Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Wrong Stuff

Tuesday's NTSB hearing on the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 is getting a lot of coverage and for a balanced technical assessment, I recommend you read a post by Sam. Sam is currently an RJ captain for a regional airline and a former Dash 8 first officer. I've never flown for a regional passenger airline and I have no flight time in the Dash 8, but I did a stint flying cargo under part 135. I have some experience with the duty time regulations, the economic stress that regional pilots face, and the effect this has on a pilot's performance. My conclusion is that pilots, the airlines, the government, and the flying public are all complicit in the current state of affairs at the regional airlines. I'll warn you in advance that I'm going to say things that you might find controversial, so suck it up! This is the blogosphere and we don't always have to walk lockstep or hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

Pilots who attempt to earn a living flying are addicts, myself included. Okay, maybe our obsession with flying is more a psychological dependency than addiction, but consider the parallels. No matter how bad the working conditions, how low the pay, how miserable the management, how poorly maintained the aircraft, how isolated the lifestyle, pilots will do almost anything for the opportunity to fly. For some of us, the rush starts once the cabin door is closed. For others, it's when the engines start. Even if you are a jaded veteran with thousands of hours, you're not immune to the feeling of the wheels leaving the runway. Once airborne, the troubles fade away and for those many minutes or hours, you're flying again.

Perhaps flying hooks up our brains with a supply of dopamine, but whatever the mechanism it sure drives pilots to make some kooky choices. These talented, intelligent, and highly-skilled professionals seem to blithely accept low pay, early mornings, late nights, long duty days, bad weather, working on holidays, isolation from family and friends, and even AIDS - Aviation-Induced Divorce Syndrome. It's obvious that denial (or at least compartmentalization) is a crucial skill for professional pilots. It's no secret that many pilots will practically fly for free and, in the process, subsidize their airline's operation. And their employers know it.

Management at regional airlines are trying make a profit in a business with lot of variable costs (like fuel) and uncertainties (like weather delays). Where better to start than by keeping wages low? Low wages were the primary reason I quit flying freight. Sure there were the stresses and risks with single-pilot operations, having to fly through bad weather rather than fly on top of it, and the long hours. Then I came to realize that I could earn at least twice as much as a freelance flight instructor than I could as a part 135 pilot, even if I hung on and racked up several years of seniority. And yet I still miss it! You see, pilots love what they do so much that they have a really hard time being objective about what might be wrong in their work environment.

The pilots who fly for regional airlines, especially the low-seniority first officers, are under some serious stress. Stress is a huge risk factor in aviation safety because it narrows the perceptual field and reduces a pilot's ability to perform. Fatigue, which often goes hand-in-hand with stress, increases reaction time and impairs decision making. I've read how the young woman first officer on Colgan Flight 3407 earned so little that she lived with her parents, sometimes held a second job, and commuted across the country to her flying job. She often slept on the crew lounge sofa, I'm assuming because she couldn't afford or didn't want a hotel room. Part of the legendary mystique of being a professional pilot is paying your dues, though once you've slept on a crew couch a few times the allure wears off pretty quickly.

Pilot's are generally goal-oriented and have a predisposition to a perform no matter what. If you call in sick or fatigued, it seems there's always another motivated pilot (addict) just waiting to take your place, maybe even your job. Yet the replacement pilot might be just as fatigued and stressed as you. How much stress and fatigue you're willing to endure depends on your age, your goals in life, and how badly you need your flying fix. Airline management knows all of this and they use it to their advantage.

As convenient as it would be to lay all of the responsibility at the feet of the regional airline management, let's not forget the role of the flying public. People want, no they expect to be able to fly to most any part of the country as cheaply as possible. They don't want to be troubled with knowledge of how the aviation sausage is made, they just want a low price. People will pay $35 to get a package shipped overnight all the while complaining mightily about the airfare involved in shipping their own carcass across the country in air conditioned, pressurized comfort. And many passengers seem to still believe that pilots work just a few days a week, earn upwards of $100,000 a year, and live a country club lifestyle. The fact is that most regional pilots are living hand-to-mouth and don't even get a cost-of-living adjustment for expensive pilot bases like Boston or San Francisco. Low airfares certainly don't help their cause. Greater public awareness of the poor wages earned by regional pilots and cabin crews could be one of the few good things to come from this accident.

The federal government's role is their continued failure to adequately address the twin safety issues of stress and fatigue. Well not all of the government: The NTSB has been pushing for years for an overhaul of the federal duty time regulations for flight and cabin crew members while the FAA and the airline industry have fiercely resisted change. As it stands, flight crews can be on duty for 16 hours or more each day and the 8 hours of rest they must get every 24 hours often does not take into account the time it takes to get to the hotel, eat, and take care of personal affairs. Consider the research conducted at Boston's Harvard Medical School which showed that being awake for 24 hours was equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.10% . Getting 5 hours of sleep per night for a week had the same effect. The press has a field day when crew members are found to be drunk on the job, as well they should. By and large, fatigue seems to be tacitly ignored.

Given their work environment, it's hard to expect pilots to be objective about the stress and fatigue they face. Airlines are trying to make a profit in a very difficult business with strong price pressure, so when it comes to fatigue they probably don't ask and pilots probably won't tell. The government has dropped the ball with regard to ensuring reasonable duty limits and reasonable rest time. The press may have found a convenient scapegoat in the form of the flight's low-time captain and the allegedly incomplete simulator training he received. Sure it's difficult to identify all the causal factors that led to a fiery crash on that snowy night, but low wages, stress and fatigue must be examined as contributing factors to this accident and the crew's ineffective performance. Or we could just continue to deny there's a problem ...


John said...

