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Should We Be Worried About Our Pilots?

CaptJax

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Should We Be Worried About Our Pilots?

by Jordan Simon

Forget the image of flying as a glamorous profession and lifestyle. The highs of an office in the sky are countered by the crashing reality of reduced salaries and eliminated pension plans. And a host of new rules will add further strain to the already-stressful job.

A pilot's day begins long before takeoff with aircraft inspection and flight plan review, and the long grueling hours and constant travel strain family life. Those working for smaller commuter carriers often can't afford to live in his or her hub city or take second jobs to make ends meet. Rebecca Shaw, copilot of Colgan Flight 3407 that crashed near Buffalo in February 2009, earned just $23,900 annually and had flown overnight from Seattle to Newark as a passenger before piloting the doomed plane.

Pilots get all the credit when things go right (see: Sullenberger, Chesley), but are also the first to be blamed when things go wrong. Last October's overflight of Minneapolis by Northwest pilots and the Colgan Air crash have highlighted aviation safety issues like cockpit distractions, inadequate training, inexperience, and fatigue. In response, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) will implement more rigorous training regulations and also issued an "Information for Operators" guidance memo regarding cockpit use of personal electronic devices. After exhaustive investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), scathingly critiqued the recent high-profile accidents, delivering more than 25 recommendations, including monitoring cockpit conversations and scheduling industry-wide forums on safety and professionalism.

The recent events have spurred a three-day forum that began on Tuesday. While the conference is centered on getting more pilots and air controllers to consistently strive for a higher level of professionalism, some unsettling statistics have already been revealed. On the first day of the conference, the NTSB expressed concerns that future pilots may not make the grade when the time comes, especially those flying regional carriers. Fewer military pilots are leaving for airline jobs, choosing instead to pursue more lucrative corporate positions, and fewer college students see careers in aviation as a cost-effective path. The lack of general interest, and looming retirements (along with anticipated industry growth), shows signs that future pilots will be less experienced and in short supply.

Given the recent incidents of distracted flying (texting after pushing back from the gate, working on laptops, supposedly excessive chatter, possible fatigue-impaired decisions) and what the NTSB blasted as critical errors of mishandling, we favor legislation that increases safety. But are these new rules grounded in reality?

1. Increasing Training Hours
New FAA regulations that passed the Senate and the House compel all copilots on regional passenger airlines to have at least 800 hours of training, including experience in adverse weather conditions such as icing and flying at high altitudes and in a multi-pilot cockpit. New York Senator Chuck Schumer's original amendment required all commercial airline pilots and copilots to have at least 1,500 hours of training. For some perspective, current regulations allow commuter pilots with only 250 hours of experience to fly passengers. Carriers must also train pilots on handling stalls, spins, and other emergencies. Exercises like that were once included in training schools' syllabi, but were eliminated nearly 20 years ago due to expense and the incidents' rarity. A European Aviation Safety Association survey discovered that nearly half of all pilots during initial or refresher training had never even witnessed a stall or spin. EASA will mandate "Upset Recovery Training" by 2012; the FAA should follow suit. The NTSB also proposed six safety recommendations to the FAA based on new computerized "glass cockpit" technology training alone, as well as response to system malfunctions.

Recommendations are also being made about accessing aviator records during pre-employment screening. Many pilots and instructors argue it's a question of improving not just training, but pilot selection and recruitment as well. Flight 3407 Captain Marvin Renslow failed two critical flying skills tests but didn't tell Colgan prior to his hiring nor did the carrier request complete records from the FAA. Yet Renslow and co-pilot Shaw actually met the proposed 1,500-hour minimum. The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE), comprising over 360 leading aviation educators from all areas of the industry, polled members and the near-uniform consensus was that hours alone aren't an indicator of competency.

