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Archive for May, 2009

Since September 11, 2001,  six scheduled passenger airplanes have crashed in the U.S.  Of these, only one involved a major airline.  This record, including the crash in Buffalo last winter of a Colgan Air flight, operating as Continental Connection flight 3407, has now finally caught the attention of the media and Congress. The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded its hearings and will be reporting its results to the FAA.  Meanwhile, Congress will begin hearings next month as a result of the NTSB findings.  The most shocking news from the NTSB investigation has been that the crew of the Colgan Air flight seemed to be suffering from extreme fatigue.  Colgan Air has been quick to say that any fatigue experienced by the crew was not the fault of Colgan Air. Colgan says that the crew-members had plenty of time to rest up before their flight, and their statement implies that if they didn’t take advantage of that opportunity it is their own fault, and not Colgan’s.  It seems to me that this statement might be slightly disingenuous, which is to be expected since there will undoubtedly be a lot of finger pointing, not to mention lawsuits, in the near future.

If one tries to find the truth of the matter, it will soon become apparent that this accident, like many aviation accidents was caused by a whole chain of causes, one leading to the other, until eventually the proximate cause occurs that results in the actual accident.  It seems that in this particular case the evidence points to the captain taking incorrect action when the aircraft automatically began maneuvering to prevent a stall.  The captain apparently reacted in a way the not only prevented the autopilot from avoiding the stall, but actually ensured that the aircraft would stall.

Of course there is still the unanswered question of why was the aircraft about to stall in the first place? Was it because of icing conditions?  Could it be that this type of aircraft does not have adequate deicing capability?  I suppose the NTSB will be lookiing at that too.

However, for now, the issue that has gotten the public’s attention is crew fatigue and crew salaries, and the question of whether low salaries inevitably lead to crew fatigue, poor judgement, poor reactions, and the crash.  How can low salaries possibly lead to fatigue and a crash? Apparently neither Colgan nor the rest of the regional aviation industry have a clue.  Here’s how: imagine you are a regional airline pilot based at LaGuardia, Newark, or JFK.  Now imagine you get an annual salary of $16,000.  Go find an apartment near the airport that you can afford so that after paying your rent, you can also afford to buy food in New York City or New Jersey, clothing, gasoline, parking, and on and on (not to mention taxes).  It turns out that you can’t do it because $16,000 just doesn’t cover your expenses.  So what do you do? You find a cheaper place to live, like with your parents a few thousand miles away, or with a bunch of other poor regional pilots who share a cramped “crash pad”.  Then you fly a schedule of three or four flights, day after day, which barely gives you enough time to sleep. The FAA regulations about crew rest time turns a blind eye towards this reality.  They count travel time to and from the airport and meal time as “rest”.  They require a minimum of eight hours of this “rest” every night, but most pilots will tell you this can translate into only a few hours of actual sleep.

There are a host of issues that need to be addressed concerning the safety of regional airlines including crew rest, crew training, crew workload, aircraft safety and capabilities, and ultimately crew salaries.  I say ultimately because unless crew salaries are sufficient to provide the ability to actually have a safe and healthy lifestyle the passengers who fly on these planes will not be as safe as those who fly on the major airlines, where the crews get ten time as much (or more) in salaries.  The problem for the American public is that about 50% of passenger traffic is on the regionals these days.  The question is whether the Congress, NTSB, FAA, and the aviation industry will face this issue or just duck the whole thing.  Duck the whole thing?  Yes.  It is a common practice in the aviation industry. It’s more commonly called cost/benefit analysis, which means that sometimes, if a certain type of fatal accident happens only very infrequently – like the TWA 800 disaster (the Boeing 747 that simply blew up in the sky) – it just isn’t worth the cost of fixing the problem because it probably won’t happen again for a very long time.

On the other hand, it may be that because the regional airlines don’t have such a great track record versus the major airlines (five out of the last six crashes),  this time the cost/benefit analysis thing will show that it is more cost effective to fix the problem.  The question is how do we fix it?  It seems to me that, unAmerican as it may sound, the underlying problem is too much competition.  This is the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of the airline industry. The airline business has become a free for all and the resulting cut throat competition (just ask Aloha Airlines) has continually driven one airline after another into bankruptcy.  Those that are not bankrupt (read America’s major airlines here) are barely hanging on.

The cure is simple: the government has to step in and start regulating the airlines again because our current Darwinian competition actually creates a safety problem that will never be adequately addressed without the (hopefully) adult supervision of the government.  First, the FAA needs to disentangle itself from its cozy relationship with the airlines and go back to being an independent supervisor of American aviation safety.  Then the government needs to get back into its old role of assigning aviation routes to particular airlines.  In other words, some of the airlines have to go, there are just too many of them and it doesn’t do anybody any good.  Those that are left will be able to make a profit, and they will be able to pay their pilots enough money.  The result will be that all these crew rest and training issues will go away. (Yes, I know that airfares will go up.  I’m afraid it’s either that or crash and burn – you choose.)

I know it’s not pure Capitalism.  It’s not Darwinian airline evolution. It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s not the Law of the Yukon where, “only the strong shall thrive, surely the weak shall perish, and only the fit survive.”  It’s not Reaganomics.

It’s just reasonable.

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