Pilots, Commuting, and Fatigue

We started this conversation yesterday in the comment section, and I think it’s deserving of its own topic. The Colgan Air accident involved a couple of pilots who were exhausted. One had just flown in on a Airline Employee Commutesredeye the night before and shouldn’t have been flying that plane. Thanks to this incident, commuting and fatigue are getting their time in the spotlight, and it’s important that this gets discussed.

First, I’d like to make it clear that this is in no way a regional airline issue. Pilots at nearly every airline commute and fatigue is an issue regardless of what size plane you’re flying, though it is more taxing to fly 10 short hops a day than it is to fly one long haul flight over the ocean. Also, at the regional level, low wages can make commuting more of a necessity than a choice depending upon where that pilot is based.

People often think of commercial pilots as making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but the reality is that it takes a lot of suffering to get even close to that point. After getting a private pilots license, most pilots will scrap along, building hours any way they can with the hope that an airline will pick them up. Sometimes, that first job may be at some sketchy cargo airline hauling crap on ancient airplanes in the middle of the night. For others, that job will be for a regional airline.

That regional job pays just about nothing. A first year First Officer at Colgan, for example, will earn $21 an hour. And that’s $21 per hour of actual flying, not time on the clock. If that guy flies 75 hours a month (that’s the minimum Colgan guarantees), then he’ll make $18,900 a year. Yes, it’s incredibly low, but that changes over time in a growing industry.

When the industry is growing, the opportunity for advancement comes quickly. For example, if a pilot is able to get on with Southwest, the best paying passenger airline in the US, he’ll make $54 an hour in his first year as a First Officer, more than doubling his annual pay. A Southwest captain tops out at $206 an hour, close to $200,000 a year with minimum flying levels. But in a shrinking industry like we have today, people don’t move up very frequently. They get stuck in their jobs and don’t have the opportunity to advance. That’s why you hear a lot of grumbling these days when you didn’t hear it as much before. The unfortunate problem for the pilot, however, is that there’s always someone waiting to take that spot.

In this shrinking industry, pilots get paid less for longer, and that makes creating a good life for oneself harder to do, especially if that pilot is based in a big and expensive city. Allowing a pilot to commute to his job is the only way to be able to pay someone that little and expect him to live. That’s why you see people commuting from either cheaper cities or from parents’ homes. It saves precious money. These newbies usually find a bunch of other pilots and they all go in on a crash pad in their base – whenever someone is in town they can crash there. It’s not ideal, but it works. So, should this be stopped?

Not in my opinion. Listen to what Peggy Gilligan, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety for the FAA, had to say on the subject during Senate committee hearings on the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo.

As you can imagine, those pilots who commute responsibly are understandably concerned that they could be forced to relocate because of the irresponsible actions of a few. Should some sort of hard and fast commuting rule be imposed, it could result in families being separated, people being forced to sell homes at a loss, or even people being forced to violate child custody agreements. It is important to keep in mind these personal accounts because, to people not familiar with the airline industry, the issue of living in one city and working hundreds of miles away in another does not make sense. But in the airline industry, this is not only a common practice, it is one airline employees have come to rely on.

Very true. Do you think airlines are going to magically raise pay levels or pay for relocation? No way. And why should they? This process works just fine for those who are responsible. It’s those who take advantage of the system and show up exhausted after a long night of commuting that should be stopped. If a pilot can’t commute properly in order to show up rested for work, then maybe it’s not the right job for that person.

This is why the FAA is so important. The FAA needs to be vigilant in ensuring that airlines aren’t putting too much pressure on pilots to fly even if they aren’t up to it. There have certainly been times where that’s happened in the past, and I imagine it happens today. It’s a very hard thing to police for an airline. If management is too soft, then pilots may take advantage of the situation. If management is too hard, then safety becomes an issue.

This really is a job for the FAA, and it’s regulatory issues like these that should be their top priority. I’m eagerly waiting to see what they decide when it comes to rest and commuting rules, but hopefully they don’t give in to politics and simply ban commuting altogether.

[Original photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30816202@N02/ / CC BY 2.0]
[Original photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/articnomad/ / CC BY-SA 2.0 – Joshua Davis – jdavis.info]

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