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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.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thoughtful post, Captain Wilko - well done. Not to sound like an apologist for management, but I'll be shocked if controlled cockpit rest is used to reduce overnight time - after Colgan and the more recent incidents, as well as the widespread publicity the whole issue has received, I frankly doubt the airlines would even be interested in trying it, and if they were, I doubt unions and legislators would go along with it. I suspect it's more a matter of US regulators catching up to what is already done in other countries, and legitimizing what is already taking place, unofficially, in many cockpits anyway. So long as crew members agree who is going to nap, when, and for how long, and ensure that the remaining crew member is capable of maintaining a safe standing watch on comms and instruments during that time, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the practice, as evidenced by the fact that it's approved by aviation authorities in many other countries. And while not a substitute by any means for adequate overnight rest, wouldn't it be fair to presume that a quick 20 or 30-minute power nap during cruise could help to provide a bit of recuperative time in advance of the higher-stress approach, landing, and taxi segments of flight?

2:29 PM  
Blogger Capt. Wilko said...

Anonymous,
You are right, a 20 or 30 minute nap taken under specific guidelines could freshen a pilot ahead of landing or a quick turn. I am not opposed to the idea of allowing such naps, I just don't think it constitutes a remedy to the current situation, which is abysmal (at least at the regional level). My hope is that true reform will be implemented regarding duty periods, rest and the environment in which rest is taken. While you may be right that most airlines would not take controlled naps as an opportunity to plan more frequent short overnights, there sadly are a few carriers out there who are just waiting for that chance. They are in the minority, of course, but we all share the same sky.
Thanks for stopping by!

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