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A Commuter Pilot's Life: Exhausted, Hungry and Poorly Paid

Sedona16

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http://teamsterair.org/commuter-pilot%26%23039;s-life:-exhausted,-hungry-and-poorly-paid

A Commuter Pilot's Life: Exhausted, Hungry and Poorly Paid
May 18, 2009
The New York Times
May 17, 2009 Sunday

BYLINE: By DAVID M. HALBFINGER, MATTHEW L. WALD and CHRISTOPHER DREW; Reporting was contributed by Robbie Brown, Benedict Carey, Ray Rivera, Nate Schweber and Leslie Wayne.

This article was reported by David M. Halbfinger, Matthew L. Wald and Christopher Drew, and written by Mr. Halbfinger.

Alex Lapointe, a 25-year-old co-pilot for a regional airline, says he routinely lifts off knowing he has gotten less sleep than he needs. And once or twice a week, he says, he sees the captain next to him struggling to stay alert.

Neil A. Weston, also 25, went $100,000 into debt to train for a co-pilot's job that pays him $25,000 annually. He carries sandwiches in a cooler from his home in Dubuque, Iowa, bought his first uniform for $400, and holds out hope of tripling his salary by moving into the captain's seat, then up to a major carrier. Assuming, that is, the majors start hiring again.

Capt. Paul Nietz, 58, who recently retired from a regional airline, said his schedule wore him down and cost him three marriages. His workweek typically began with a 2:30 a.m. wake-up in northern Michigan and a 6 a.m. flight to his Chicago home bases. There, he would wait for his first assignment, a noon departure.

By the time he parked his aircraft at the last gate of the night, he was exhausted. But he would be due back at work eight hours and 15 minutes later. ''At the very most, if you're the kind of person that could walk into a hotel room, strip and lay down, you might get four and a half hours of sleep,'' he said. ''And I was very senior. I was one of the fortunate guys.''

The National Transportation Safety Board's inquiry into the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 outside Buffalo has highlighted the operations of the nation's regional airlines, a sector of the aviation industry that has grown to account for half the country's airline flights and a quarter of its passengers.


The details of that world have surprised many Americans -- the strikingly low pay for new pilots; the rigors of flying multiple flights, at lower altitudes and thus often in worse weather than pilots on longer routes, while scrambling to get enough sleep; the relative inexperience of pilots at the smaller airlines, whose training standards are the same, but whose skills may not be.

In hearings last week in Washington, witnesses and safety officials raised questions of whether the crew of the plane that crashed, killing all 49 people on board and one on the ground, had been adequately vetted and whether they might have been hampered by, among other factors, fatigue.

But regardless of whether training, fatigue or the cost-cutting that has hit the entire industry are ultimately determined to have contributed to the crash of Flight 3407, interviews with current and former regional pilots make vividly clear the daily challenges they face.

Peek inside a crew lounge at midnight in Chicago, and one could easily find every recliner occupied by an off-duty aviator trying to sleep despite the whine of a janitor's vacuum cleaner.

In any city with a sizable air hub, a search of Craigslist for the term ''crash pad'' will turn up listings for rooms for rent, often for $200 a month or less, a short drive from an airport, where a dozen or more pilots, unable to afford hotels, may come and go, barely letting the mattresses cool.

But many regional pilots, paid entry-level wages that are sometimes no better than a job at McDonald's, can not afford even a crash pad.

''I know a guy who bought a car that barely ran and parked it in the employee lot at his base airport, and slept in his car six or seven times a month,'' said Frank R. Graham Jr., a former regional pilot and airline safety director who runs a safety consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C. Pilots for some regional airlines have been known to sleep in the aisles of their planes.

Like the two Flight 3407 pilots, who caught free rides on planes from Florida and Seattle to their flight from Newark to Buffalo, pilots at regional airlines routinely hopscotch across thousands of miles to get to work. Some live with their parents, as the plane's first officer, Rebecca L. Shaw, did. Others, like Mr. Lapointe, live near former bases of operations that were shut down because an employer went out of business or a route was dropped.

Mr. Lapointe lives in Wakefield, Mass., 15 minutes from his old base in Boston. Since November, he has had to get himself to Kennedy International Airport in New York.

