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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Thursday, January 07, 2010

How soon we forget

Enough time must have passed since the crash of Colgan 3407 near Buffalo last winter.
It's been less than a year, but ample time, it appears for management at Colgan Air to take two steps back on the little progress they had made on the issue of fatigue.
The crash, which killed everyone on board the Bombardier Q400, stirred enough passion about pilot fatigue that even Congress became involved, passing legislation aimed among other things to curb fatigue.
Colgan management, however, seems to think the accident is behind them and feels it can now return to business as usual. In that spirit, the company is putting more stringent restrictions on when and how crew members can call in fatigued, a responsibility that is thrust into pilots' hands by the Federal Aviation Regulations.
From now on, Colgan pilots and flight attendants will not be allowed to call in fatigued if they have had 12 hours of rest and can no longer declare themselves unfit for future duty (i.e. calling tonight for tomorrow morning's flight). To make matters worst, those pilots who violate these new rules will now face disciplinary action.
In a recent article published in the Buffalo News, Dan Morgan, VP of safety and regulatory compliance for Colgan, said that "over the past two months, the instance of fatigue calls with no valid reason for fatigue have increased to the point where frivolous fatigue calls are now the majority."

Frankly, I find that hard to believe. There will always be in every profession a small group of people ready to abuse the rules out of sheer laziness. But to accuse the bulk of those who called in fatigued of lying is arrogant and in all likelihood a gross exaggeration.
It is also not management's role to determine what a "valid reason for fatigue" is. What they see on paper on a pilot's schedule does not necessarily reflect the actual level of fatigue one may experience.
The company might also be forgetting that a pilot who calls fatigued loses pay. So where's the incentive for already underpaid, struggling pilots?
Colgan's decision is outrageous, unsafe and simply another sign that the company aspires to nothing but scraping the bottom. I am talking here about management, not the pilot group, which counts among its members a great number of fine aviators.

I have written much about fatigue in previous posts, so I will not repeat myself.
Since then, however, I have had to call in fatigued once, my first such occurrence in my 3 years at this airline . It was a tough decision but one that was justified: I was just too tired to fly. At the same time, I felt less than pleased to leave the company one FO short and about losing pay. But everyone, from the scheduler who took my call to my chief pilot and the unions respected and never once questioned my decision. And that is how it should be.
As long as the FAA requires pilots to determine whether or not they are fit for duty, airlines should interfere only if blatant abuses of the rules occur.
Putting artificial numbers on what makes a fatigue call justified or not, such as Colgan's 12 hours of rest rule, is asinine. Just because a pilot's schedule shows 12 hours of rest does not mean that is what the pilot gets. Some hotels we stay in are less than quiet and personal issues can rob one of sleep even in such a long period of rest. Also, the nature of our schedules tends to interfere with our circadian rhythm, making it sometimes difficult to get meaningful rest during overnights.
It is not the company's determination and I hope the FAA sees this as an unacceptable affront to both crew members and passengers and a serious safety issue.
An airline should never intimidate its pilots into doing the wrong thing. This is what led to 3407's tragedy.
How soon we forget...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Indian Summer

The early morning sky is still dark and the air slightly brisk as we roll down runway 20L in Nashville. My captain and I are both worn out and bleary-eyed after a long day and much too short of an overnight.
Over the horizon, a thin sliver of red and gold spreads as we fly toward it on our way to Washington. We gain altitude rapidly in the morning air and within only moments the sun appears ahead of us, bright and comforting, to light up the whole sky.
It soon bathes the countryside below in its warm golden embrace and softly caresses my cheek like a familiar hand. Lost in the breathtaking beauty of the sunrise, I suddenly notice that the mountains have gone from green to bright red and orange. As far as the eye can see, the rolling hills of Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia appear to be ablaze.
In my side window, I catch a glimpse of my face smiling back at me. Those beautiful warm autumn days, those of the Indian summer, are upon us. And what better vantage point to admire their stunning beauty than my trusty jet-powered steed. I am truly one of the fortunate ones.

