The Other Side of Airline Safety Kabuki
The airline industry has been caught in the post-Underpants Bomber security scare, and the bedwetters at DHS have been imposing draconian, virtually useless screening methodologies on the traveling public ruining both the industry and the public’s desire to travel at all. And it’s all in the name of Safety, right? Not so fast…
Airline management on the other hand has been working hard to ensure that the safety card is played in a whole other way… by punishing crews who try to behave in a way that allows safe operation of their aircraft, and who are doing their best to ensure that passengers have crews that are rested and ready to fly.
Last winter, Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed on approach into the Buffalo airport in Buffalo, NY. There has been a lot of speculation about the cause of the crash, from training issues to fatigue issues involving the crew. Well, the operator of that flight just put out a memo to their flight crews threatening them with discipline if they call in “fatigued” for a flight. The partial memo was posted on the website Airline Pilot Central, and is copied here as it was posted there:
Beginning immediately, fatigue calls will not be accepted:
1. If the crewmember has had a period of at least 12 hours rest prior to the start of the duty day.*
2. If the crewmember is returning from days off.
3. For future or downline flights. That is, a crewmember cannot declare “I’m going to be fatigued on my next flight”, or “I’m calling in fatigue for tomorrow”.
*Mitigating circumstances that prevent a rest period from being fully utilized will be considered when determining whether a fatigue call is acceptable.
The Safety Department will ultimately determine whether a fatigue call is acceptable or not. However, a fatigue call that is not accepted will be referred to the Chief Pilot or Inflight Base Manager for disposition.
Any further blatant abuse of the fatigue option will be addressed as a disciplinary action, and fatigue resulting from an improper use of rest periods or personal time off duty will be treated as missed trips. This policy begins immediately.
The text of the memo seems to imply that safety is far less important to the company than pilot/flight crew utilization, and the majority of commenters on the forum seem to agree with that idea. The only person who knows if they are fatigued is the crew member being asked to make the flight, and is responsible for all those passengers in the back. Crews who abuse the system are soon pretty well known, and it’s not hard to manage them like any other “outlier” using acceptable HR methods, just like any other company.
The very thought that this or any other airline would be more concerned with money than safety is troubling, the fact that a company that had a crash like the one in Buffalo where there were serious concerns and discussions in the media about fatigue and crew-rest issues is more troubling still.
The FAA convened a board composed of government, “line” pilots and union reps to look at and and make recommendations about flight time/duty time issues, and the board reported out some time back. Their findings, not surprisingly, were that many airlines were pushing too hard and marginalizing safety concerns in exchange for bottom-line performance. Pilots at many carriers, especially regionals, are asked to work very long days and are offered little to no recourse except calling in “fatigued” when the pace gets to be too much and they feel unable to safely complete their flying. Additionally, there is a negative financial incentive at most air carriers for calling in fatigued, you don’t get paid for missing the trip… the crash in Buffalo brought the poor pay and working conditions to the forefront for many folks who thought that all airline pilots are highly-paid and underworked wage-earners. A regional first officer (co-pilot) with tens of thousands of dollars in education debt may be making a whopping 18 thousand dollars a year to fly you around, and missing work (and pay) may not be an option for that first officer. Safety versus Money, again.
Under current regulations, a pilot can be legally put on a 16 hour duty day and be tasked with flying eight hours of that time. The ensuing rest period starts 15 minutes after the last flight and the next duty day starts no later than 40 or so minutes (depending on the airline’s policy) before the crew’s first departure the next day. The airline is allowed schedule what is called “minimum” or “reduced” rest for that crew which is eight hours and the whole thing starts over again, except the next day the crew can get a bit more sleep/rest (maybe an hour or two) until the airline begins to run into mandatory rest requirements.
So the question is, what’s more important? The government working to chase down future underpants bombers or deal with the issues of pilot fatigue in some meaningful way. I’m guessing that lobbyists and industry insiders are going to choose chasing down underpants bombers because the industry can’t address fatigue issues without discussing things like staffing levels, good working conditions, and yes, safety of flight. All subjects they’d rather stay away when they have a stalking horse like the man with explosive underwear.