Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thirty Years of Outsourcing Safety

"Captain Renslow and First Officer Shaw did know what to do, had repeatedly demonstrated they knew what to do, but did not do it."

So stated a press release that Colgan Airlines released on the first day of the NTSB hearings into Colgan 3407. In an effort to limit the damage to their reputation, Colgan was quite willing to throw their deceased crewmembers under the bus. In the hearings, Colgan management was evasive and defensive, attempting to ward off every suggestion that culpability for this accident might not begin and end with the two individuals not there to defend themselves. In doing so, Colgan management came off looking like rank amateurs.

Nobody can deny the kernel of truth within Colgan's statement. This crew did undoubtedly make a number of serious mistakes, some commonplace and others nearly inexplicable, which compounded on each other and resulted in tragedy. Yet these mistakes did not take place in a vacuum; there were a number of circumstances that may have contributed. In my previous posts I have explored how latent training errors and self-induced distraction may have been factors. Any serious look at this accident must also examine the regional airline industry itself for widespread patterns and trends that helped create the right environment for an accident like this.

At the time of the accident, the Captain had approximately 3300 hours of flight time and the FO had 2300 hours. By most airlines' standards this was an inexperienced crew, but they actually weren't horribly inexperienced compared to some of the crewmembers at the regional airlines. At airlines like Colgan, Pinnacle, and Mesa, in the not-so-distant past one could find 2000-2500 hour new Captains paired with 250 hour newhire First Officers. Worse yet, the Captain might be new to not only the left seat, but the airline and their routes as well; all three of the above companies hired direct-entry Captains. This was because they did not have enough First Officers qualified to upgrade due to a combination of growth, attrition, and their newhires' low flight time. Captain Renslow had 625 hours total time when he was hired at Colgan. First Officer Shaw, with sixteen hundred hours of fair weather flying in mostly single-engine piston aircraft, was actually a "high-timer" for the period in which she was hired.

Colgan testified at the NTSB hearing that a particularly favorite source of pilots is an institution known as Gulfstream Academy; they hired Captain Renslow from there. This "academy" is actually a functioning Part 121 airline in Florida that flies as Continental Connection. Brand-new commercial pilots pay $30,000 to buy a "job" as a First Officer on a Beech 1900 turboprop. Few of Gulfstream's paying passengers have any idea of their crew's extreme inexperience. After 250 hours on the line, these pilots are hired via bridge programs at airlines like Pinnacle and Colgan. They are a management dream: too inexperienced to be hired anywhere else, possessing some airline time to make training go smoother, and willing to work for any wage that's an improvement on paying bucketloads of money for their job.

What these pilots do not have is the experience of taking over the controls from a student who has put the airplane in danger, or having scared themselves straight on a low approach in a decrepit old freighter - or for that matter, having practiced hundreds of successful stall recoveries. Gulfstream portrays this as boring, useless timebuilding to potential enrollees looking for a shortcut, and a certain class of airline management enthusiastically agrees. After all, the modern regional airliner is relatively idiot-proof. If management could hire monkeys to fly them, they would - provided the price of bananas did not go too high.

The noteworthy thing here is that not all airlines stooped to hiring low-time pilots from the likes of Gulfstream. There were plenty of experienced pilots to be had but for a modest price. Despite paycuts and gutted contracts and seniority list stagnation, the major airlines were flooded with resumes from supremely qualified candidates when they began hiring again. It was the regional airlines, with their inferior pay, benefits, schedules, and work rules, who had to settle for pilots with little aviation experience, and a particular class of regional that struggled to fill their classes despite no hiring standards at all.

Here's a real-life example of how Colgan's low pay deprives them of experienced pilots. In the summer of 2007, I briefly considered applying to Colgan. With 4500 total hours and 2200 hours in the Q400, I would have been much more qualified than the average newhire. I chose not to apply because of Colgan's insultingly low pay rates and lack of work rules or union protection, and because the airline's cheapness in compensation bespoke a cheapness in other areas to me.

