Count Time Awake, Not Time on Duty

Fatigue may well have had a lot to do with the accident, as both pilots had slept, if at all, fitfully the night before, and the flight was at the end of the day. By the time the Colgan Air flight 3407, a Dash 8-Q400, iced up on approach to landing at Buffalo, NY, it is estimated that First Officer Rebecca Shaw had been awake for 33 hours and Captain Marvin Renslow had been awake for more than 24 hours.

The length of time awake is explained by the fact that both were commuting cross-country to their Newark, NJ, crew station. Neither pilot had been on duty during the time they were commuting from the West Coast in Shaw’s case and from Florida in Renslow’s case.

Their delayed, and inappropriate, response to the sudden stall was literally a death sentence for them and the 47 other persons aboard. If they had dropped the nose, if full power had been applied, they may well have gotten out of the upset and restored the basic flying qualities of the airplane. This didn’t happen. Renslow pulled back on the yoke, the nose up and worsened the stall. Shaw applied power, but not full power.

Both pilots were not at the top of their game, in part because they were fatigued. There is little evidence they were monitoring their instruments in the minutes before the stall warning alarm sounded. Failure to monitor is one of the classic symptoms of pilot fatigue.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has investigated other crashes where the pilots had been awake an excessive amount of time. The Colgan Air crash was just the latest. (See Aviation Safety Journal, ‘Crash Investigation Reveals Gaps in Airline Safety System’)

Neither Colgan Air nor the pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Associated (ALPA), regard fatigue as a pressing problem, largely because the airline and ALPA maintain a conspiracy of silence.

Let me explain. The airlines assume that when a pilot reports for work, he is well rested for the duties that may be assigned, which may involve a flight schedule of 16 hours or more. As far as the airlines are concerned, it is the pilot’s responsibility to appear for work properly rested for duty. As Dean Bandavant, Colgan’s director of flight operations, said at the recent NTSB hearing on the crash of flight 3407, “Pilots are professional and must be rested. It’s the professional pilot’s responsibility.”

By pushing the problem of sleep and fatigue to the pilots, airlines can maximize flight schedules on the assumption that pilots do not start duty with what might be called “sleep debt.”

The union prefers it this way, as pilots are then free to commute from anywhere in the country; thus, pilots need not live, say, within an hour or two’s commute from their home operations base. They can live anywhere so long as the fiction is maintained that they start duty rested, without any sleep debt.

There is a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell” going on here. By not asking how long a pilot has been awake, the airline can schedule a maximum flying day. The union doesn’t question the airline’s flight schedule, as it might open up the subject of awake time – and the issue of excessive commuting.

Passengers have a right to expect a rested crew. A pilot that has not had eight hours sleep in the previous 24 hours is going to be suffering the insidious affects of insufficient rest.

There is a simple and obvious, if draconian solution, to the crew fatigue problem: the pilots should be required to submit a written, signed declaration to the airline that they have in fact received eight hours of uninterrupted sleep prior to assuming duty. The airline would have to adjust its duty schedule, and pilots wouldn’t be able to commute from anywhere in the country.

The statement would be based on the honor system, but auditing a sampling of such statements would be the airline’s prerogative.

If the airlines had to provide a separate room in the operations center for commuting pilots to sleep, the expense would be minimal. Some airlines provide such facilities, rather than threatening punishment for sleeping on couches (the practice at Colgan).

If more than the $16,000 annual pay accorded First Officer Shaw is needed to allow pilots to live nearer their place of work, so be it. A big reason pilots commute is because they cannot afford the standard of living at their operations base.

The current impasse means we get what is paid for – the airlines pay burger-flipping wages to pilots, who commute and are fatigued. The pilots don’t want any restrictions on their commuting or their off duty employment, so ALPA doesn’t question airline schedules that require pilots to perform ever longer flying duties.

Where is safety in all this?