Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blaming the Dead Tired Pilots for Colgan Air Buffalo Crash

As has been apparent almost since day one, pilot error caused the Feb. 12 crash near Buffalo of a Continental Airlines flight operated by Colgan Air, in which 50 people died. Hearings this week by the National Transportation Safety Board are making that even more clear.

But there are other basic and extremely troublesome issues, long known in the industry and now being threaded out more fully at the ongoing N.T.S.B. hearings. Those industry-wide issues are chronic pilot fatigue, low pilot pay, inadequate pilot training and poor resume-checking by some regional airlines, all of which are under terrific cost-cutting pressure from the major airlines who use the regionals as subcontractors.

At today's hearing (which was Webcast by the N.T.S.B.), Colgan Air executives were asked about many of those issues. Their answers are enlightening, to the extent that one can drill down through the palaver.

The basic ugly truth -- long known by regional airline pilots and by those of us who follow these things -- is that many regional airline pilots work in a culture of chronic fatigue, in a sub-tier of the air-travel industry where captains might make $50,000 a year and first officers might make less than $20,000, and that the official FAA-sanctioned duty-time regulations that supposedly ensure that pilots have enough time to sleep (7 hours, which of course includes the time to get from airport to hotel and back) are a national scandal.

The feckless FAA -- which incidentally has been operating without a director for almost two years -- is complicit in the grim fiction that safety standards are just fine, evidence aside. The N.T.S.B., to its credit, is digging out the ugly reality, case by case, question by question.

Colgan, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines, supplies regional-airline service to Continental and other airlines. The flight that crashed on approach to Buffalo was Continental Flight 3407 from Newark, operated by Colgan on a 70-seat Dash 8- Q400 commuter turboprop with 49 aboard. (One of the fatalities was in the house the plane crashed into near the airport.}

In the cockpit were Captain Marvin D. Renslow, 47, and First Officer Rebecca Shaw, 24. Renslow had slight experience in the Dash 8 Q400; Shaw had more, but had been on the job for only a little over a year. Shaw's base salary was about $16,000 a year (it could have gone up to around $24,000 with overtime), and Renslow was making around $60,000. To save money, Shaw had recently moved in with her parents near Seattle, necessitating her cross-country commute to work.

It's now known that the plane crashed, in icy, blustery weather, when the captain pulled back on the yoke, rather than pushing it forward, to make a crucial correction, a mistake that sent the plane into a fatal stall. It's now known that Renslow and Shaw were engaged in idle chatter at the time of the accident, a violation of rules that ban chit-chat in the cockpit during takeoff and landing procedures, below 10,000 feet.

The pilots, the 47 passengers and the victim on the ground paid for those mistakes with their lives.

But what about the underlying culture? What about the problems of operating airlines with badly paid, sometimes inadequately trained pilots who are so overworked that they catch sleep in empty jump seats or crawl up to grab a few hours sleep on a couch or chair in airport crew-lounges? (I've even heard from regional pilots who said they know colleagues who have crawled into a row of coach seats on a parked regional airliner at an airport to snatch a few hours of sleep).

At today's hearings, Colgan officials maintained that the fault lay with the two dead pilots. Period.

Rather than characterize or paraphrase their testimony, I'll give you some direct-quote examples from this morning's hearing.

The Colgan executives giving testimony were Harry Mitchel, Colgan's vice president for flight operations, and Mary Finnigan, the vice president of administration (meaning, she's the human-resources lady.)

Colgan, incidentally, has in recent years closed about 10 of its regional crew bases, which now number 20 at locations around the country, with the result that many pilots are now commuting (via free hops on airplanes) long distances to reach the airport where they the clock then starts ticking for their official workday. Also, the word "commuting" describes pilots who need to get to one airport to start a new shift from the airport where their previous flight ended. Shaw was based in Newark but had recently moved back to her native Washington state.


N.T.S.B member Debbie Hersman asked the two Colgan executives what the average salary was for a captain and a first officer.

Colgan's Finnigan said, "It really depends on how many hours they fly."

HERSMAN: "OK, but it sounded like in this case for the first officer [the 24-year-old Rebecca Shaw] it was in the $16,000 range. Is that accurate?"

FINNIGAN: "That would be accurate."


HERSMAN: "How many Colgan pilots have second jobs?"