This is my very favorite time of year, pleasing to every sense. There are of course the stunning vistas of autumn, endless aerial palettes of hundreds of gradations of greens, yellows, oranges and reds, neighborhoods dotted with explosions of warm colors, placid lakes that seem to be on fire as their gentle waters mirror the magic surrounding them.
All these shades bring to mind the comforting foods of fall, the apples and squash, the warm pies and roasts that are so welcomed on those cooler days.
Autumn also carries in its gentle breeze the comforting smells that transport me back to my childhood. The distinct sweet scent of maple leaves remind me of Forli, the small town in northern Italy where my grandmother lives. I remember cycling through its streets with my mother and brothers amid a sea of dried leaves. The familiar aroma of fires brings back cherished memories of school days in Europe and weekends spent helping my parents in the back yard or playing with my brothers and friends.
To some the season is gloomy, spelling the end of summer and especially in the Northeast the beginning of the short, dark and frigid days of winter. A symbol of death.

But as I watched my son play in the leaves after a walk in the woods a few days ago, his curious eyes completely mesmerized by the unique beauty of each leaf he brought to me, I couldn't think of it as anything but a stunning season of renewal.
A few days after that crisp morning flight, we returned to Nashville. As we crossed into West Virginia, the red mountain tops were covered in a dusting of snow. It was early in the morning and I knew that once the rising sun had a chance to warm the hilltops, the white coat would retreat and allow the brilliant colors below to resplend. It did. On our way back to Washington a few hours later, the ground below us was once again an endless field of fiery colors.

The days of the Indian Summer are short-lived. And like every year they fill me with the urge to enjoy each day to its fullest, to cherish every warm second before winter rolls its cold blanket on us.
Warm moments. Just like that beautiful autumn walk with Ollie...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another Band-Aid

Once again, fatigue rears its ugly head.
First, a Delta 767 mistakingly landed on a taxiway in Atlanta in the wee hours of the morning at the conclusion of a red eye flight from Brazil. Soon after, a Northwest Airlines (essentially Delta, now) overshot its destination by 150 miles. The Northwest crew told authorities they were distracted while arguing over airline policy but the National Transportation Safety Board is looking into whether or not the pilots might have fallen asleep at the controls.
Without attempting to draw conclusions on the Northwest incident, it would not be the first time an airliner missed its destination because the pilots were asleep. A simple Google search will bring up several such examples in recent years. It is very likely, also, that Delta's error was due to fatigue.
Both events were very timely, as the Federal Aviation Administration is now reportedly pushing to allow airline pilots to take controlled naps in the cockpit to curb the issue of fatigue, according to the Wall Street Journal. The article, which ran last week, noted that unions support this move, something that is unfathomable to me. Sleeping in the cockpit will simply not provide pilots meaningful rest and, most likely, will serve only to give airline management yet another tool the build impossibly long, inefficient and exhausting schedules. Whatever rest they will allow during a flight, they will take away from overnights and no doubt the Airline Transport Association and the Regional Airline Association are salivating over this possibility.
Once more, Washington is trying to slap a Band-Aid on what is a deep systemic problem that needs to be addressed seriously and reformed in a meaningful way. The Air Line Pilots Association lauded the recent passage of H.R. 3371, a bill calling among other things for higher entry requirements to the airlines and changes in duty and rest times, as "momentous."
The bill, a result of the crash of Colgan 3407 in February, may be a good first step as far as addressing qualifications but I could not find in its text anything concrete regarding what changes are proposed to curb pilot fatigue.
Instead, in my understanding, the bill gives the FAA 180 days to submit proposed rule changes, which are to be enacted no later than one year after the passage of the bill. In the context of this rulemaking, Congress is mandating the FAA to look into matters ranging from the number of take-offs and landing a day, number of time zones to be crossed to rest requirement and rest environment.
As an ALPA member, I would like to share my union's enthusiasm for the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act but am also dispirited to hear of such idiotic initiatives as controlled naps, which sadly might just pass.
What truly needs to be done goes far beyond. Minimum rest should be raised to a firm 10 hours (i.e. a number the airlines can"t reduce), the legal duty day should be shortened from 16 to 14 hours (especially when the FAA limits a dispatcher's duty day to 10 hours) and airlines should be mandated to provide their pilots with two paid fatigue calls a year (any additional fatigue calls could remain unpaid).
Under the current system, it is said that we do not get disciplined or penalized for calling in fatigued, which is untrue. A first officer earning $20,000 a year cannot part with any amount of his pay and like it or not this is a serious deterrent to declaring oneself fatigued. I have also heard from colleagues who were told by crew scheduling when you can and cannot fatigue. For instance, a friend who has a very young baby at home was recently up all night with his child the day before a trip. Utterly drained, he called in fatigue only to be told that "you cannot fatigue from home."
We, the pilots, take fatigue seriously. Management simply does not. Their lobbies in Washington do not.
Like many others, I had hoped that Colgan 3407 would be a wake-up call for an industry that has hardly reformed itself in the past half-century. With every passing year benefits erode, schedules worsen and the relations between pilots and management grow increasingly bitter. As a result, many experienced colleagues have left the industry, never to come back, and fewer might be interested in joining our ranks, which will make it very hard to attract applicants with an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, as Congress now wants to mandate.
For a short while, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger, captured the imagination of the general public and showed that airline pilots carry a tremendous amount of responsibility every time they step into that cockpit. He also showed what pilots can do when pitted against very unfavorable odds. What most of his non-pilot admirers do not know is that Sully lost his retirement and seniority when the overall more junior America West bought U.S. Airways and that after decades in the business he was tossed around by management like a rag doll.
I had wished for the death of those Colgan crewmembers and passengers to mean something and bring about badly-needed change to make our profession safer and fairer. But initiatives such as controlled naps only dash those hopes and make me worry that as long as the airlines and their lobbies are allowed to wield their influence inside the halls of Congress, the true scope of change will be very limited.
Perhaps the time for re-regulation has come.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A great loss