For Captain Nietz, a 27-year veteran, the biggest indignity was flying hungry. Delays were so routine that he seldom left his plane all day long, even ''to grab a biscuit.'' With food service long discontinued, he said, the only bites to be had were ''the occasional peanut -- and the airlines charge the crews for bags of peanuts and cheese and crackers.''

The renewed worries over commuter planes come as passenger airlines, regional and mainline, have achieved unprecedented levels of safety. Passenger deaths per million flights are down by more than two-thirds in the last 10 years. The 49 people on board the Buffalo flight were the first in 30 months to die during a scheduled flight on a passenger carrier.

But of the six scheduled passenger flights that have crashed since Sept. 11, 2001, only one has been from a major carrier. Four, including the one in Buffalo, were commuter flights; a total of 133 people died on those flights. (The fifth, a 50-year-old seaplane in Miami, was in neither category.)

And one of the worries about commuter pilots, fatigue, is also a problem for the mainline carriers; in fact, in some operations, the big airlines are more vulnerable. They are now conducting flights of 16 hours, across more time zones than a pilot can be expected to adapt to.

Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, who is chairman of the subcommittee on aviation, said Thursday that the group would hold a series of hearings next month. He said he was ''stunned'' by the Buffalo crew's lack of sleep and relative inexperience.

''We need to understand, is this an aberration, or are standards sufficiently lax or insufficient, or insufficiently enforced that we need to be concerned about a much broader set of issues?'' he said.

There is nothing wrong with commuting cross-country to fly, said Roger Cohen, the president of the Regional Airline Association, a trade group; after all, he pointed out, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the US Airways pilot who ditched his crippled Airbus A320 in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, lives in Danville, Calif., and is based in Charlotte, N.C.

Mr. Cohen said he did not know what fraction of pilots commuted long distances to the city where they were, in airline parlance, ''domiciled.''

''Anywhere from 50 to 70 percent, pick a number,'' he said. But he said he did not think that number differed much between regional carriers and mainline carriers.

The Federal Aviation Administration, while it enforces one set of safety standards, says it does not know how the safety of the commuter airlines compares to the safety of the big carriers. It is working on that question because of the planned Senate hearings.

To the extent that Senator Dorgan's hearings address pilot fatigue, they will not be the first such effort. In 1995, under pressure from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Air Line Pilots Association, the F.A.A. proposed shortening pilots' workdays and redefining duty hours to include the time spent getting from plane to hotel and back.

But the airlines, which deny that pilot fatigue is a significant problem, opposed the changes, and the agency eventually backed off.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and aviation writer who spent years at a regional carrier, acknowledged that fatigue is a murky problem, with many causes and varying effects on different pilots, that is difficult to nail down as the main cause of an accident.

''But the fact that you can't make this easy and direct link isn't reason to ignore the problem,'' he said. ''Obviously it's there.''

For Mr. Weston, the 25-year-old pilot from Dubuque, life in the regional air business is a little like being an extra in a movie. The planes he flies some days are labeled United Connection, others Delta Express. But his employer is an airline few people have ever heard of: Republic.

It is a quick hop by air but a six-hour drive from home to his base in Indianapolis, where he stays overnight with an aunt before starting his four-day workweek. His workdays run 12 hours, sometimes 16, far from home.

He said this really was a dream job for him and many of his fellow pilots, even though some have to hold down second jobs.

Asked if he flew for pleasure, he laughed.

''I can't afford it,'' he said.
 

N1atEcon

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Neil A. Weston, also 25, went $100,000 into debt to train for a co-pilot's job that pays him $25,000 annually

All by choice lets remember. If guys would quit climbing over each other for these pathetic jobs this career path could start to have some hope for the future. I know, I know blah blah blah. Good luck with your loan by the way.

This article makes my B99 freight job in 1997 making 3100.00 a month sound pretty sweet. I even had medical and a 401k. Oh but that was flying boxes in a old turbo prop, poor me! I didn't get to fly the fancy new EFIS RJ to some far off desination like Witchita KS. Or do International to Toronto. LOL
 
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waveflyer

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Wow- you even edited that N1... When you'd like to contribute something to the conversation- about the REAL causes and challenges of outsourcing- I'm sure we'd all like to hear it. Until then it's kind of amazing that out of everything in that article- that's what you took out of it. Blah blah blah- in your world personal responsibility actually is a way for those on top or who already have theirs to avoid responsibility. What responsibility do the senior have to the next generation of pilots? How about , if you don't like kids flying rjs- stop selling out ALL the major airline jobs and creating a catch 22 career where there are no good choices. Or "responsible" ones.
80-90% of regional pilots could care less about flying efis, or jets. They're clammering all over themselves fighting for the very few major airline positions left. Jet time is more valuable to recruiters. FMS time is too. Currency is key. They are fighting for the career we have- not to play with some toy.
 
