The Regional carrier Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of American Airlines, must pay a hefty fine after being found guilty of breaking safety rules, resulting in the death of a passenger service agent for the company.
After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the guilty ruling after investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Courtney Edwards, a 34-year-old ground agent for Montgomery Regional Airport in Alabama, who was sucked into an aircraft engine in 2022 while working.
On June 7, the agency ruled Piedmont was guilty of “a serious breach of safety,” and mandated the airline pay a fine for the multiple ways employees were confused about work protocol — making mistakes that resulted in the woman’s death, according to SimplyFlying.com.
OSHA issued a General Duty Clause violation, fining Piedmont an initial penalty of $15,625. This fine is the maximum penalty allowed by law for a serious violation such as this.
“At 3:45 p.m. on December 31, 2022, an employee was acting as a wing walker for an arriving aircraft when she walked directly in front of an idling turbofan engine and was sucked into the engine and was killed,” the investigation findings show.
A probe into the incident revealed Edwards died because supervisors were not clear when communicating to staffers about safety measures, and provided ineffective training.
OSHA determined the confusion about instructions was part of the reason why the mother of three came too close to an Embraer E175’s engine while working on her shift at the Montgomery Regional Airport. The proximity to the engine proved to be dangerous, thus resulting in the ingestion.
The finding reportedly contradicts preliminary statements issued by the National Transportation Safety Board.
In January, the NTSB stated the ground crew was briefed twice before the plane’s arrival. Originally, it was said that these workers were told not to approach the aircraft until the beacon light and engines were turned off.
On the day of the accident, according to NTSB, the flight was fully loaded with 63 passengers and crew members, none of whom were injured that day.
According to the report, the flight crew did everything expected of them, including leaving “both engines running for the required two-minute engine cool-down period.”
“As the airplane approached the gate, three ramp agents were present but clear of the safety area. After stopping the aircraft and setting the parking brake, the captain gave the hand signal to connect the airplane to ground power,” the investigation revealed.
It also said the pilots had systems in place where they were alerted to certain potential dangers, including a signal that should have gone off if the cargo door had been opened before the engines shut down at the gate.
“The first officer (FO) opened his cockpit window to inform the ramp agent that the engines were still operating. The captain then made a brief announcement asking the passengers to remain seated until the seat belt sign had been turned off. He then relayed his intentions to the FO that the seat belt sign would stay illuminated until they had connected to ground power and could shut down the number 1 (left) engine.”
NTSB’s account reportedly indicated the captain saw a warning light going off, and the plane started shaking “violently.” When the first engine shut down, the pilot turned off “the emergency lights and shut off both batteries before leaving the flight deck to investigate.”
NTSB also stated surveillance cameras revealed some workers were not following the protocol given to them by the federal safety agencies governing airline operations, which caused the accident. The footage also allegedly showed the details leading up to Edwards’ death, supporting that the accident was a result of human error.
The union representing employees, Communications Workers of America, released a statement regarding Edwards’ life. The union claims her death was “preventable” based on OSHA’s findings.
“OSHA found that the lack of effective training, clear and unambiguous communication on the ramp, and clear instructions from supervisors as to when it is safe to approach an aircraft were deficiencies that contributed to Courtney Edwards’s preventable death,” a union memo stated.
According to The Dallas Morning News, the union asserted based on the OSHA report, Piedmont did not create “a place of employment” that was “free from recognized hazards that were causing or were likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees that were exposed to ingestion and jet blast hazards.”
Crystal Byrd, Piedmont Airlines spokesperson, released a comment on behalf of the company stating it will cooperate with OSHA and that “safety is always … top priority.”
“We appreciate the recommendations from OSHA and will ensure that a thorough review is accomplished,” Byrd said.
There is a time limit to Piedmont making an official decision. The company has 15 business days from June 7, the day it received the citation and penalties, to comply. Their response can be either a request for an informal conference with OSHA or a dispute of the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Either way, CWA says it “will continue to fight for Courtney Edwards, her family, and the safety of all airline workers.”
It added that their workers “should never fear for their lives on the job.”