Friends have asked about the crash of Colgan 3407, stalled by a very junior captain and a moderately junior first officer. How could two experienced pilots have made the kind of mistake that befalls rusty Private pilots in a little four-seater? Evidence suggests that both pilots were fatigued and one was sick. The captain had failed quite a few check rides, but the first officer had 1600 hours before she joined Colgan and held a current flight instructor certificate. She probably built up most of those 1600 hours saving students from their mistakes. Sick and tired, evidence suggests that she could not save the captain from his mistakes.
Politicians have focussed on the low pay for regional airline pilots. I think that AIG, Wall Street, and our public school systems demonstrate that paying employees more does not necessarily generate higher performance. Working for $19,000 per year and living with mom doesn’t sound very glamorous, but there are plenty of people who want to do it. Paying Rebecca Shaw more would not have saved the airplane and its passengers.
What could have saved the airplane? Well rested pilots.
Most airlines have a seniority-based system for everything, including, critically, scheduling. A senior pilot at a major airline might be able to arrange his schedule so that he need only work 8 or 10 days per month. He will be able to choose his home base so that it is close to his actual house. The senior pilot will have a short commute and 20-22 days per month of rest.
The junior pilot, by contrast, gets the trips and the schedule that the senior pilots don’t want. The result may be 22 days month of 16-hour days (measured not by flight time but by hotel room to hotel room). A typical 16-hour day may include a 6-hour stop at an airport where the airline does not have a base and therefore there will be nowhere for the pilot to rest. He or she will be sitting near a gate, in uniform, reading a book, trying to shut out the noise of thousands of passengers walking by and hundreds of public address announcements.
Note that the least experienced pilots at an airline are getting the least rest. The most experienced crews are getting the most rest. I.e., the crews that really need to be sharp to do the job are the ones who are flying while tired.
The seniority system for pay and schedule increases commuting time. Suppose that an experienced Boeing 737 captain lives in New York and flies for an airline with a New York base. His wife gets transferred to Los Angeles and he follows her. His airline doesn’t have a base on the west coast. You’d think that he would quit and join an LA-based airline flying Boeing 737s, right? Doing so would cost him a 70 percent cut in pay and a 50 percent increase in hours worked. Having lost all of his seniority, he would start as the most junior first officer at his new employer. It might take him 15 years to work his way back up to captain. What will he do? He can fly free on any airline, so he’ll keep his job in New York and start every 4-day trip with a 6-hour flight from Los Angeles, possibly followed by a night in a “crash pad” (2BR apartment shared with 10 other pilots).
Does it have to be done this way? No. NetJets and many other corporate jet operators have the same schedule for all of their pilots. In the case of NetJets, it is 7 days on and 7 days off.
A few simple ideas for improving airline safety and giving the future Rebecca Shaws a chance to save the passengers:
- require that airlines come up with a scheduling system that gives an equal amount of work and rest to all pilots (the average amount of work done by pilots would not change, so this should not cost the airlines anything extra)
- require that airports served by commercial airlines build crew rest lounges that pilots from any airline can use for naps, etc. (airports collect a hefty tax on every passenger who goes through, so this should not break their budgets)
- come up with a procedure whereby pilots can move from airline to airline without having to start over at the bottom of the pay scale (there will no longer be a “schedule scale” so we don’t have to worry about that), in order to discourage long-distance commuting
[Note that the typical tiny airport in the U.S., which the average person would call an "airstrip", and which may not have any full-time staff, will have a comfortable lounge in which visiting pilots can rest. There will be sofas. There may be recliner chairs. Some of these small airports for private planes even have small bedrooms for naps. How come the guy flying a four-seat prop plane has a better place to rest than the pilot of a 150-passenger jet?]