses a lesson.” One worker told KING5: “He was going to show them that they pushed a good guy to his limits.”

HORIZON AIR is a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines. Its baggage handlers start off at around $12 an hour. Low-paid employees for “certified air carriers” are exempted from the city of SeaTac’s $15.64 an hour minimum wage. Alaska Airlines, the main carrier at SeaTac, engaged in a years-long fight against raising the minimum wage.

After a close vote by SeaTac residents in 2014, the minimum wage for hospitality and transport workers was raised to $15, to be increased with cost-of-living raises each year. Alaska Airlines took the city to court, arguing that the airport was a separate governmental agency, which the city couldn’t dictate to.

The courts eventually rejected Alaska Airlines’ argument and upheld the minimum wage for workers at SeaTac airport. However, there was an exception in the ordinance: It didn’t cover employees working directly for “certified air carriers.” Alaska used this exception to continue to pay baggage handlers and others below the minimum wage.

We will never know the balance of factors that led to Russell’s tragic joy ride. We do know, however, the vicious anti-labor policies of Alaska/Horizon Air, was one of those factors. The $12-an-hour wage Horizon paid starting baggage handlers isn’t enough for even a single worker to live on anywhere in the Seattle area.

Overwork and a “grueling grind” can cause workers to snap. There have been clear examples of this at UPS and other workplaces in recent years. Russell’s joy ride is another instance of the same stresses, though thankfully, no one else was hurt this time.

As usual, the response of public officials has been to try to ramp up security. But Russell had all his security clearances. He was where he was allowed to be. He had passed all the background checks.

More security will only raise the cost of air travel and provide an opportunity to further scapegoat the vulnerable. It certainly won’t solve the problem.

No politician has used this incident as an opportunity to call for improvement of conditions for workers at SeaTac and other airports. Airline companies want to increase profits as much as possible by lowering wages and working conditions. They are concerned with safety and security issues, but not to the extent of taking action that would cut into their profits.

It will be up to workers at the airports, supported by others acting in solidarity, to organize against the upside-down priorities of the airline companies. Only by raising wages and improving conditions will we lessen the likelihood of tragedies like this one.

Further Reading

From the archives