New FAA Administrator is serious about pilot fatigue

Posted on 29. Jun, 2009 by in Featured

In the past the FAA has been less than enthusiastic about NTSB recommendations on enhancing crew rest. The new FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has reversed that former posture. He has demanded inputs by 31 July. I applaud his tough stance; here is why:

Think back to the last time you flew with a connecting flight. You woke up early for your flight, made your way to the airport, took the bus to the terminal, stood in line at security and finally got to the gate hours later. After another hour or so you file on the aircraft, fight your baggage into a closet or overhead and finally sit in your seat. Finally, you get to relax as the aircraft flies to a hub. Once there you change planes, sit another hour maybe two and then do it all again. Pretty exhausting by the time you get to your destination, is it not? Now imagine you have 3 or 4 more legs to fly; oh yes, and instead of relaxing in the back you are flying an aircraft with hundreds of passengers betting their very lives on your judgment, training, and skill.

As a bonus, while on the ground you have to deal with maintenance, catering, servicing of the aircraft, passenger problems, and security issues. In the air, you will be picking your way through thunderstorms in the summer and dealing with icing in the winter. That is the norm. If things get out of the norm, you get to toss in an engine fire or failure or any number of possible in-flight emergencies.

Here is a possible timeline for an airline pilot on reserve (on call):

  • 03:00- A call from crew schedules informing you that you have a 06:00 take off. You get out of the bed; check your bag, uniform and put on a pot of coffee.
  • 04:00- Out the door (if you live close by) and drive to the employee lot, where you wait for the bus to the terminal. Once there, into the security line fiasco, then down to operations to pull the paperwork for the flight.
  • 05:00- Sign in for the flight and go to the aircraft.
  • 05:15- Preflight the aircraft and set up the cockpit.
  • 06:00-Push back (pay starts) and taxi to the runway for takeoff.
  • 23:00 (11:00PM)- Final landing (pay stops when the brakes are set, total flight time/pay for the day is 6-8 hours at best. It can be much less).
  • 24:00 (mid-night)- Hotel van pick-up.
  • 00:15 (optimistic)- You arrive at the hotel.
  • 01:00- You fall asleep (VERY optimistic).
  • 05:15-(4 hours 15 minutes later) wake up call.
  • 05:45- Airport van pick up.
  • 06:00- Back through airport security.
  • 07:00- Take off.


Now repeat for 2, 3 or 4 more days. Remember the quote from the CEO of the Regional Airline Association, “They shouldn’t be tired?” Really? How could they not be, flying that schedule? This is what the industry means when it refers to “pilot productivity.” When a company says it needs more productivity, it is in essence saying it wants a harder schedule for the pilots, bottom line.

Now mix in the fact that many pilots are so poorly paid they cannot possibly live in the cities where they are based. Thus, they commute in prior to their sequence or the night before, grabbing what sleep they can in a crowded and noisy crash pad or on a chair in Operations. This is the challenge Mr. Babbitt faces.

I have three major concerns:

  1. Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) don’t and probably can’t address a root problem; poverty level pay.
  2. New FARs could put the onus on crews to be in domicile 24 hours prior.
  3. New FARs could actually make things worse.

As always, it is all about the money. As pointed out by Sully:“The industry no longer draws the best and the brightest.” Experienced crews simply will not fly for the same pay as a McDonald’s employee. If furloughed, they will revert to their college education and leave the industry. And even top-notch crews, when fatigued, are not on the top of their game; they rely on their experience. Many commuter crews do not have that to lean on. I’ve addressed this in other articles, so suffice it to say if you can’t afford to live in the city you fly from, the fatigue level has risen, period.

Which leads to concern number two. If required to be in domicile 24 hours prior, many will simply drive 4, 5 or 6 hours instead of taking an hour long commuter flight. Not exactly the desired outcome. Bottom line, pay them enough to live in domicile or at least enough to afford a motel room. A side issue—if you require a crew to be in position 24 hours prior you would have to pay them. Case law, IMO, supports that.

My last concern is that if the rules are rushed too fast, they could actually make things worse. If the restrictions on flight time come without an increase in hourly rates, the ability of a pilot to make a livable wage goes down. For example, the current FARs allow 100 hours a month. If you reduce it to 80 or less, you just cut many pilots’ pay twenty percent. Safety is the primary concern, but I still go back to pay. Because pilots will have to face a choice: get a second job to survive, or quit the industry altogether.

This is the reality Mr. Babbitt faces. Ultimately you get what you pay for.

No Responses to “New FAA Administrator is serious about pilot fatigue”

  1. Otis 29 June 2009 at 22:14 #

    Chip I agree it’s all about the money. As a passenger I would gladly pay twice what we pay these days for airfare maybe even three times as much if I could be assured that a jackass with not enough experience at least slept well the night before. And it isn’t just about safety or risk, I can’t stand flying because of the crowds. I would also gladly pay three times as much if I knew that there would be no line to check in, no line at Starbuck’s and a happy little cutie with an ice cold beverage in her hand asking me if I wanted chicken or pasta. I guess I long for the days of yesteryear as a passenger as much as pilots do because it worked. Nobody is happy now except CEOs, COOs, and CFOs. How is it that we have abdicated our authority as stakeholders in the airline industry when an aircraft without pilots and passengers could hardly be called an airliner? A union of pilots AND passengers joined in the common pursuit of safety, efficiency, and quality of service could be the political force that makes government and industry pay attention to US, and squelch the executives who are abusing the rest of us with their greed.

  2. Chip 29 June 2009 at 23:43 #

    Hows the west coast? I think it is going to get ugly, another Airbus went down tonight off of the coast of Africa. What is ironic is that it wouldn’t take much, a few bucks a ticket, to pay the crews a livable wage. I think that they have painted themselves into a corner and safety is about to become more than a buzz word or punch line. I have a feeling people are going to balk at flying AB after this last one. That will open some eyes. Time will tell. Say hi to the family.

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