Excellent post. One thing I would like to mention is that I don't believe the government necessarily "dropped the ball". IMO the government should have nothing to do with it.

Airline management hires pilots that are willing to fly on their terms. Whether it be long hours, low pay, or whatever. If pilots don't like that, they can quit. It is in the Airlines best interests to keep their pilots well rested and free of stress. Because if they don't, safe flight goes right out the window and soon no one will fly that airline again.

Again, just my opinion and attempt to spark discussion. :-)

John Ewing said...


The problem with the hands-off, market approach to safety that I think you are proposing is this that it actually reduces safety. The idea regulation is always BAD and the market is always GOOD may be appealing, but it is a sweeping oversimplification. Simple answers are attractive, but life is complicated.

Airlines don't want crashes anymore than our financial institutions wanted an economic melt-down, but the desire to maintain or increase profitability can lead organizations to lose objectivity and make questionable decisions.

I don't know what the conclusions will be with regard to the Colgan Air accident, but it's safe to say that any area of commerce that operates without regulation and oversight will result in corners being cut, and steps being skipped. Sooner or later, undesired or unexpected consequences will result.

scott s. said...

What you seem to be saying is that pilots need to be protected from themselves. It we implement corrections (public wants higher costs, government more regulation) we might get less-stressed, happier pilots, but would probably only need about half as many. The rest would have to "medicate" themselves with flight sim.

Sean O. said...

Actually, in a true market economy, John's scenario would play out exactly as he writes it. Airlines would be viewed by the public based on their safety records and those cutting corners would soon find themselves flying empty airplanes.

Unfortunately we in the USA do not enjoy an overly pure market economy. The way we would run a free market in this country would go something like this: If an airline suffered a loss and subsequently lost market share, the airline along with the unions would go to its congressmen and senators and plead for some sort of government intervention to assist the airline through such unforeseen hard times and to prevent "predatory" airlines from encroaching their routes. The market would not be allowed to work.

Its not that regulation is necessary or even good, its that democracy and the free market have difficulty coexisting.

John Ewing said...

Oh boy, here we go.

Scott S.,

Your hyperbolic argument style is entertaining, but your re-framing of my argument is inaccurate. What I'm saying that the flying public needs to be protected from a culture at regional airlines that encourages dangerous work practices and fatigue. One way to address this would be to change the duty time and rest requirement regulations for flight crews, something the NTSB (that hotbed of radical thinking) has been advocating for some time.

Sean O.,

Ah, the vaulted, mythical free market. I agree with you that we don't have one anymore than we have a true democracy, but many find the concepts comforting. After all, you have to have something on which to hang your hat.

Now I could have sworn I was talking about aviation safety and managing risks, like fatigue ...

Dave Starr said...

This idea that the US flying public would make their flying choices based on safety is somewhat ludicrous to me ... how many airline passengers today do you think can enunciate the safety record on the airline they just bought a ticket on in even rudimentary terms ... and what guarantee do they have that they will even fly on the airline they think they will?

Anyway back to something close to what I surmised John's point to be ... the airline industry is unique in that we have a federal agency who has the stated purpose of both regulating and _promoting_ the airlines. This is incongruous at best and downright unworkable in practical terms.

Take a look at a related industry ... road transport. No passenger bus driver or freight truck operator is allowed anything like the working hours and lax record-keeping that are the norm for commercial pilots. To drive a truck in commercial service, for examine, you have to carry a written record, available for federal or state inspection at any time, and you can not even begin to approach the time on duty and hours of wakefulness routinely required of even Part 121 aircrews.

Do we really care so much for the 'free market' concept that we don't even want to afford aircews the same chance at life as truck drivers?

Perhaps one answer would be a sleeper berth accessible to the cockpit and direct application of the FMCSA Hours of Service rules. Sounds dumb but it would be a significant safety improvement over the mess we allow today ... and last I heard the trucking industry was a bastion of 'free enterprise'.

It's interesting to note that when John was employed by a major international freight carrier the hours he was allowed by government regulation as a pilot would have been impossible had he chosen to switch roles and drive a truck for the same parent company. Strange values in my opinion.

Martin P said...

Hmmm. If I may pour oil on this particular fire (as a fan of free markets generally) I think markets work well when the participants act rationally and the costs/incentives are correct. It's not obvious to me that there's going to be a real "cost" here - not one appropriate for creating a culture that killed 50 people - so there's a real problem.

Since the world operates somewhere on the continuum between completely free markets and utterly micromanaging regulation, the solution is going to be somewhere in between. I personally favor something closer to the free end of the scale - put strong regulatory incentives in place and give the airlines latitude to solve the problems their way.

Moving back vaguely in the direction of one of John's original points, this is why I fly for fun rather than for a living. With my current, decent, tech job I could probably buy and run a decent Extra 300 and still walk away with more at the end of the year than the Colgan captain. Of course, if I bought an Extra 300 my wife would kill me and we're back to "costs" and "incentives" again...

John Ewing said...


A cogent and thoughtful comment, as always.

Martin P.,

Concepts like a free market are great, but we live in an imperfect world. Businesses do stupid things that endanger themselves and others. Regulators do stupid things and may create rules that end up not addressing the problem.

We live in an imperfect world and while the laissez-faire approach allows some to sit back and say "not my problem," lets not forget all those who lost a loved one that night in Buffalo on what should have been, near as I can tell, a relatively routine flight.

Anonymous said...

It's been a few months since Colgan, and I've finally been able to read this discussion. So far, Colgan's lessons have gone largely ignored or forgotten. Vacation fares are at historic lows to counterbalance the ailing economy. If the FAA is going to do something about Colgan's legacy, I haven't heard of it.

Meanwhile, our attention is now focused on aircraft systems failures on Airbuses.