2. Banning Personal Electronic Devices
The NTSB argues that PEDs have a disturbing impact on aviation, and has called for tighter cockpit discipline since 2007. "There is no room for distraction when your job is to get people safely to their destinations," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's statement read. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt (himself a former airline pilot) noted that "Every aviation professional needs to take the issue of distractions in the cockpit seriously."

Chris Cuddy, CEO of Cheapflights Media, points out that the FAA specifically discourages usage during taxi, takeoff, climbing to 10,000 feet, and during descent and landing. "This is common sense as these time windows are the most intensive part of a flight," he says. "Can you imagine texting or using your laptop while navigating a highway on-ramp in your family minivan?" Smarter Travel Executive Editor Anne Banas considers the memo unnecessary for the majority of pilots who are diligent about following high safety standards. "However, because recent incidents of pilots being neglectful or making careless decisions have made headlines, it's important to ensure that safety is a priority across the board and improve consumer confidence," she says.

3. Monitoring Cockpit Chatter
The NTSB recommends utilizing cockpit voice recordings (black boxes) to monitor pilot conversations regularly, rather than just post-accident to determine cause. Pilots on the Northwest flight that overshot Minneapolis told investigating FBI agents that their literal oversight and concomitant failure to contact radio controllers was due to a heated conversation about airline policy (rules already forbid unnecessary non-work-related chatter during crucial parts of the flight).

Unions call it an invasion of privacy, though NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt stated, "This is not a case of Big Brother spying on pilots." More worrisome is that it could foster distrust among flight crews. Continental Captain John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association union, believes reviews could prevent pilots discussing safety issues in the cockpit for fear of discipline. The FAA suggests reviews would be performed anonymously and analyzed for safety trends. Even Bill Voss, president of the independent Flight Safety Foundation favors implementing other safety initiatives first, though he conceded "that was a very long conversation" when asked about the Northwest flight. But Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, dubbed it "the next frontier of safety" at a hearing.

4. Toughening Fatigue Regulation
Studies show lack of sleep can be equivalent to drinking on the job, impairing judgment and slowing response time. Questions persist about the role fatigue played in the Colgan crash, especially since both pilots took overnight flights to Newark. "Can you imagine taking the family on an interstate drive after you pulled an all-nighter?" says Cuddy. "And there's no pulling over on the side of the road when you are flying." NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman is concerned as well. "Many times, they're crossing multiple time zones for their job," she says. "This is a very brutal lifestyle."

FAA regulations limit flying time of airline pilots of large aircraft to a maximum of 100 monthly and 1,000 annual hours. Most airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours a month and work an additional 140 hours a month performing non-flying duties, including waiting out delays that irk them as much as passengers. Though some pilots can have a maximum workday of 16 hours, those on domestic flights may fly no more than eight hours during a 24-hour period, and to have at least eight continuous hours of rest. But pilots and federal officials claim those rules, set decades ago, are inadequate. The NTSB has urged the FAA since 1990 to strengthen regulations. Previous efforts stalled: Unions demanded fewer hours on-duty and increased time off between flights, while airlines opposed the changes, which would increase labor costs (and potentially fares).
 

mamba20

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Yawn, nothing new to see here. All bark and no bite. Nothing will change if it can cost the airlines money.
 

Dan Roman

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Unfortunately, mamba is right. The simple fact is the airline pilot profession has been under attack for years in an effort to keep costs down. A much larger percentage of domestic flying is done by tired pilots and pilots with genuine and understandable financial worries and pilots that don't feel they are working at the airline that will be their career.
I think it is safe to say we do operate at a higher level of professionalism than most jobs and have nothing to be ashamed off, but when you take what was once a very proud profession and decimate it like what has happened, you are going to get incidents or accidents that would not have happened if Airliners were flown by well rested crews that were established in their career airline and not just passing through till something better came along.
It's interesting to note that while Airline Pilot pay has been slashed, management pay has increased dramatically since our profession has increased our productivity and lowered our pay,
 

