As airlines cut corners, will pilot fatigue run the industry into the ground?

On Wednesday night, Northwest Airlines (DAL) Flight 188, an Airbus A-320, overshot its destination by 150 miles before the pilots re-established contact with air traffic controllers, turned the plane around, and landed in Minneapolis. While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the incident, questions have risen about the cause of the overflight and what it says about current airline safety regulations.

According to Flight 188's crew, the incident occurred because they were engaged in a heated argument about airline policy. While the NTSB checks the plane's flight data recorder for evidence of the alleged fight, speculation has arisen about whether the overflight was actually caused by crew fatigue.

Regardless of the cause, pilot unions, airlines, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are once again discussing a radical change in rules about pilot flight limits. Current regulations, which have been in effect since the 1960s, only allow pilots to fly for 100 hours per month or 8 hours in any 24-hour period. Although this only works out to about 25 hours per week, it doesn't take into account crowded runways, the hours that pilots spend traveling from airport to airport, and other causes of flight delay. These problems have gotten a lot worse since the 1960s and, according to the NTSB, have been responsible for at least ten accidents and 260 fatalities since 1990.

One of those accidents occurred in May 2009, when Rebecca Shaw, a co-pilot for Colgan Air, crashed a commuter plane near Buffalo, N.Y. The 24-year-old Shaw, who had one year of experience in the cockpit, was exhausted after commuting to Newark, N.J., from her home in Seattle. Meanwhile, the plane's pilot, Captain Marvin Renslow, had spent the previous night sleeping in Newark airport's crew lounge. In both cases, they were apparently far too sleep-deprived to fly.

One obvious question is why Renslow and Shaw didn't get rooms at a local hotel. The answer may be that pilot salaries are getting smaller and smaller. As Chesley Sullenberger, the famed "hero pilot" of Flight 1549, recently testified to Congress, the past few years have brought him a 40 percent drop in salary and a terminated pension. With aging pilots like Sullenberger flying longer hours for less money, it is hardly surprising that accidents are occurring.

In the case of Shaw, the salary problem was particularly acute; the NTSB has stated that her salary was $16,000 per year. While Colgan Air claims that she was paid $23,900, even that salary seems minuscule, given the amount of time that she would have to spend away from home, presumably paying for her meals and accommodations. This becomes even more ridiculous when one considers that, according to the Wall Street Journal, the average starting pay for a pilot is $36,283. Even this higher salary is below the average income for a high school graduate; given the amount of training and certification required for a pilot's license, it's downright disturbing.

In this context, it's not hard to see how conversation might have gotten somewhat heated on the flight deck of Northwest Flight 188. In fact, as a recent fistfight in an Air India cockpit demonstrated, low salaries and long hours are fraying pilot tempers around the world. As airlines continue to look for ways to cut corners and increase profits, its clear that flight crew salaries and work hours should definitely be taken off the table.

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