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Unions: Comair Crews Fly Tired

JECKEL

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Comair Crews Tired, Union Says

Fatigue getting more scrutiny as a safety issue

By James Pilcherjpilcher@enquirer.com • May 31, 2009

Comair is increasingly pressuring pilots and flight attendants to fly even when they are tired and to work to the very limits of federal and company rest rules, the Erlanger-based regional airline's flight crew unions say.
The unions also say that not only are crews having to work 16-hour days and fly a full eight hours more often, but those crews are increasingly given only eight hours between shifts to get to a hotel, eat, sleep and return to work with the promise of more rest the next night. That is allowed by the existing contract but previously only used in the case of bad weather, union officials say. Negotiations on a new deal for both unions are set to start next year.
In addition, many pilots and flight attendants have taken to sleeping on couches overnight in crew lounges like the ones at New York's JFK International Airport, where Comair is expanding a crew base and taking over more flying.
"When a pilot calls in sick or fatigued, there is a lot of pressure from the company to keep what they call 'operational integrity'," said Dave Robles, a 12-year Comair captain and the 1,200-member local pilot union's top safety official. "We really want to work with the company on this. Fatigue is a big word and a complicated issue that we all need to take a look at. But there is the sense that many people really don't want to examine it because they are afraid of what they might find."
Comair, owned by Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, deferred all questions to its corporate parent Delta Connection, Inc., which runs Delta's regional network. Officials there declined interviews.
"Safety is paramount at Delta Connection," the company said in a statement. "We work closely with each of our Delta Connection partners on safety guidelines set forth by the FAA and adhere to the same oversight as mainline carriers. Our goal is to ensure that anytime a customer purchases a ticket on a Delta or Delta Connection flight, they are flying under a single set of safety standards and comply with all Federal aviation regulations."


The union's allegations come at a time when the regional airline industry as a whole is under increased scrutiny for its safety, training and rest standards in the wake of the Colgan Air crash outside Buffalo in February. Fatigue, as well as the training, experience and lifestyles of those pilots, are being considered as possible factors in that crash, which killed 50.


The fatal accident was the first since the crash of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington that killed 49 when pilots went down the wrong runway and didn't have enough room for a successful takeoff.
While fatigue was initially examined and then rejected as a cause in the August 2006 crash, lack of rest has been considered or named as a factor in five previous incidents or accidents involving regional carriers. And seven of the last eight major incidents or accidents nationally have involved regional carriers.
"We have a safer system for shipping packages than we do people in the U.S.," said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and now managing partner with the Washington, D.C. transportation safety consulting firm Hall & Associates LLC. "You have seen tremendous growth in the regional industry; they are flying larger aircraft over longer routes. So the whole concept you had of these airlines being for small hops and short hauls is gone - they are the workhorse of the airline industry.
"Yet at the same time, there has been very little attention on the rest rules and the enforcement of the existing rest rules at this level. And you have this situation that is winked at by both the pilots and the industry of having a period of time to get into your place of work that makes it almost impossible to get decent rest and follow the rules."
Indeed, rest is not only a key issue for Comair, the seventh largest regional carrier in the U.S., but for the regional airline industry as a whole. Regionals operate 50 percent of the passenger flights in the U.S., carrying about 23 percent of all passengers. As illustrated by Comair, they are becoming more integral to airline networks, as larger mainline carriers continue to cut back and concentrate on routes between big cities and overseas. Yet all airlines are under cost pressures as the industry faces declining passenger counts due to the recession.



At the time, Comair said the shift of flights to New York would increase flying and jobs, while acknowledging the operational challenges the move presented.