NEDude

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Unfortunately, mamba is right. The simple fact is the airline pilot profession has been under attack for years in an effort to keep costs down. A much larger percentage of domestic flying is done by tired pilots and pilots with genuine and understandable financial worries and pilots that don't feel they are working at the airline that will be their career.
I think it is safe to say we do operate at a higher level of professionalism than most jobs and have nothing to be ashamed off, but when you take what was once a very proud profession and decimate it like what has happened, you are going to get incidents or accidents that would not have happened if Airliners were flown by well rested crews that were established in their career airline and not just passing through till something better came along.
It's interesting to note that while Airline Pilot pay has been slashed, management pay has increased dramatically since our profession has increased our productivity and lowered our pay,

Part of the problem we have, and in most ways it is a very nice problem to have, is that flying has never been safer. It has been discussed many times, but it has been over eight and half years since the last fatal crash of a major US airline. With the industry getting ever safer, it is hard to convince those outside of the industry that there are still major areas of weakness.
 

Dan Roman

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You are exactly right and I was thinking about that point while posting. My thoughts are that the reality is yes we are safer because of so many other improvements that have been made but we could be even safer if pilots needs were better addressed. We wouldn't be having these conversations if our professionalism wasn't being scrutinized and how it effects safety. So I think the argument can be made that if they want to look at why our professionalism has supposedly declined, the attack on our profession by management would be a good place to start looking.
Good point though.
 

mamba20

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You both make great points, however how often does something serious happen that never reaches the news? 150-200 people saved and in many cases THEY may not even be aware of it? How about what Sully pulled off? Granted it is the safest its ever been but at the end of the day we are all still sitting in a chair up in the sky.
 

Lear70

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*yawn*

Same old crap... "We know there's problems, and we're going to tell you what they are, but we really have no solution that won't cost you money and,,, well,,, we can't have that now, can we?"

:rolleyes:
 

FLYLOW22

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Maybe regional pilots should start collecting tips in a bucket or in a hat by the door while pax deplane.


I would.
 

Draginass

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Look. Let's be real. The FAA doesn't give hoot about fatigue, abusive duty time, crew rest, crew experience, or pilot compensation. Babbitt is a tool of the airline managements. The only reason he's even talking about it (as opposed to actually DOING anything) is because of the bad press from that scumbad Colgan flying circus.

Combine that with the fact Delta Airlines' gimp union, Delta ALPA, in their selfish greed, wants to push a 9 hour flying day and shed a lot of industry jobs in the process, and there you have it.

Don't expect any change until there are a few more smoking holes and outraged relatives mobbing the halls of Congress.
 
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Rez O. Lewshun

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The real problem is we have no way to value our profession except thru price and cost.

Until we develop a way to add non monetary value to the issues, it will always be a battle of cost and who is going to pay for it.

For example, a poster stated that safety has never been better. But is that factored in pro actively or is that just an after market by-product that we enjoy?

Are the passengers (consumers) getting a voice to determine what is most important proactively? Or are they regulated to congressional hearings after the blood has been spilled?

Don't fret, many other professions are taking massive hits as well, as consumers jockey for the only thing they can..... price.
 

tomgoodman

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Welcome to deregulation

Are the passengers (consumers) getting a voice to determine what is most important proactively?

Rez,

They do have a voice, but airlines have stopped listening to it because consumers lie. They say they value other things more than price, but when offered the option, they vote with their wallets. Bob Crandall noted this years ago, and although he was an enemy of labor, he was correct on this point.

That's why it is so difficult to give citizens the "choices" you advocate. They are not honest about what they really want, in part because they don't actually know what they want. This leaves them at the mercy of the most effective "salesman". :pimp:
 

waveflyer

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We've dswnfranchised ourselves politically by not supporting politicians who support unions- and been more than willing to sell each other out for our personal SHORT term gain.

Look in the mirror. What have YOU done to support a healthy long term profession? Have you even taken 10 minutes to write the FAA and your congressman about an aviation issue?
 
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