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Dec152009

« Sacred Cows and Fatigue »

Last week, I was in Boston listening to the students in MIT’s Airline Industry class make group presentations on six US airlines.  It is always refreshing to hear the analysis, reflection on strategies and recommendations from really smart kids who aren’t burdened, like me, by three decades of taint or cynicism. 

Do We Have a National Aviation Policy?

The student presentations got me thinking about the role of national policy on the U.S. airlines. Michael E. Levine, now a Distinguished Research Scholar and Senior Lecturer at  the New York University School of Law, wrote an op-ed in the December 1, 2009 Aviation Daily titled:  “We Have a National Aviation Policy.”  Many will remember Levine as one of the minds behind and framers of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.  Levine went on to serve in numerous senior management positions at a number of airlines along the way.  To the serious industry observer, Levine is a must-read.  You may not always agree with his viewpoints, but you always know that the work will be well researched, thoughtful and provocative.

Levine’s Aviation Daily piece has its roots in the recent comments by former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall and Business Travel Coalition President Kevin Mitchell suggesting that the U.S. lacks an effective  aviation policy.

Levine disagrees:  “Our government has an excellent aviation policy:  continuously improve safety, promote environmental goals, maintain consumer choice, and allow the general public access to a system not run specially for the benefit of stockholders, banks, elite purchasers, aircraft manufacturers and workers more privileged than they are,” he writes. “We even have a mechanism in place to make sure that service is provided where social policy demands it and the market won’t pay for it.”

In Levine’s view:

  • Profit is the job of managements and shareholders, not government
  • Air transportation must be safe
  • Government’s job is to ensure that aircraft are safe, not new
  • Airline wages and career options should be no more or less a government concern than they are for workers in general
  • US airlines should compete in world markets, and our government should eliminate impediments put in their way by other governments
  • The terrible accident in Buffalo raises issues about pilot experience, fatigue and past performance that underscore the need to revisit negotiated seniority rules and pay scales that pay pilots more to fly bigger aircraft, leaving some of the least experienced pilots to do some of the most demanding flying
  • Pilot fatigue comes not only from duty assignments but also from lifestyle choices that have pilots commuting to work from homes that may be thousands of miles from their jobs.

I encourage readers to find a copy and read Levine’s piece in its entirety.  It is good.  And of course many of the ideas are those espoused here at swelblog.com.  If I have a quibble at all with Levine’s piece, I would say that the US government and the narrow-minded thinkers in Washington who are in power positions on committees overseeing US commercial aviation produce at least as many impediments as do other governments. 

Levine’s analysis is also well timed to the formation of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s Blue Ribbon panel to study the industry. A mind like Levine’s would serve the industry well because unlike Crandall and Mitchell, he does not have a dog in the fight.  Furthermore, his writing reflects the need to cut to core issues that govern US aviation today and fix the things don’t work – even if those things include some sacred cow(s).

Pilot Fatigue

Last week, FAA Administrator Babbitt testified before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee on a variety of safety issues including pilot fatigue. As I have written here many times, there can be no productive discussion on pilot fatigue until the issue of commuting is included in that discussion. 

Until last week, any Congressional testimony fatigue or flight time/duty time regulation changes centered on the work of an FAA Advisory panel that met during July and August to recommend changes to existing rules.  But that committee -- comprised of labor, management and other stakeholder groups  -- decided that commuting was “outside the boundaries” of their mission.  So it is left to Babbitt and the FAA to seek comment on commuting with respect to the proposed rule changes.

Commuting, of course is among the industry’s most sacred cows. I don’t know how many airlines would be willing to go first in telling a pilot, or a flight attendant, that they cannot commute or that they have to live within X miles of their assigned domicile.  Clearly,  Babbitt is not convinced that commuting is the only major factor in the fatigue question. So for now, Babbitt’s mantra is the right one:  Show up fit to work.

But commuting is a management issue as well.  Back in the day when I was flying, pilots were paid moving expenses and had the company buy their house (in the event it could not be sold) if they were displaced to another domicile.  As the industry began to grow and merge and create new hubs and thus new crew domiciles, the moving expense issue was a big one for companies to consider.  Lo and behold, it was one of the early concessions airlines sought from pilot contracts in their efforts to cut costs and the industry structure began transforming itself.

I am glad that we are looking at fatigue and flight time/duty time regulations with a learned eye to make fixes where science suggests fixes need to be made.  What doesn’t make sense is this hue and cry that fatigue is an issue because airlines have worked to improve productivity by getting their pilots to fly an additional eight hours a month.