FINNIGAN: "I don't know."

H: "Does Colgan have a policy against pilots having second jobs?"

F: "Our policy states that we discourage anyone in the company having a second job; however if for a pilot, if they do, or a flight attendant, it can't be in the aviation field that would affect their time and duty."

H: "Were you aware that the first officer worked in a coffee shop when she was in Norfolk?" [Before transferring to the Newark crew base, Shaw had been assigned to the Colgan base in Norfolk.]

F: "No, m'am. I was not."

H: "Do you have any concerns about people working second jobs?"

F: "I believe that our policy says that they need to give their full-time attention to their duties and responsibilities with Colgan Air, so i really can't speculate because i don't know the kind of hours she worked, or any of the details."

After some questioning about deficiencies in Captain Renslow's training record and his somewhat spotty resume, Hersman wanted to know what financial and other options Colgan pilots might have when, for example, their crew base was closed and they had to relocate to another, more expensive, area of the country -- for example, the Newark-New York area. She pressed Mitchel, Colgan's flight operations chief, on that.

HERSMAN: "Do you have a locality pay, somewhat like the federal government, where if there's a higher [cost] of living in certain areas, if they're based in a high-cost- of-living area, they might get a higher pay rate or a bonus or an incentive?"

MITCHEL: "On the pilot side it's a straight across-the-board hourly [pay, irrespective of base location]. For management personnel, yes, we look at that equation."

H: "Do you know kind of what the cost of living in the Newark area is -- is it considered high?"

M: "It's on the high scale."

H: "And on $16,000 to $20,000, what would that afford you in Newark?"

M: "I'm not sure about that, m'am, but I do know that Colgan Air provides a fantastic opportunity for our crew members. We have plenty of crew members that have come through Colgan Air to the major airlines, so we look at it as a stepping-stone in a career path. Our pilots generally appreciate the opportunity to fly for Colgan Air..."

H: "Mr. Mitchel, when you talked about a 16-hour duty day, were you familiar with the first officer's schedule the day before the accident?"

M: "Yes, m'am, I am aware."

H: "So she began the day by waking at 9 or 10 in the morning; she started her commute from Seattle that evening; she commuted from Seattle to Memphis, stayed in a crew lounge in Memphis from midnight to 4 a.m., commuted from Memphis to Newark from 4 to 6.30, and then hung out in a crew lounge in Newark until her 1.30 show-time. The accident occurred that evening. That looks like about a 36-hour clock to me. I think at best maybe there was an opportunity -- I'm not sure if she could get it -- but there might have been the opportunity for 7 hours' sleep during that commute. But it sounds pretty horrible to me. It's not something I would want, to try to achieve my sleep on those legs from Seattle to Memphis, in a crew lounge in Memphis, and then from Memphis to Newark. Do you think this violates kind of the spirit of duty time?"

[My note: The reply from Mitchel is a true gem. Here is where Mitchel slurs the dead pilots for their lack of "professionalism," rather than acknowledging that the system might be flawed. His syntax is a bit difficult to follow, but the drift is clear]:

MITCHEL: "I think it violates the professionalism of a crew member. We can't dictate to a crew member what they do on their own time. We hire professionals, and those professionals we expect should show up fresh and ready to fly that aircraft, and we provide the adequate rest for those individuals. There is no difference: If my wife has a baby and I'm up all night with my new-born and I get no sleep -- same situation. If I am fatigued, I shouldn't fly that airplane."

HERSMAN: "Your commuting policy says crew members shouldn't commute on the day that their shift begins, but she [First Officer Shaw] began the commute on the day before her shift began, but she finished her commute on the day the shift began. How do you monitor this policy and how is it enforced?"

M: "Again, it not a firm hard policy. It's guidelines to our crew member. ... We just give those pilots the guidelines to try to make an appropriate professional decision, and giving those guidelines to our pilots is our responsibility. How that individual or those individuals execute their duties and responsibilities on their own time is up to those individuals."

Later, another N.T.S.B. member, Kitty Higgins, zeroed in on the extraordinary percentage of Colgan pilots based at Newark who live far away, and thus need to fly to Newark [hopping free crew-rides on whichever flight they can] to start any new "duty time."