The day began with the news that Ted Kennedy had died.
While not completely unexpected in light of his health condition, the news saddened me. My wife actually came home from work this morning with tears in her eyes.
We both held Kennedy in the highest regard, even if he has been the subject of so much polemic. Any objective observer could agree that he had what very few on Capitol Hill have: an utterly sincere drive to protect and advocate for the people of this country, the every day men and women as opposed to the corporations and interest groups.
Many vignettes illustrating that came out today. There was the lady who called his office to complain about the deteriorating quality of her mail delivery service. A week later, as if by magic, the problem was resolved. Or the group of Massachusetts servicemen on their way home from Iraq. The government flew them to their base in Indiana and provided them with bus tickets home and the agony of an 18-hour ride in order to save money. Some hero's welcome. Kennedy intervened and, rightfully, the men were flown home to Devens Air Force Base.
But more importantly to the country there was his unrelenting fight for fairness in the realm of social issues. A member of the powerful and wealthy Kennedy dynasty, his interests may have laid elsewhere than in universal healthcare, quality education for all and civil rights. Like so many others who were blessed with money and social status, he could have basked in the glory of his brothers and enjoyed a comfortable, unproductive life. Instead he devoted 47 years to the people of this country, almost five decades spent fighting for what he believed was right and just. What personal interest did he have in universal healthcare other than knowing that a responsible government should take care of its citizens? How would he benefit from children receiving proper education or an increase in minimum wage?
Sadly, many people I've spoken to only remember him for what happened in Chappaquiddick many years ago and his affection for the bottle. There was so much more to Ted Kennedy than that. I always regarded him as a good man filled with empathy for others and a strong desire to give back for the fortunes that he was blessed with. As many of his former opponents have noted, Kennedy was able to reach across party lines and was close friends with some of the highest-ranking Republicans. He had a knack for pushing his issue as far as he could and compromise just enough to get an acceptable bill out.
Unlike so many others, he boasted a political spine. Kennedy was his own man. Back in October of 2002, for instance, he voted against Resolution 114, which granted President George W. Bush war powers against Iraq. He was one of only 23 to vote against it. Hilary Clinton and John Kerry, who would later on campaign against the war, sadly did not, for political safety.
I had the pleasure to meet him several times in my previous career and like Clinton and only a handful of others in Washington, he came across as genuine.

