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 ...