HIGGINS: "A hundred thirty-seven Newark-based pilots are commuting, and if I did the math correctly, 20 percent of those pilots live more than 1,000 miles from the Newark base, and another 14 percent live 400 or more miles. So that's more than a third of the pilots based in Newark ... commuting extensive distances. ... How do you define duty time?"

MITCHEL: "Duty time is specifically outlined in the FAA regulations."

H: "And what does it say?"

M: "Unless it's in front of me, I do not have it memorized."

H: "Does duty time include commuting time?"

M: "No, m'am."

H: "So the fact that the first officer [Shaw] essentially commuted on two flights to get to the crew base ... that doesn't count in terms of duty time?"

M: "That is correct."

H: "Do you think that affects the issue of fatigue? What is the nexus between commuting and fatigue?"

M: "... it's very difficult for me to answer that question unless there was a specific issue [My comment: Isn't the Buffalo crash the specific issue at hand??] ... We expect fatigue- management of our pilots, and we expect those professional pilots to be able to manage fatigue."

H: "... I know I've flown a red-eye, in a real seat, and it's pretty tough. And the first thing I want to do when I fly a red-eye is to find a bed someplace. In fact, she [Shaw] commented to one of the pilots that was flying her that there was a couch in the crew-room that had her name on it. ... The Colgan policy is [pilots] are not supposed to sleep in the crew-room, but it turns out that they are sleeping in the crew-room. ... What are the policies and procedures?"

M -- "One of them is sleeping overnight, because it is not an adequate rest facility, is prohibited for our crew members ... First Officer Shaw went through our pre-training program, she went through our CRM [Crew Rest Management] program. Within our CRM program, we gave that pilot [Shaw] some fatigue-management tools through her training. ... if a pilot was found sleeping in the crew-room, we would discuss it with the pilot about what going on. We are also in complete dialog with our pilots on a crew-scheduling committee to try to adapt and prosper commutable scheduling-legs, to assist in this very challenging environment in Newark."

H: "In the crew-member policy handbook it says, and I'm quoting: 'While commuting by flight crew-members is understood and accepted by the company, in no way will commuting be deemed a mitigating factor in the flight crew-member's scheduling, punctuality and demeanor. Flight crew-members will be fully accountable for their timely arrival and appearance at their base. Any and all expenses incurred because of commuting will be borne by the flight crew-member. Crew-members should not attempt to commute to their base the same day they're scheduled to work.' I don't see anywhere in there where there any mention of the risks of commuting or the effects of commuting, in terms of fatigue ... You've got a policy that acknowledges that pilots are going to commute ... You've got a policy that says that crew-rooms are not to be used as motel rooms, but in fact they were -- in many instances, that's what they were being used for, for people to sleep. We've got a standard of the company that says that safety is our mission, our most-important objective -- but we know from previous accidents that fatigue is a huge factor. ... where does that all come together for someone who says, `Wait a minute: What is going on here?'"

M: "We totally agree, Member Higgins, with your assertation. [cq] Together with our vice president of safety, we're fully engaged on this topic, and i can't say there is a magic wand to correct that procedure. But with our pilot group, with our flight attendant group, and with management at Colgan Air, we're going to do our due diligence to ensure we can mitigate this issue of fatigue as best as possible. I also look at fatigue as part of an element to complacency. And the complacency is a key ingredient in this factor." [I warned you about this guy's syntax!]

Higgins then replied:

H - One of the things I learned since coming here [to the N.T.S.B., investigating aviation accidents] is sometimes the individual does not recognize fatigue. You don't know how tired you really are. Fatigue has been compared to essentially driving drunk. It has the same effect on an individual as alcohol. ... The question is, knowing the consequences of fatigue, what are the policies that are in place, or were in place, to mitigate fatigue? ... When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that your crew-rooms, which aren't supposed to be used [as motels] are being used [as motels], I think that's a recipe for an accident. And that is what we have here."


NOTE: Here, via the N.T.S.B. Web site, is the full transcript of the cockpit voice recorder during the doomed Colgan flight.


1 comment:

margo said...

thank you for starting to shed some light on the issue of pilot fatigue! i wrote about this on my blog yesterday as well (though more colorfully worded than your article). my fiance is a regional captain (for republic), and although they have higher standards than colgan, he still feels many of these effects on a regular basis. the general public needs to be more aware before anything will actually change here.