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crj567

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Articles like that sure don't help out the commuters.

I don't think anything in the last 10 years has helped out anyone at any airline (large or small.) We are in a crumbling industry where everyone (and many in government) thinks that people have a constitutional right to fly across the country for $59 each way and be delivered to their destination aboard a state-of-the-art $50 million dollar airliner piloted by Chuck Damn Yeager hisself.

-Things have got to change, or this industry will cease to exist-at least as a means of gainful employment.

-Personally, I think the next logical step in cheapness is Cabotage, and I think it will happen in the next decade. In that case, we are all well and truly screwed in the butthole.
 

kingair1

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I don't think anything in the last 10 years has helped out anyone at any airline (large or small.) We are in a crumbling industry where everyone (and many in government) thinks that people have a constitutional right to fly across the country for $59 each way and be delivered to their destination aboard a state-of-the-art $50 million dollar airliner piloted by Chuck Damn Yeager hisself.

-Things have got to change, or this industry will cease to exist-at least as a means of gainful employment.

-Personally, I think the next logical step in cheapness is Cabotage, and I think it will happen in the next decade. In that case, we are all well and truly screwed in the butthole.

Could not have said it better myself !!! This is the Main problem folks !!
 

pilotyip

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those darn consumers

Could not have said it better myself !!! This is the Main problem folks !!
Shame on those consumers for buying cheap tickets, shame on that management for selling them cheap seats to keep the airline in business. Every time an airline tries to raise prices, they see a drop in revenue. An empty seat is like sour milk on food store shelves, it has no value after its use by date. Filling 2-3 empty seats wit ha cheap tickets is the difference between being profitable and unprofitable. BTW A guy commuting out of Northern Michigan the day of his trip has no one to blame except himself.

 

CoolSidePillow

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Another problem is that if the fares when up to make a significant change to truly make a difference there would be a drastic change in passenger loads which would lead to a need to shrink carriers quite a bit. That would cause an abundance of pilots that were not needed as well as airframes. There are a lot of mainline carriers that have required fleet size in contracts. It could mean thousands of pilots let go and no hiring for a very long time due to furlough call backs for years. So either road can mean less jobs. The only good point of any of it is that you will see far less statements that say "the 25 year old pilot"
 

tzskipper

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I don't think anything in the last 10 years has helped out anyone at any airline (large or small.) We are in a crumbling industry where everyone (and many in government) thinks that people have a constitutional right to fly across the country for $59 each way and be delivered to their destination aboard a state-of-the-art $50 million dollar airliner piloted by Chuck Damn Yeager hisself.

-Things have got to change, or this industry will cease to exist-at least as a means of gainful employment.

-Personally, I think the next logical step in cheapness is Cabotage, and I think it will happen in the next decade. In that case, we are all well and truly screwed in the butthole.

The irony is that many foreign carriers pay more than US carriers (at least for ex-pat flying...).

S
 

Colonel Savage

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I remember being ribbed about airline pilots being "glorified bus drivers". Guess we can skip the glorified part now.
 

Danny040

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-Personally, I think the next logical step in cheapness is Cabotage, and I think it will happen in the next decade. In that case, we are all well and truly screwed in the butthole.[/QUOTE]

I agree. The doc will get the whole fist up there when this falls. Might be the price of our debt with countries like China. GSP-ATL served by your friendly Air China crew. We're in a global economy now and it's coming.
 

BOOZENEWS

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Cabotage?? Don't most of the foreign carriers pay more than the US? Why are we worried about cheap foreign labor flooding our market when these foreign airlines are begging expats to come over? What am I missing?
 

no1pilot2000

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Flying for the airlines

I was visting another aviation web site that deals with pilot salaries and interviews. I was exchanging emails with a former Air Force pilot a year ago. He was evenatually wanted a career with SWA or Air Tran. He decided to go to the regional airlines to get his currency up to date. He got a job with a regional airline on the east coast. I spoke to him recently via email to see how he's doing. On the down side, he told me, the regional company he flies for is crap (suprise....suprise). On the positive side, he's getting alot of flying and some good experience. He told me he would never recommed the regional airlines to any potential career pilot. He said, if a person is young, healthy and is determined to make flying a career, go into the military and get your flying experience that way. The training and standards are better.
 

