On August 10, 2018, Richard “Beebo” Russell, an overworked, underpaid ground service agent at SeaTac, stole an empty Horizon Air Q400. After seventy-five minutes in the air, he crashed on a desolate part of Ketron Island in the south of the Puget Sound killing himself. There were no other casualties.
The mainstream media reported this incident as a security failure because Russell was an employee of Horizon Air and as an employee, he had cleared the security perimeter that day. Airlines were also addressing the possibilities for psychological evaluations for airline employees. They scrambled to cover any and all the security holes. Only the alternative press wanted to discuss the subject of Horizon Air’s horrible working conditions and the airline’s poor work culture and to suggest that maybe the dehumanizing working conditions could have contributed to Russell’s decision to steal the plane he did not know how to fly.
In 2013 Alaska Air Group (the parent company of Horizon Air) lead the fight to suppress the City of SeaTac’s $15 minimum wage increase. The result was a confusing patchwork of wage minimums–many of the workers on the ramp, like Russell, worked for less than a living wage while all the employees working inside the airport were at the new $15 an hour minimum wage. (To be fair, Horizon Air employees get free or discounted airline tickets, which Russell appeared to take advantage of. Whether he used his stock options benefit at a $12 wage is doubtful.)
While most of what Russell said when he was up in the air talking with air traffic controllers and pilots was about flying the plane, not wanting to land, and that he had vomited in the cockpit and felt light-headed, he did give a reason why he stole the plane: “Minimum wage, we’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease some gears little bit with the higher ups. Maybe, uh. Yeah.” He also called himself a “broken man.” That last comment could have come from somewhere other than his work, but other past and current employees empathized with him.
Former Horizon Air co-worker, and friend, Robert Reeves explained to KIRO-TV, that Russell was one of the hardest working people Reeves has ever met at the airlines. Reeves also said that they were overworked and underpaid. “As the years go by and they are expecting more and more and more out of you,” Reeves said. “You could be at the end of your shift but they still want you to go work another flight.” Coincidently, this is what happened to Russell at the end of his shift on August 10.
The airline industry used to be heavily regulated and unionized. Workers were respected. But after forty years of restructuring and cost-cutting workers are now treated with about as much respect as a screwdriver.
Jacobin Magazine’s Joe Allen interviews writer Todd Bunker, who worked with Russell at Horizon Air. Bunker wrote a guest editorial for the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. The short interview for Jacobin’s blog is linked below.
On August 10, a Seattle-area airport worker stole a plane and crashed it, killing himself. Because his working conditions were so miserable, his former coworker says in an interview, the act wasn’t a complete shock. Getty Images The US workplace produced another devastating act of worker violence on August 10, when Richard Russell stole a…