While National Public Radio ran a day-long tribute to Kennedy, interviewing many Republican leaders such as Sen. Orrin Hatch who spoke emotionally about the good friend and colleague they had lost, Fox News went on something of a rampage.
Out of what could perhaps be better described as morbid curiosity, I flicked my TV to Fox News to see how they were covering the story. On came O'Reilly, speaking with a blonde contributor whose name escapes me.
You would expect even Fox to show a level of decorum following the death of such a prominent figure. But no. Asked about whether he had done anything positive, the contributor replied "Well, he did push through quite a few liberal ideas, some of them successfully," emphasis on "liberal." Fighting for disabled Americans and children could hardly be construed as liberalism. Empathy, perhaps. And those "liberal" ideas today protect even disabled Republicans and the children of uninsured conservatives. We all know Kennedy was the most liberal member of Congress, but coming out of Fox News, the word has an insulting connotation.
She later went on to question his true political legacy and to brand him as uncompromising, which according to even the higher ranks of the Republican congressional leadership is blatantly wrong.
Have we reached a point in television "news" (note the quotemarks) where it is acceptable to, pardon the expression, piss on someone's grave in this way?
I wonder how O'Reilly, Hannity and the rest of the Fox team would react to a commentator on the day of Dick Cheney's death calling the former vice president a liar, a manipulator and a self-agrandiser. Wait... that is actually factually correct...
No matter what side of the aisle you stand on, I believe Kennedy should be celebrated as the driving force of many good initiatives, a major figure in American history and the final chapter in a line of extraordinary leaders and the closest thing this country has had to a royal family.
He was also a flawed man who himself admitted in the early 1990s that he had led a questionable personal life and that those issues were his to confront.
However, I do not believe one can achieve greatness without first being flawed. Kennedy certainly overcame those shortcomings and this country has lost a truly great man.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The new reality?

LAX parking lot is home away from home for airline workers

Buffeted by their industry's turbulence, airline employees save money by living part time in a motor home colony at LAX.
By Dan Weikel

July 20, 2009

For about 15 days a month, Alaska Airlines pilot Jim Lancaster lives in a motor home in Parking Lot B near the southernmost runway at Los Angeles International Airport.

Every four minutes, a jetliner or turboprop roars in -- 500 feet above his front door -- for a landing. The noise is so loud it forces Lancaster to pause during conversations. But he doesn't mind. Lancaster puts up with the smell of jet fuel and screaming engines to save time and money.

The 60-year-old aviator's primary residence is a cottage he shares with his wife overlooking a quiet bay off Puget Sound in Washington state. Living in Lot B while he's on duty means he doesn't have to rent a Los Angeles apartment with other pilots or spend 12 hours a day commuting to and from the Seattle area.

"As kids we used to ask our parents to take us to the airport to see the planes," Lancaster quipped. "Now I get to live at the airport."

He isn't the only one. Lancaster's 2001 Tradewinds sits among 100 trailers and motor homes that form a colony of pilots, mechanics and other airline workers at LAX, the third-busiest airport in the nation. They are citizens of one of the most unusual communities in the United States.

Their turf, just east of the Proud Bird restaurant off Aviation Boulevard, is less than 3,500 feet from the south runway. It is a drab expanse of crumbling gray asphalt, approach lights, chain-link fencing and rows of beige and white RVs -- some battered, others grand. A splash of color comes from the red and white blooms of about a dozen rose bushes along the colony's northern edge.

Many of the residents are separated from spouses, children and significant others for days -- even weeks -- at a time in order to keep their jobs or move up the pyramid of the airline industry.

"This is the cost of being a pilot today," said Todd Swenson, 40, a first officer with Alaska Airlines. His wife, Amanda, and 2-year-old son, Noah, live in Fresno, a six-hour commute by car. "I've wanted to be a pilot all my life. It can be awful here. But I have to provide for my family, and I love flying airplanes."