A Senate subcommittee will further examine safety and training standards at regional/commuter airlines starting June 10, in a series of hearings set after last month's NTSB hearings on the Colgan crash. In addition, incoming Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt said during his recent confirmation hearings that he would examine the perceived disparity in safety and training between large airlines and regionals.
"There are substantial differences in pay, there are substantial differences in facilities and there appear to be substantial differences in rest," said Hall. "To me, that appears to be an oversight from the FAA and Congress should look at closely."
Smaller carriers

Regional Airline Association president Roger Cohen says that the smaller carriers he represents operate under the same standards as mainstream carriers such as Delta and denies a double standard.
"There is just one level of safety, period," said Cohen. "And we welcome the chance to tell that story to Congress when we get the chance."
Under current FAA rules, a pilot or flight attendant at any commercial airline no matter how big or small can only be on duty for 16 hours straight and can actually be flying (or pulled away from a gate) for eight hours in a 24-hour period. Comair's contract with its pilots limit duty hours to 15.5 per day, or fewer if the pilot has a very early start to the day.
But the rules also allow for "reduced rest" exemptions. If a pilot flies the full eight hours, they are forced under FAA regulations to get at least nine hours off before reporting for duty the next day. Yet if that pilot is given an extra hour the following day, he or she could be brought back after just eight hours. Robles says that provision was originally created for bad weather situations that kept a pilot beyond his or her limit.
"Now, it's become commonplace, even on the first night of a trip," said Robles. "Even if you get that hour back the next night, it still makes it harder that next day."



Many crews will sleep overnight in the crew rooms in JFK and elsewhere on couches or recliners, even with the lights on, because of the expense involved with getting a hotel room or renting an apartment in remote cities, especially New York.


Robles said the local chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association knows the practice exists, but doesn't condone it, saying "nothing beats a good bed, a hot shower and a good meal."
"For some people, though, there is no choice," he said.
The co-pilot at Colgan Air had slept in the Newark airport's crew room against that company's policy after catching two flights from Seattle to get to work. Comair does not have such a ban on sleeping in crew rooms overnight, union officials say. Delta Connection officials declined comment.
Pilot's lifestyle

NTSB board member Deborah Hersman says the rest issue goes well beyond how much sleep an individual may have gotten the night before a flight, and should consider the full lifestyle of a pilot. During the Colgan Air hearings, she read an e-mail from a Comair pilot that stated flight crews were getting even less rest than normal as a result of the airline's recent shift in flying to New York.
"And I had my staff look up the cost of living between Cincinnati and New York, and my point was that without some factorial adjustment in pay, that commuting was necessary," said Hersman in a telephone interview. "Changing the fatigue rules has been on our 'most wanted' list for quite some time now. But we can only look at the circumstances of each crash, and we only see the worst. We can't speculate on what else is happening in general out there - just make recommendations based on what we're seeing."
The NTSB can only recommend changes in federal air safety rules; the FAA is the agency that actually changes and administers the rules.
It also was revealed during the Colgan crash hearings that both the pilot and co-pilot were inexperienced, with each even mentioning that they had never handled icing conditions like the ones that evening. Pilot pay also was raised as an issue, since the 24-year-old co-pilot had commuted across the country for work since she lived with her parents to cut expenses. An official cause for that crash has yet to be determined.

"Mainline airlines have different issues such as flying much longer legs over different time zones and even overseas," Hersman said, adding that many regional pilots might handle 5-6 takeoffs and landings in a single day.

"We need to look at changing the standard to allow for factors such as the time started, whether the pilot started early or late, how long it took them to get to work, how many legs they'll fly in a day - instead of the current static rule," said Hersman, who was the lead NTSB member on site during the Flight 5191 investigation in 2006 and who advocated for a broader look at accident causes following the Comair crash.
 

PA44Jockey

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About time someone puts it out there. I used two fatigue calls in 6 years and both times, the Chief Pilots advised me not to do it and told me that I would be receiving a discipline letter from the company. All while on recorded phone lines. Of course, I never got any letters and I told them if I got a letter that I would mail it to the guys name on the bottom of our checklists.

The Feds should really starting monitoring these crew scheduling lines and chief pilot lines, just like they did with the guys on Wall Street. They might actually be fearful of what they may find.
 

Brasilia Pup

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Brewhahahaha....The Sandman cometh for management! Good article, glad to see that the public is getting a taste of the truth. Let's make much needed changes. Support your union officials.
 

Captain Morgan

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I agree! We need to show the public that we should all be making six figures and be treated like royalty. We are "rock stars" for crying out loud! Don't they know who we are?!!!!?!?! Don't they have any idea who we are for crying out loud!?!?!
 
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