Sunday, May 10, 2009

Canary In the Coal Mine

Since I wrote the post about Colgan 3407 three months ago, more details about the events of that tragic flight have come to light. They have taken the investigation further along in the direction that it was starting to go when I wrote that post. Most of these details have not been made officially public, but have leaked out and have spread around the aviation community. I've resisted posting details here or commenting on them because the investigation was ongoing. On Tuesday, May 12, the results of that investigation will be made public and the NTSB will hold hearings into some of the issues that their investigation uncovered. While the final report on the accident will not be issued for some time, we will know most of the pertinent facts on Tuesday (you will be able to access the public docket here); I think at that point it is reasonable to discuss what is revealed.

Much of the discussion will likely center around three broad topics: Professionalism and Safety Culture at the Regional Airlines, Training at the Regional Airlines, and Fatigue & Working Conditions at all airlines but particularly the regionals. I have some pretty strong opinions on all of these topics, as anybody who has read my blog for a while knows, and I'll likely be writing more posts on these topics as they relate to Colgan 3407 in the coming weeks. I'd like to talk about them in general terms now, however.

In November of 2007 I wrote a post titled "Are the Regional Airlines Safe?." My conclusion was that yes, statistically speaking they still were, but there were some worrying trends in the industry that, left unaddressed, could cause safety problems down the road. When I wrote the post, one of the most worrying trends was a dramatic decrease in experience levels at the regionals. This trend has since reversed, not due to any management effort to address the root causes of the regionals' inability to attract experienced candidates, but due to the one-two punch of high fuel prices and crashing demand for air travel that has brought the airlines to their knees and sent pilots scrambling for jobs. There are few, if any, first officers with less than 800 hours at the regionals these days. However, the conditions they are working under are as miserable as ever, but now without growth and advancement to soften the blow. The schedules are as fatiguing as ever, and management still insists that there's not a problem, that the few cases of pilot fatigue out there are individual pilots' own fault. The trend towards cheap outsourced maintenance has continued apace. The FAA continues to be irrelevant at best and a hindrance at worse as they myopically nitpick paperwork snafus while doggedly ignoring the things that are actually killing people.

When I wrote that post about regional airline safety, I regarded Pinnacle 3701 as a "Canary in the Coal Mine." That accident was a quintessential regional airline accident. I don't think it could have happened at the today's major airlines. Once upon a time the majors suffered a string of similarly senseless accidents, but they ended up taking the lessons to heart, changed the way they did a lot of things, and ended up with a safety culture where reckless and careless behavior simply isn't tolerated. There were a lot of lessons the regional airlines could've taken from Pinnacle 3701. Nobody really changed anything of importance, though. Maybe two lives and a destroyed airplane and house weren't enough to grab their attention. Maybe it was too easy to write the pilots off as two loose cannons and miss the broader implications of their behavior.

If anything, Pinnacle got worse after 2004. They continued to hire lower and lower time pilots; their upgrade minimums were relaxed several times. Their management got more aggressive and abusive with things like sick call policy and junior manning. Continuous severe understaffing pushed their crewmembers' schedules right up to the legal limit. Pinnacle pilots have been working under an expired contract for four years, their pay frozen while management endlessly stonewalls the union negotiators. I'm not just picking on Pinnacle here, this is a disease that has rapidly spread through the regionals the last five years. The worst offenders are the ones that got all those new 70-90 seaters. The airlines that haven't followed suit in this behavior - the Horizons, ExpressJets, and American Eagles of the world - are shrinking into oblivion. ALPA in its current state is clueless and helpless on its good days, and a collaborator the rest. When I spoke with ALPA's MEC chairman for the world's largest airline, he unblinkingly told me that outsourced regional jets were good for his mainline pilots.

If the warnings of PCL3701 went unheeded, CJC3407 is a much bigger canary that's a lot harder to ignore. These hearings are going to shine a light into some hitherto rather murky corners of the industry. Some of my fellow regional pilots are pretty uncomfortable with that. Yes, I'm aware that all of us will likely come under public scrutiny along with our companies. Yes, this is a bad time to give people another reason not to fly. We really do need to change the way things are done at the regional airlines, though, both for the sake of public safety and for our own profession. This accident needs to be our Tenerife, our Eastern 401, the wakeup call that shows everyone that the way we are doing things is broken. As these hearings progress, I suspect that the industry groups are going to try to make them about the individuals who were involved in this accident. I think the NTSB recognizes, though, that there are industry-wide issues that must be addressed head-on if we don't want another repeat.


Eugene said...

Just want to say thank you, Sam. Glad there's at least one guy at the regionals the public can trust. You're a courageous guy for stepping out of the parade and helping to initiate change.

2whls3spds said...

Thanks Sam...

The one that scared the hell out of me was the USAirways(Midwest) Flt 5481 at Charlotte in January 2003. Where a maintenance contractor DELIBERATELY chose to cut corners.

My bride flies for a mainline as a FA and has over 25 years. I fly for business and log a lot of hours in the RJ's, due to where I have to go. Statistically flying is still the safest way to travel, but there is much room for improvement, especially on the flight crew fatigue and equipment maintenance end, on both regional and mainline!


Johnson said...

Its looking more and more like freight or instructing may be my best bets in a year when I'm out of school. Thanks for the insight, its really great perspective!

Peter said...

Since the Colgan 3407 crash I've always wondered if there is a corporate culture issue here. I see that Colgan is owned by Pinnacle (as is clearly shown at; it may be pure coincidence. I hope that the NTSB hearings are comprehensive and have a wide enough scope to look into some of the issues you raise in both this post and the November, 2007 post on safety at the Regionals. And I hope the industry realizes this is an opportunity to improve safety.

Daniel said...

The politics, the scrutiny, the gullibility and stupidity of the public, the hard headed hindrance we call a government (Only there to punish you, never to help you). Is all of this worth it for 50 grand of debt and 3 or 4 years of making less than 30 grand a year? (20 grand the first!!!?) Instructors should get paid more so the regionals are forced to raise the entry level pay.

Daniel said...

And that 50 grand is just for flight training, don't forget about the 50 more for that piece of paper they want you to have called a college degree.

Since when does someone with college education plus years of flight training (which in my opinion requires much more commitment than college) get paid less than 30 grand a year anyway? Why did we let income levels get lower and education costs continually grow way faster than the rate of inflation? Why do CEO's make more than ever thru all of this?

Lone Star JW said...

Washington Post of 12 May has a blurb about the investigation. Naturally someone is trying to gig the pilots for talking below 10,000. Spun that way in the article, anyway, but the real problem is that if these pilots are talking about their training in a marginal situation it is real evidence that their training is not what it needs to be. No matter how 'good' or 'FAA approved' it is, it wasn't good enough to give them the confidence they needed to fly that approach with as much apparent focus as required.

Which goes back to corporate culture. There they were, and they were worried about the ice, and they were worried about something else too, because they flew through they thing they admitted to each other they were worried about. Why were they worried about something more important than crashing their plane? I would suggest it was because they knew if they complained too loudly to management they would be flying Aerostars full of cancelled checks to the FDIC every night until OKC pulled their medicals.