Swenson, who earns about $70,000 a year, lives across from Lancaster in a 1973 Coachman trailer that belonged to his father. If Lancaster's 38-foot rig with leather furniture is Park Place, Swenson's is Mediterranean Avenue. The 23-foot metal box is as cramped as economy class, with just enough space for a double bed, a television and a La-Z-Boy recliner. There is a galley kitchen and a bathroom about the size of an airliner lavatory.

The trailer's windows are blacked out with foil and brown paper bags so Swenson can sleep during the day. To muffle the constant din of aircraft, he bought a white-noise machine -- a small tape player with a recording that sounds like a washing machine. Swenson works out at a nearby 24-Hour Fitness, where he showers to conserve his trailer's limited water supply.

Inside the Coachman, the wood paneling and storage cabinets are covered with photos of Amanda and Noah, whom Swenson returns to about 11 days a month. He keeps in touch via a computer webcam.

"When my tires leave the driveway of my house in Fresno," Swenson said, "the only thing I can think about is getting back to my family."

For several years, clusters of RVs were scattered around the airport's parking lots until LAX officials decided to consolidate them in Lot B. Now operating as an organized camp overseen by the airport, it has an unofficial mayor, a code of conduct and residency requirements, including background checks, regular vehicle inspections and proof of employment at an air carrier.

"There might be a few other places like this nationally, but I think this is rather unique," said Michael Biagi, who heads the land-use division at Los Angeles World Airports.

Today, the colony has more than 100 residents -- mostly men -- from around the country, including captains, first officers, mechanics, flight attendants, support staff and employees of air cargo companies. There are at least two married couples, who work as flight attendants. About 10 people are on a waiting list.

Lot B's attractiveness is partly the result of the decade-long decline in air travel brought about by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the outbreak of SARS -- severe acute respiratory syndrome -- in 2003 and the deepest recession since World War II.

Salaries for pilots, mechanics and other airline workers have plummeted. Captains like Lancaster have been demoted to first officer, losing hard-earned seniority and forcing them out of plum assignments at airports close to home. Lancaster, who came to LAX from Seattle about 18 months ago, estimates that his reduction in rank cost him about $30,000 a year, roughly 20% of his pay.

Rather than quit their jobs or uproot their families for what could be a temporary stint in Los Angeles, workers have settled in Lot B, where the rent is only $60 a month.

"They'd probably be out of a job otherwise," said Doug Rogers, a 62-year-old United Airlines mechanic from Utah, who is the colony's acting mayor. "You can't maintain a household elsewhere and afford a home here in this economic climate. The airline industry is fragile right now. You just don't know what is going to happen."

Rogers has lived at LAX for about seven years in a 26-foot camper built on a Ford truck chassis. He and his wife own a house in Stansbury Park, a semi-rural community of 2,500 just north of Salt Lake City.

Rogers' living situation is the product of years of financial difficulties at United, which has gone in and out of bankruptcy proceedings. He lost his assignment at Salt Lake City International Airport, where United closed its maintenance facility a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A $5 pay cut to $30 an hour, along with the airline's still tenuous future, led to his decision to keep his Stansbury Park house and rent a spot in Lot B, he said. He now works four 10-hour days a week and gets at least three days off to go back to Utah.

There's another advantage to not commuting -- whether by plane or car -- when on duty: Pilots and mechanics can get more rest, mitigating a problem that has plagued airline workers for decades.

An ongoing federal investigation indicates that fatigue could have been a factor in the crash of a Colgan Air turboprop that killed 50 people in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12. The pilot was commuting from Tampa, Fla., to Colgan's base in New Jersey. The copilot had regularly traveled from Seattle.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 93 of Colgan's 137 New Jersey-based pilots considered themselves commuters, including 49 who traveled more than 400 miles and 29 who lived more than 1,000 miles away.

If not for Lot B or other temporary quarters, the residents would be commuting from Anchorage, Seattle, Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis and Hawaii. Others live in California, but hundreds of miles from LAX.

