Should We Be Worried About Our Pilots?

*Robert*, flickr

Forget the image of flying as a glamorous profession and lifestyle. The highs of an office in the sky are countered by the crashing reality of reduced salaries and eliminated pension plans. And a host of new rules will add further strain to the already-stressful job.

A pilot's day begins long before takeoff with aircraft inspection and flight plan review, and the long grueling hours and constant travel strain family life. Those working for smaller commuter carriers often can't afford to live in his or her hub city or take second jobs to make ends meet. Rebecca Shaw, copilot of Colgan Flight 3407 that crashed near Buffalo in February 2009, earned just $23,900 annually and had flown overnight from Seattle to Newark as a passenger before piloting the doomed plane.

Pilots get all the credit when things go right (see: Sullenberger, Chesley), but are also the first to be blamed when things go wrong. Last October's overflight of Minneapolis by Northwest pilots and the Colgan Air crash have highlighted aviation safety issues like cockpit distractions, inadequate training, inexperience, and fatigue. In response, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) will implement more rigorous training regulations and also issued an "Information for Operators" guidance memo regarding cockpit use of personal electronic devices. After exhaustive investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), scathingly critiqued the recent high-profile accidents, delivering more than 25 recommendations, including monitoring cockpit conversations and scheduling industry-wide forums on safety and professionalism.

The recent events have spurred a three-day forum that began on Tuesday. While the conference is centered on getting more pilots and air controllers to consistently strive for a higher level of professionalism, some unsettling statistics have already been revealed. On the first day of the conference, the NTSB expressed concerns that future pilots may not make the grade when the time comes, especially those flying regional carriers. Fewer military pilots are leaving for airline jobs, choosing instead to pursue more lucrative corporate positions, and fewer college students see careers in aviation as a cost-effective path. The lack of general interest, and looming retirements (along with anticipated industry growth), shows signs that future pilots will be less experienced and in short supply.

Given the recent incidents of distracted flying (texting after pushing back from the gate, working on laptops, supposedly excessive chatter, possible fatigue-impaired decisions) and what the NTSB blasted as critical errors of mishandling, we favor legislation that increases safety. But are these new rules grounded in reality?

1. Increasing Training Hours
New FAA regulations that passed the Senate and the House compel all copilots on regional passenger airlines to have at least 800 hours of training, including experience in adverse weather conditions such as icing and flying at high altitudes and in a multi-pilot cockpit. New York Senator Chuck Schumer's original amendment required all commercial airline pilots and copilots to have at least 1,500 hours of training. For some perspective, current regulations allow commuter pilots with only 250 hours of experience to fly passengers. Carriers must also train pilots on handling stalls, spins, and other emergencies. Exercises like that were once included in training schools' syllabi, but were eliminated nearly 20 years ago due to expense and the incidents' rarity. A European Aviation Safety Association survey discovered that nearly half of all pilots during initial or refresher training had never even witnessed a stall or spin. EASA will mandate "Upset Recovery Training" by 2012; the FAA should follow suit. The NTSB also proposed six safety recommendations to the FAA based on new computerized "glass cockpit" technology training alone, as well as response to system malfunctions.

Recommendations are also being made about accessing aviator records during pre-employment screening. Many pilots and instructors argue it's a question of improving not just training, but pilot selection and recruitment as well. Flight 3407 Captain Marvin Renslow failed two critical flying skills tests but didn't tell Colgan prior to his hiring nor did the carrier request complete records from the FAA. Yet Renslow and co-pilot Shaw actually met the proposed 1,500-hour minimum. The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE), comprising over 360 leading aviation educators from all areas of the industry, polled members and the near-uniform consensus was that hours alone aren't an indicator of competency.

2. Banning Personal Electronic Devices
The NTSB argues that PEDs have a disturbing impact on aviation, and has called for tighter cockpit discipline since 2007. "There is no room for distraction when your job is to get people safely to their destinations," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's statement read. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt (himself a former airline pilot) noted that "Every aviation professional needs to take the issue of distractions in the cockpit seriously."

Chris Cuddy, CEO of Cheapflights Media, points out that the FAA specifically discourages usage during taxi, takeoff, climbing to 10,000 feet, and during descent and landing. "This is common sense as these time windows are the most intensive part of a flight," he says. "Can you imagine texting or using your laptop while navigating a highway on-ramp in your family minivan?" Smarter Travel Executive Editor Anne Banas considers the memo unnecessary for the majority of pilots who are diligent about following high safety standards. "However, because recent incidents of pilots being neglectful or making careless decisions have made headlines, it's important to ensure that safety is a priority across the board and improve consumer confidence," she says.

3. Monitoring Cockpit Chatter
The NTSB recommends utilizing cockpit voice recordings (black boxes) to monitor pilot conversations regularly, rather than just post-accident to determine cause. Pilots on the Northwest flight that overshot Minneapolis told investigating FBI agents that their literal oversight and concomitant failure to contact radio controllers was due to a heated conversation about airline policy (rules already forbid unnecessary non-work-related chatter during crucial parts of the flight).

Unions call it an invasion of privacy, though NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt stated, "This is not a case of Big Brother spying on pilots." More worrisome is that it could foster distrust among flight crews. Continental Captain John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association union, believes reviews could prevent pilots discussing safety issues in the cockpit for fear of discipline. The FAA suggests reviews would be performed anonymously and analyzed for safety trends. Even Bill Voss, president of the independent Flight Safety Foundation favors implementing other safety initiatives first, though he conceded "that was a very long conversation" when asked about the Northwest flight. But Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, dubbed it "the next frontier of safety" at a hearing.

4. Toughening Fatigue Regulation
Studies show lack of sleep can be equivalent to drinking on the job, impairing judgment and slowing response time. Questions persist about the role fatigue played in the Colgan crash, especially since both pilots took overnight flights to Newark. "Can you imagine taking the family on an interstate drive after you pulled an all-nighter?" says Cuddy. "And there's no pulling over on the side of the road when you are flying." NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman is concerned as well. "Many times, they're crossing multiple time zones for their job," she says. "This is a very brutal lifestyle."

FAA regulations limit flying time of airline pilots of large aircraft to a maximum of 100 monthly and 1,000 annual hours. Most airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours a month and work an additional 140 hours a month performing non-flying duties, including waiting out delays that irk them as much as passengers. Though some pilots can have a maximum workday of 16 hours, those on domestic flights may fly no more than eight hours during a 24-hour period, and to have at least eight continuous hours of rest. But pilots and federal officials claim those rules, set decades ago, are inadequate. The NTSB has urged the FAA since 1990 to strengthen regulations. Previous efforts stalled: Unions demanded fewer hours on-duty and increased time off between flights, while airlines opposed the changes, which would increase labor costs (and potentially fares).
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