Commuter Airline ‘Set Up’ Pilots for Fatigue

Respect for people, a fundamental lean principle, can mean many things.

Perhaps the meaning we think of most often is that employees are intelligent, capable human beings who are capable of coming up with good ideas and whose input should be sought and valued.

But it also means that employees deserve a safe working environment and working conditions that do not cause injury or fatigue.

Apparently Colgan Air – and possibly other small commuter airlines – never learned that lesson.

Colgan was the operator of the plane that crashed outside Buffalo in February, killing all 49 people aboard.

According to a report in The New York Times, members of the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the crash said that pilots and other employees were “set up” for fatigue and inattention, and Colgan was guilty of “winking and nodding” at safety conditions.

How so? First, employees are paid relatively low wages by industry standards, and many view their jobs as stepping stones to better jobs. As a result, they may live hundreds or thousands of miles away, and get free rides on company planes to commute to their jobs. The company has a rule that pilots should not commute in on the day a shift begins, but the rule is not enforced.

Further, employees sometimes use the crew room at Newark airport for sleeping, violating another rule that is not enforced.

“It’s not quality rest,” Harry Mitchel, Colgan’s vice president for flight operations, testified. “There’s a lot of activity in our crew rooms.”

The result of all of this is fatigue.

The acting chairman of the board, Mark V. Rosenker, said the company was “winking and nodding” about its pilots’ commuting practices. Another board member, Kathryn O. Higgins, said, “When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that your crew rooms that aren’t supposed to be used, are being used, I think it’s a recipe for an accident.”

To its credit, the Times followed up on its report of the investigation with an article on the front page this past Sunday describing the life of pilots at small airlines.

The details of that world have surprised many Americans — the strikingly low pay for new pilots; the rigors of flying multiple flights, at lower altitudes and thus often in worse weather than pilots on longer routes, while scrambling to get enough sleep; the relative inexperience of pilots at the smaller airlines, whose training standards are the same, but whose skills may not be.

The well-written article, by David Halbfinger, Matthew Wald and Christopher Drew, is a chilling piece that will make you think twice about flying with a small airline.

What has been learned so far about the Buffalo crash is disturbing.

In the crash, the first officer, Rebecca L. Shaw, 24, a Colgan employee for about a year, apparently pulled an all-nighter to get a free transcontinental trip to work…

The captain, Marvin D. Renslow, 47, who had been with Colgan since September 2005, had flown to Newark from his Florida home the previous evening. He was logged on to a computer at 3 a.m.; investigators are not sure where he slept, but he was known to have sometimes used the crew lounge at Newark

In the crash, the crew lost track of their deteriorating airspeed, and when a warning system activated, Captain Renslow reacted wrongly, pulling up the nose instead of pushing it down, to regain airspeed and improve the angle of the wings.

The plane went into a stall, meaning the combination of angle and speed left the wings unable to generate lift…

Both pilots can be heard yawning on the cockpit voice recorder…

Ms. Shaw could be heard sneezing on the cockpit voice recorder, and at one point suggested to Captain Renslow that they seek permission from air traffic control to descend early because that would be more comfortable for her ears, which were stuffed. Pilots earn sick time at the rate of half a day a month, but calling in sick can often mean missing more than one day of work, since they are often assigned to two- or three-day trips.

There are likely to be recommendations from the NTSB, and the FAA might also get involved. Stay tuned.

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