Rogers said life in the colony has been uneventful except for a period in 2005 when scores of non-airline workers moved in from a camping area at nearby Dockweiler State Beach, which was undergoing renovation. At the time, the airport did not screen potential residents.

The new arrivals brought in lawn gnomes, garden furniture and barbecues, which created a party atmosphere and the potential for public disturbances on airport property. A few dumped garbage and human waste on the pavement. Two prostitutes moved in as well, including one in her late 60s with a taste for tight skirts and silver high heels, residents say.

Responding to complaints from parking lot tenants and patrons, airport police swept into the eastern area of Lot B, where the RVs are located. They removed the prostitutes and towed about a dozen motor homes and campers with expired registrations. Officials stopped short of closing the site by establishing strict qualifications for residency and prohibiting lawn furniture, outdoor barbecues and parties.

"We try to keep a real low profile," said Steve Young, 52, a United Airlines mechanic whose family lives in Twentynine Palms.

"We consider living here a privilege."

Since the expulsion of the outsiders, Lot B has been quiet. Most people pass their free time reading, watching movies, shopping for supplies or servicing their RVs. Occasionally, there are bike rides to Dockweiler, about four miles away, or visits to the El Segundo Air Force base hosted by Lancaster, a retired lieutenant colonel.

Because tenants' work schedules vary widely, social gatherings are small and infrequent. It is typical for a few people to organize an impromptu happy hour in one of the larger rigs, such as Lancaster's coach, which is known as the Chateau. It has satellite TV, plush carpeting and walnut-stained cabinetry.

Lancaster's wife, a teacher in Seattle, likes the Chateau as well and occasionally flies down on Friday nights to explore Los Angeles over the weekend. "It's great fun and adventurous," Marlene Lancaster said.

But other tenants, like Rogers, can't wait for their days off to escape their cramped RVs, the din of aircraft and the tedium of Lot B.

"When I go home," Rogers said, "people sometimes ask me if I'd like to go camping. I tell them no. I already do that."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Regional Truth - Part 2

This post was going to touch on the way regional airline pilots are treated and my company stepped right in to provide me with the perfect story on this past trip. We had a wheels up time to New York because of weather. After an hour-and-a-half on the ramp, we returned to the gate to refuel and let passengers who were going to miss connections go. Two hours behind schedule, we took off and headed for JFK, where we would then work a flight back to Boston for the overnight. In range, however, we realized our flight had been given to another crew that departed a mere 15 minutes before we reached the gate, something of a common tactic from crew scheduling as of late to avoid cancelations that would mandate them to give us a hotel room even in base.
So we were now stuck in New York. Because it is our base, eventhough no one in my crew lives there, the company will not provide a hotel. We still called scheduling to see whether they could put us up because we had a 13-hour day the following day. The answer was an unequivocal and resounding no. I told the scheduler that my captain and I refused to sleep in the crew room, or the terminal in this case since six pilots had already claimed the filthy glycol-stained sofas as their own, and were heading to Boston to look for a bed to sleep in, like normal people.
The scheduler put me on hold and returned a second later with a threat. If we missed our deadhead the next morning they would slap us with a missed assignment and a note to that effect was now on my file. They could have simply deadheaded us from Boston in the morning instead, which would have given us a few more hours of sleep, but obviously this particular scheduler chose the war path instead.
Undeterred, we got on a flight to Boston. We figured out what crews had made it to their overnight, and more importantly which hadn't and managed to score a couple of rooms for the night. At 2 a.m., I got into my room, completely wiped out, only to get up again at 6 a.m. to return to the airport and fight my way back to JFK.
Playing around wording in our contract, making threats and being generally uncooperative is sadly what we are faced with every day we have to talk to crew scheduling. Of course, some schedulers are very nice and will go the extra mile to help but they are few and far between.
I am fully aware of economic considerations the airlines face, especially these days, but how can a company refuse to put up its crewmembers in a hotel on the eve of a 13-hour day? The scheduler I talked to simply told me to get a crashpad, a bed in a house or apartment full of commuting pilots. As a lineholder, however, I should not have to shell out the extra $250/month for a bed I might only use once or twice a year. In any case, on my First Officer pay, a crashpad or a hotel room in New York are luxuries I simply cannot afford.
In the wake of Colgan's crash, airlines have to wake up to the fact that they too have a responsibility in keeping their crews well-rested. These scheduling games aimed at circumventing contractual agreements have to stop. Some I've shared this story with have suggested I should have simply gone home and called in fatigued the next day, as a retaliatory move. While it might have created a scheduling hiccup, I would have lost two days of pay, something I just cannot afford either.
The mood at my airline, and I suspect at many others recently, has been been very dark lately. It is as though we are in a constant tug or war with the company, a game it is obvious we will never win.
The problem at the regional airlines today isn't experience. The fact that we have 200-hour wonders flying around the system is something that can be dealt with easily by pairing these pilots with experienced captains. After all, major airlines have in the past used so-called ab initio programs to train pilots.
The true issue is how airlines treat their pilots, flight attendants, gate agents and ramp personel. All of us work hard, go the extra mile to help passengers and run a safe ship but all we get in return is disrespect.
It is time for the press to leave behind this issue of lack of experience and focus on this: your crew is tired, underpaid, overworked and pissed off.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Regional Truth - Part 1