Reader Comments (4)

Years ago I flew for a commuter airline in the northeast. During the six years that I was employed as a pilot there, I was based in the following cities; Hartford, Boston, Burlington (VT), Boston, Burlington, Providence, Boston, Bangor, Hartford, Portland, Boston. That is eleven domicile changes in six years. For most of that time I was a first officer making less than $20,000/year. I was in my twenties and this was my second airline. The first one had gone out of business and I moved to the northeast for my new job. It was while working for this second commuter that I made a promise to myself never to move for an airline.
Now I fly for United. I have been based in NY for the entire 13 years of my employment, commuting from Vermont. I have been tempted at times to simplify my life and move my family closer to my job. But how stable has that job been in the last decade? Thousands of my fellow pilots have been furloughed- twice! Our NY base has shrunk to a fraction of its original size. If I want to fly internationally, I would now have to move to yet another base. And if there is a merger, what happens then?
It is simply unreasonable to ask pilots to live at their domiciles. Airlines are too unstable and too quickly rearrange their operations to allow any kind of stability for most pilots.
I usually spend the night before a trip in an airport hotel. When I report for duty, I have had more sleep than the pilot who had to drive an hour to get to the airport. Commuting expenses are burdensome, but I consider it money well spent to insulate my family from the airline and give them roots. Of course, I am not that poor Colgan first officer, without two nickles to rub together.
You cannot expect someone making such low wages to establish a home in the NY area. Nor can you demand that they pay for a hotel. It just isn't reasonable.
I know the airline "experts" say there is no correlation between pay and safety. Well, I dissagree. The pilots I fly with at United are better, smarter and more professional, on average, than the ones I flew with in the commuters. And they are paid better. Colgan paid little and grew fast. They had no choice but to hire pretty much any warm body that walked through their door (and, incedentally, to pass them in training. Believe me, the first airline I worked for went so far to pass a bad pilot, that they stopped doing circling approaches because they were too hard for him! But They needed a captain that badly. ( I was too young to upgrade- you have to be 23) So Colgan hired and passed a captain that pulled instead of pushed on the yoke when his aircraft stalled. I'm sorry, but that is one weak pilot.
Everyone wants cheap fares and Sully in the cockpit. But flying is no longer the well paid and respected profession that it was before deregulation. I am afraid you will see more and more Colgan's and less and less Sullys.

12.16.2009 | Unregistered Commentera commuting pilot

Has anyone seen a break down of the latest percentages of pilots that commute from the major, national, and regional airlines. I too commute on a two hour flight to my domicile at LAX and pay for a hotel if I have an early report. The airline I fly for "opened the door" after 9/11 as flight schedules were so chaotic once flying resumed that they would book pilots and flight attendants positive space to ensure the could get to work. The airline I fly for will also book me positive space both to and from training. The airline I fly for will also deadhead crews without a backup flight, but I am required to have two backups when commuting to work. And so what if crews live within "X" miles of their domiciles. I've flown with plenty of pilots who couldn't make it to work in time due to LA traffic, and have friends in Denver and Salt Lake who have been snowed in. Just as the airlines will not "guarantee" a flight, I do not see how anyone can possible "guarantee" crews will always be able to report for work on time and "well rested."

12.16.2009 | Unregistered CommenterSpudman

Commuting to base will never be addressed not only because of the difficulty of determining what is a "safe" commute distance, but it would also create a huge drag on the airlines if they lose the ability to open/close bases on a whim when a certain market grows or shrinks. Is safety really #1 priority? No, because if that were the case the government would put a crackdown on the commuting practice, and force airlines to pay locality pay depending on the city where the pilot is based so that the most junior pilots could afford to live within an hour drive of NYC(or wherever their base may be).

"■Pilot fatigue comes not only from duty assignments but also from lifestyle choices that have pilots commuting to work from homes that may be thousands of miles from their jobs."

Lifestyle choices. Earth to Levine. I believe only Congress, MIT kids, and senior lecturers with no concept of the economic realities in the airline industry believe that bunk. Commuting is a pain in the neck. I live in a domicile, but have been shipped around the country to no less than 3 other pilot bases and then back in the last two years. Why would I uproot my family every 6 months when I could be furloughed the next? Is Congress or the FAA going to tell the airlines they can't move their pilots around? If Congress or the FAA said that pilots MUST live in their base, I think you would soon have trouble finding qualified pilots as they would not be able to afford to move or would eventually lose their family if they did. It is ironic that my time in the military was much more stable than my career in the airlines to date. Thank God my wife has a non-airline job.

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