DH106

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Of the tons of military guys I've flown with, I've never really heard any of them say, "Yeah, the military sucks you dry. They bleed you for everything you're worth. It's miserable. Stay the hell away."

But, almost every civilian guy that worked for a "commuter" can attest to those points.

For-profit businesses are great, and so is the basis of our country. But this is what happens when companies take advantage of real people. And, unfortunately, people have died as a result of it. That's the reality of the civilian/"commuter" world.

It sucks, and it doesn't have to be this way. Numerous points have been made that, if a few dollars additional were paid for every ticket, then "commuter" crews could be well-paid. It's sad that all of our technology and all of our modern methods can't get past the race to the bottom.
 

DH106

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By the way, let me just add my two cents that I truly think that the regional airilnes are absolutely evil, from every aspect: greed, race to the bottom, paying pilots poorly, pilot-pushing, etc.

If you want to defend the regional airlines, go ahead; especially if you want to make the argument that it's "supply-and-demand," or "this is capitalism at work," etc. But, remember this: we wouldn't be having this conversation if they were so wonderful.
 

Schicer

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I find it amusing that so few people are able to identify why our industry is in this downward spiral. It has nothing to do with cheap airfare, sell out pilots, outsourcing, Mesa or the myriad of other symptoms that people point to as the problem. Come on, do you really think that if airlines charge more for airfare that they will suddenly start to pay us more?

It’s a simple supply demand curve. Pilots are in huge supply in an over capacity capitalistic market. Why; because it’s just too damn easy to become a pilot in the US (could have something to do with the over abundance of zero-to-hero flight schools).

Go where the demand is high and maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for.
 

pipejockey

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All by choice lets remember. If guys would quit climbing over each other for these pathetic jobs this career path could start to have some hope for the future. I know, I know blah blah blah. Good luck with your loan by the way.

This article makes my B99 freight job in 1997 making 3100.00 a month sound pretty sweet. I even had medical and a 401k. Oh but that was flying boxes in a old turbo prop, poor me! I didn't get to fly the fancy new EFIS RJ to some far off desination like Witchita KS. Or do International to Toronto. LOL

Are you serious? Those of us who got into this profession prior to 2002 or so, had a reasonable expectation of up to 5 years max at a regional carrier then we would be off to a Major. After all, it was the Majors that made up the vast majority of flying, plus had a pension you got at 60 and a career value of 6 million dollars. Now the regionals make up half of the departures in the US, meaning no more jobs at the Majors for most regional pilots, and oh yeah, pay cuts at the Major airlines if you are lucky enough to get there and last but not least, no more pensions!

I think 100 grand for a job with what had a 6 million dollar career value is quite a bargain. I guess everyone was supposed to have a crystal ball huh? With 13,000 hours you must have been settled at your career airline long before 2001. Once again, another pilot who has his, now screw everybody else!
 

pipejockey

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It’s a simple supply demand curve. Pilots are in huge supply in an over capacity capitalistic market. Why; because it’s just too damn easy to become a pilot in the US (could have something to do with the over abundance of zero-to-hero flight schools).

Go where the demand is high and maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for.

You need to do some research on the industry in the 60's and 70's. Pilots were paid handsomely and we had FAR more licensed pilots in those decades compared to the general population than we have today.
 

Schicer

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You need to do some research on the industry in the 60's and 70's. Pilots were paid handsomely and we had FAR more licensed pilots in those decades compared to the general population than we have today.

I know plenty about the industry. Your talking about a regulated era, things are different now man. But if you feel that this has nothing to do with supply and demand, then who am I to argue.
 

pilotyip

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Pilot Glut

You need to do some research on the industry in the 60's and 70's. Pilots were paid handsomely and we had FAR more licensed pilots in those decades compared to the general population than we have today.
The pilot glut was because 500K pilot were trained in the 1940's. Most were PVT pilots. If you compare ATP's in the 60's with ATP now you will find a tremendous increase in ATP's. Most pilots taking training today are intent on becoming an ATP that was not the case in the 60's
 
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