Airline Safety, Fatigue and the commuter Pilot

Posted on 22. Jul, 2009 by in Featured

Commuter pilot with a small c; not with a big. A commuter pilot is a pilot that does not live at his domicile (base); a Commuter Pilot is now generally called a Regional Pilot. As the Commuter Airlines picked up more and more of the mainline flying their business model and category changed. Now referred to as Regional Carriers they have transitioned from small propeller aircraft to 70 or even 90 seat jets.

So what is the significance of safety, fatigue and a commuter pilot? The significance is that many pilots both regional and mainline do not live where they are based. That means they will catch a flight in the morning for an afternoon sequence that may end at midnight. It makes for a long, tiring day.

This issue will be the biggest challenge to reforming the Federal Aviation Regulations to reduce fatigue. Since de-regulation the airline industry has been in free fall. The group impacted the most financially has been pilots. A Captain for a Major Airline used to be able to live in just about any neighborhood or suburb in the USA. It is not the case anymore; it is economically not advantageous in many areas. For a First Officer it is not possible. And for a Regional Pilot, either seat, it is laughable. Try living in New York City, LA, San Francisco or even Chicago on 16,000 dollars a year.

To make ends meet, pilots in mass have responded to the consistent erosion of compensation by commuting to work. By living in the Mid-West or smaller towns Captains are able to lead a comfortable middle class life and send their kids to college. First Officers in general have a side job: I have friends that are mortgage bankers, small business men, brokers; the most popular side gig is Military Reservist. Obviously I write and do consulting for my second line of work. The Regional Captains (CA) are in the same boat as the Mainline First Officers (FO) and the Regional FOs have to live in mom and dad’s basement.

It is what it is, and the constant shrinking of the mainline has forced many who did not commute before into other bases. It is called displacement, moving backwards in seniority in essence. For example, a Dallas based 767 CA falls off the bottom of the 767 list. He then falls onto the MD-80 CA list forcing the junior MD-80 CA in Dallas into a choice. Take a 30-40% pay cut by bidding back as an FO or displacing to the junior CA base (normally New York) and commuting to work. Even if he chooses to bid down to FO the cascading effect will send somebody (the junior FO in Dallas) to New York. Now imagine this process amplified across the industry after 9 years of shrinking. My airline has gone from 11,800 to 7,800 active pilots from 2002-2009. That translates to constant pay cuts and never ending displacements. I personally will take yet another pay cut when I move backwards onto the reserve list in august.

A long explanation for a simple fact; most pilots are forced to commute to work either by circumstance or economics. According to the NTSB, at Colgan Air (the airline that is responsible for the new fatigue push) 93 of 137 pilots are commuters, 49 of the 93 over 400 miles and 29 others in excess of 1,000 miles. It adds, undeniably, to fatigue. But how can you fix it?

A simple regulation forcing pilots to be in domicile 24 hours prior (rumored) would open Pandora’s Box. Do you pay them if they have to be there? There is current Labour Case Law supporting that. How do you monitor it? How do you keep a pilot from driving 8 hours (untraceable) instead of taking a 1 hour 45 minute flight? Is a 2 hour drive acceptable? What about New York or Los Angeles if you are stuck in traffic? Do you go illegal at some point?

Is a Hoover-ville like the one in LAX the answer? A poverty level First Officer living in a box on the parking lot? How long will the industry be able to pull qualified applicants to such a glamorous lifestyle? Keep in mind the average airline pilot was drawn to the industry by high pay and retirement, the promise of free time, and the luxury of the best hotels and beautiful Flight Attendants. Living in a beat up camper in the employee parking lot is not a recruiters dream.

What are some possible fixes? The most obvious fix is pay your employees a livable wage, but that is not the purview of the FAA.

7 Responses to “Airline Safety, Fatigue and the commuter Pilot”

  1. Rick 22 July 2009 at 16:31 #

    Your last two posts have been excellant. They also bring back memories of what happened to Thurmun Munson, the Yankee catcher of the great 76’77’78 teams, on 3 hours of sleep and low time (6 hours) in a Cessna Citation back in 1979. It is a fascinating story. See this article, and I think you will agree.
    I know it is not “on message” with your campaign to boost incomes and lower hours for commercial pilots, but it is a good object lesson for any aviator…particularly risk management for low time in type pilots.

  2. Chip 22 July 2009 at 20:06 #

    Actually I think it excentuates the message. That being; experience has been trumping fatigue and inexperience for years, the contracts were gutted post 911. Then the backwards march started resulting in an experience level that has been keeping the industry safe. At my airline the average age is now 50. BUT! The experience ends at the majors, because working for the Regionals is not worth it, and that is why the cracks in safety are showing there first. The other wildcard is age 65, fatigue and old is not a good combination.

  3. Rick 23 July 2009 at 08:57 #

    The reality of all of this, and your point of fatigue after these long days for commuter (small c) pilots, to me is this….again…I know I maybe harp too much about this….is never, never, fly at night. period. I always take the early to mid morning flights whenever I am traveling commercially. You avoid the late day weather stack-ups, and more importantly you avoid a fatigued crew. It seems so practical to me; I don’t know why this isn’t a topic more discussed.

  4. Chip 23 July 2009 at 09:58 #

    You know the best kept secret of a true road warrior. GO EARLY! For all the reasons you listed. If a storm moves in, generally it is in the afternoon. If an airplane breaks in the AM you have all day to get on another. Here is another little secret, if your flight cancels the airlines consider your seat GONE. Yes, they will put you on another, but, with bottom priority. End of the line, not head. Yet another reason to go early. Watch the weather if a front moves in, you better be there early. If you are caught in something nasty like an ice storm? Be the first one to the closest hotel, it may be a while. Obviously you fly a lot! Good advice.

  5. Rick 23 July 2009 at 16:21 #

    Lessee, here…..1 million miles on Pan Am before they went bust, and 2million miles on United. I’m sure I’m up there with a couple of others…just not a million.
    But the point about night flying is highlighted by several of these recent accidents where night flying was a factor, and the one that horrified me the most, was that Lexington KY wreck a couple of years ago with TWO pilots allowing themselves to be on the wrong runway. I out of Lexington a few days before that wreck, departing mid-day. The tower told me hold short of 26; then the next thing they told me was “cleared for takeoff RWY 22”, without mentioning 26. I radioed back “crossing 26 for takeoff 22” so I was confirming I was crossing safely. I’m sure that flight was given the same instructions I was, but NIGHT took away their situational awareness; obviously they also hadn’t looked at the heading indicator also. Anyway, it’s just why another reason why I won’t fly at night.

  6. Chip 23 July 2009 at 16:26 #

    Yes and they were doing one of those circadian nightmare sequences. If memory serves they flew a late flight in and then sat for 4 hours or so and then the mis-hap flight.

    Sound advice on the radio, always easier to verify then go to a hearing. Especially if everyone has a glass of water except you!

  7. Rick 23 July 2009 at 19:58 #

    And clearly, night flying aside, that cause for that crash was ground zero in your argument….fatigue…fatigue…fatigue. No other explanation for that catastrophic confusion of those two guys.

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