Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Flying Cheap thoughts

So, I'm definitely not the first one to bring up this piece that Frontline did called Flying Cheap. I didn't have a chance to watch it until Friday. Greg and I were actually home together that evening so we decided to watch it online. My impression? Well, I know the general public doesn't know much about the airline industry but I can say the two of us were NOT sitting there going, "OMG I can't BELIEVE this, how shocking!!!". Meaning, in reference to what was brought up about pilot's rest and pilots being pressured to fly despite imperfect conditions, this is nothing new to us. That is fairly universal in our experience. My husband has been with at least 4 airlines now (I say at least 4, because one was an airline that sort of became another airline, so if you count them separately, that would be 5): a couple regionals, a start-up, and most recently a major/legacy. Some people might think this kind of situation would only exist at a very lowly bottom-feeder type of operation, but in our experience this is pretty universal and standard operation no matter what kind of airline you're at. It mainly comes down to pilots knowing their rights and exercising good discretion. Most airlines want their pilots to fly as much as they can get them to. The scheduling department people relentlessly try to get the pilots to fly, be it more time in an already jam-packed day, on a day off, etc... With airlines now all operating with the bare-minimum of pilots to keep their costs down, the existing pilots are going to get kind of "abused" in order to keep things running, when they don't have extra pilots around to pick up the slack. We're not sure if it's just that schedulers don't know the pilot work rules (possible) or they do and just hope the pilots don't their rights and possibly the schedulers are being pressured by the higher ups to get pilots to work more. My husband has always been really good about knowing his work rules and standing up to the companies when they have tried to get him to fly when he doesn't have to. I think that is very key. Not that it is right for airlines/scheduling to be trying to get their pilots to fly illegally, but as a pilot you should become as familiar as you can with your contract/work rules, etc... and not be afraid to cite them when you need to and say "no, I'm not legal for that" when the company comes calling on you with some shady assignment.
Same goes for maintenance/weather issues, which is another point that I believe they brought up in the piece. A lot of maintenance falls to pilot's discretion on whether they will fly or not. In the case of the Colgan 3407 flight, they were legal to fly under FAA and company policy, but the pilot needed to be the one to make the judgment call on whether they felt safe to fly or not based on conditions. I think this is one area where the pilots' inexperience really showed. They maybe shouldn't have even been flying in crappy conditions in the first place. There have been many times my husband has received a plane with maintenance issues and refused to fly it though other pilots have signed off and flown it. Such an example would be the APU being broken. FAA and company policy will allow you to fly a plane with a broken APU, which is the equipment that regulates the temperature/air conditioning in the cabin. Well, on a 95 degree day, it might be kind of essential to have a working APU so your passengers aren't going into heat stroke. Technically you can fly, but should you? Or the American flight that crashed in Jamaica- should they really have landed on that runway despite high winds that hindered their ability to land safely? I think pilots need to speak up if there are issues like these that might become a problem.
The Colgan crew's inexperience also showed in their reaction to the problems that occurred. My husband told me about how in most training programs in a stall situation they train you to absolutely not lose altitude (which he disagrees with), which caused the Colgan capt. to react in the opposite way he should have to their problem (I think he pulled up instead of down or something). Greg said since the crash, some airlines have actually amended their training and let up on that altitude issue (he has a good friend in the training dept at Trans States that said they changed their training).
I know Greg has said for a while that he hopes for big changes in the work rules and rest rules. He said from day one of the crash that he hoped that it would be the positive change to come out of that crash. Eight hours of rest from the time a pilot gets off the plane is not nearly enough when you have to wait for a hotel van, check in at the hotel, get to bed, and be up the next morning and shuttle back to the airport. Not only would better rest rules be good for pilot rest, but it would also be good for furloughed pilots and hiring in the industry, because existing pilots wouldn't be able to fly as long or as much and therefore it would require airlines to increase pilot staff in order to keep flying as much as they currently are. This would be such an overhaul and expense to the airlines that they are definitely fighting the idea of the work/rest changes though, so it remains to be seen if it will ever happen.
Bottom line, it was an interesting program to watch but we definitely felt like they dumped a lot of bad press specifically on Colgan for things that many many other airlines do as well. It's more of an aviation industry issue than an issue with this specific airline. I'm glad woke some people up to some of the issues of the profession, but I hope that the people don't think that these issues are only specific to Colgan or even to regional airlines. Even majors/legacies have low pay the first year, about $30,000 at best. There are a lot of issues in the industry in general that are not just on the regional level.


Joanna said...

I think that you are spot on when saying that a pilot needs to know the rules and be the one to enforce things to crew scheduling if it is necessary.

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