Alan Levin wrote a story for USA Today earlier this week underlining the fact that Marvin Renslow, the captain of Colgan 3407 that crashed in February outside Buffalo, NY, had failed several checkrides in his time at the airline.
The article, copied below, was published weeks after the NTSB released copious amounts of documents during their hearings on the ill-fated Colgan flight, including training records, technical data recovered from the aicraft's data recorder and transcripts of the pilots' conversation during the flight.

Pilots in crashes had failed multiple tests
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
In nearly every serious regional airline accident during the past 10 years, at least one of the pilots had failed tests of his or her skills multiple times, according to an analysis of federal accident records.
In eight of the nine accidents during that time, which killed 137 people, pilots had a history of failing two or more "check rides," tests by federal or airline inspectors of pilots' ability to fly and respond to emergencies. In the lone case in which pilots didn't have multiple failures since becoming licensed, the co-pilot was fired after the non-fatal crash for falsifying his job application.
Pilots on major airlines and large cargo haulers had failed the tests more than once in only one of the 10 serious accidents in this country over the past 10 years, according to a USA TODAY review of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports.
At a time when fatal aviation accidents have become increasingly rare, regional carriers have had four since 2004, compared with one by a major airline. Regional airlines fly roughly half of all airline flights, carrying about 20% of passengers.
Pilot qualifications on regional carriers was at the center of an NTSB hearing last month into the February crash of a turboprop near Buffalo that killed 50 people. The pilot at the controls when the plane plunged had failed five checks, according to records revealed at the hearing.
Three of the accidents in which pilots had repeatedly failed tests involved a single airline conglomerate, Pinnacle Airlines. The crash near Buffalo was on Colgan Air, which is owned by Pinnacle. The captain on a Pinnacle jet that crashed in 2004 after accidentally killing both engines had failed seven checks.
Pinnacle spokesman Joe Williams said the airline was not aware of all the test failures.
"I'd say this is a symptom of a larger problem in selection and certification" of pilots, said Bill Voss, president of the independent Flight Safety Foundation. A shortage of pilots this decade, prompted in part by the lower numbers of former military pilots seeking airline jobs, prompted lower minimum qualifications, Voss said.
Failing a single check during a career means little, but failing multiple times "really sends up the red flags," said Patrick Veillette, a corporate jet pilot who has written extensively on safety issues.
Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen defended the industry's safety practices. "All of our members are flying under the exact same standards as the mainline carriers," Cohen said.
The NTSB has voiced concern about a loophole in a law requiring airlines to check pilots' records when hiring. The 1996 Pilot Records Improvement Act orders airlines to check pilot records from previous employers, but that does not cover failures that occurred while a pilot was in flight school.
Airline pilots receive dozens of written and flying tests during a career.

The following day, a cartoon depicted a pilot in the right seat of an airliner holding a newspaper with the headline "Some pilots fail multiple tests yet still fly." He is talking to a cat sitting in the captain's seat and says "OK, as long as you're cleared to fly."
As a former journalist, I didn't find the article to be particularly fair, not even really warranted, but since I am now a regional airline pilot I realize that I am biased.
The cartoon, however, was completely out of place and insulted an entire profession.
A little context about the regional airlines is in order.

Failing checkrides is not unusual and can happen because of many factors other than incompetence or inexperience. Consider the fact that many pilots travel long distances to reach their training departments and checkrides are administered around the clock, day and night. My last one, for instance, took place from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and while I passed, the late hour did make it more challenging than previous proficiency checks.
Besides that, personal conflict with check airmen (some are very frustrated to be stuck in the sim), problems at home or a simple "bad day" can affect the outcome of a checkride even for the best of pilots.
In some cases, airlines simply do not prepare their pilots well enough.
Levin notes that of the last 10 major carrier crashes only one crewmember had several pink slips on his records. Clearly, this means that a perfect record does not ensure immunity from a crash. Measuring a pilot's ability by his performance on checkrides is therefore a flawed metric. I know of guys who have pink slipped rides but are top-notch captains. Others, who have a clean record, have no place being at the helm of an airliner.
So how can we evaluate airline pilots?

The media seems to be hinting to the fact that regional pilots are inexperienced and probably unsafe. You'd therefore be much better off with a mainline crew.
That is absurd.
The captains I fly with have decades of experience in the cockpit. Many spent thousands of hours flight instructing and/or hauling cargo in rickety equipment and treacherous weather before coming to the airline. While I am low-time compared to them, I had about 1,000 hours as a flight instructor before joining the company. In that invaluable phase of my career I experienced icing, thunderstorms, engine failure and other mechanical issues that all prepared me for my current job.
A year after I was hired, regionals began lowering minimums dramatically. Before hiring halted in the spring of last year, a pilot with nothing but a multi-engine commercial license could find himself in the right seat at a regional.
These 200-hour wonders, as some call them, were right out of flight training. They had minimal Pilot In Command time in their logbooks, just enough to satisfy the FAA's requirement for a Commercial certificate, no instructor certificates, no professional experience flying airplanes. They most likely had to make very few decisions in their flying careers prior to the airlines, instead leaving those up to the instructor in the right seat.
Some see these green pilots as dangerous. But they forget that several times in the course of this business's history, pilots have gone through so-called ab initio programs: zero time to airline pilot. Some of them are now very experienced captains flying the heavy metal at some of the country's most respected airlines. This also happens to have been the way things worked in Europe and Asia, where 200-hour wonders were thrown not in the right seat of a turboprop or regional jet but an Airbus or a 747.
Many of the senior captains I've flown with have said the same thing: the 200-hour wonders were great at pushing buttons, some even flew very well. The common thread, however, was a lack of judgement.
And that, sadly, can't be taught at the training academy. It is something one develops over time, something garnered over many hours of flying and different types of flying.
Because they bypassed the generally accepted route to the airlines, they just need a little more help than those who came from instructing or freight. In the right circumstances, they aren't dangerous. They are just captains in training.
This is where the experience issue comes in. Levin paints the regional airline industry with a very wide brush, branding all of us inexperienced. That is plainly false.
Experience levels vary widely from company to company and because of stagnant seniority lists, some regionals, like Piedmont, American Eagle and Comair, have very experienced captains who, in many cases, are very good at priming their first officers for the left seat. These also happen to be the airlines with the "best" (or least worst) contracts. There are also plenty of unscrupulous companies out there, Mesa and Gulfstream to name but two, that attracted only the most inexperiencedy because they offered abysmal pay and horrible quality of life.
So the issue now becomes what airlines are offering. Journalists and passengers can clamor all they want about how inexperienced regional pilots are, but as long as those airlines pay rock-bottom wages, treat their employees like dirt and offer little to no advancement at all, only the very young and green will line up for work.

More about this in Part 2.