Training is a perfect example. Like many regional airlines, Colgan has sought to decrease training costs through outsourcing (to FlightSafety), shrinking their training footprint, and allotting a minimum number of hours for Initial Operating Experience (IOE). Colgan's pilots, and those of many regional airlines, are taught by sim instructors who often have never touched the actual airplane, and usually teach for several airlines with differing procedures. Ground instructors may have never flown any airliners! Is it any surprise that Coglan pilots were a little hazy on the significance and proper usage of the Ref Speeds switch? After sim training, Colgan pilots were given 30 hours to complete IOE; any more required approval and invited unwanted scrutiny. That's not very much for inexperienced pilots learning a rather quirky airplane. At Horizon you could go to 50 hours without them batting an eye, and ANA actually requires 70+ hours for their pilots. Sure, you can hammer out the basics in 30 hours, but that doesn't leave much time for a check airman to impart the nuances of the airplane - like, for example, "Be particularly mindful of your airspeed when you put the gear down and the props to 1020, there's a ton of drag and you can get too slow very quickly if you don't pay attention."

Hiring woefully inexperienced pilots and rushing them through training is bad enough; subsequently operating under policies that encourage them to fly sick and/or tired is simply asking for trouble. Unfortunately, many regional airlines including Colgan do just that. It's another side effect of a mentality that stresses cost savings above all else and pretends there are no negative consequences for safety in doing so.

Most regional airlines operate with fewer pilots per airplane than the majors. This is partially a result of differing stage lengths, regulations, and contract work rules, but many regional airlines also intentionally short-staff themselves as far as they can and still maintain schedule integrity. Low-paid regional pilots who are trying to build hours can generally be depended upon to pick up plenty of overtime, after all. The problem is that running so close to the edge means that a few months of high attrition or recruiting difficulties can make the airline severely short-staffed in perpetuity. Pilots suffer the most under these conditions: their schedules get built to the maximum limit, they have fewer days off to recuperate between trips, and even those days are subject to "junior-manning" as desperate crew schedulers force pilots to work on their days off. A few bad months can leave one feeling chronically fatigued. A long or difficult commute only makes things worse.

Many people have correctly noted that it is a pilot's own choice to commute. This is a decision most pilots will make a few times throughout their career, and it's never easy. I chose to leave a city and area I love dearly in order to avoid a notoriously bad commute, but my choice may have been different if Dawn and I had family in Portland, or had kids in school, or if the cost of living in my base was higher. The Seattle-Newark commute has to be one of the worst out there; the FedEx Captain who gave FO Shaw her last ride to work told her as much. Her choice to move to Seattle was apparently sparked as much by financial considerations as personal ones. Ms. Shaw was barely able to make ends meet in Norfolk by holding down a second job as a barista, so New York was clearly out of the question. She and her husband had moved to Seattle to live with her parents, at least initially.

From the multiple yawns noted on the CVR transcripts, it's likely the crew of 3407 was tired. One can understand why: it was after 10pm, they'd both been up very early, and the FO likely had very little quality sleep the night before. Moreover, they'd spent the entire day in the crew room due to a cancelled roundtrip. In my own experience, this is more tiring than actually flying, especially if there's no dark and quiet place to sleep. Most airlines provide such a place near their crewrooms, but not Colgan: they actually left the lights on full-time to discourage pilots from sleeping!

The FAA is quite clear that crewmembers must be fit to fly, and must remove themselves from duty if any condition, including fatigue, would impact their performance. Virtually every airline has a fatigue policy in their contract or FOM. How they actually administer that policy, however, varies widely by airline. At most majors, calling in fatigued is a non-jeopardy event; some even let you use your sick time. At Colgan and many regionals, calling in fatigued results in loss of pay and potential disciplinary action. Fatigue calls are usually tracked and monitored for any "patterns" of fatigue, which is left up to management's discretion and may be a mere two events. Besides the threat of discipline including termination, unscrupulous managers have been known to force fatigued pilots to undergo sleep studies during unpaid time off, or even report them as chronically fatigued to the FAA's aeromedical division. Such scare tactics are meant to cut down on "absenteeism" which threatens schedule integrity at chronically understaffed airlines. The practical effect is that pilots will often just fly tired in all but the worst cases. Most of the time they make it to their destination without incident and the airline can justify their policies as being "safe."

A similar story plays out in the realm of sick call policy. Again, the airlines' policies, ostensibly in place to prevent schedule disruption due to sick time abuse, having a chilling effect on the proper use of sick time as well. To begin with, sick time accrual at many regionals is agonizingly slow. In Colgan's case, it takes a newhire nine months to accrue enough sick time to cover a four-day trip. A newhire already at poverty-level wages can ill afford an unpaid week. Secondly, sick calls are often handled in the same paranoid manner as fatigue calls. Calling in sick at many regionals prompts personal questions from crew schedulers and follow-up calls from chief pilots. If you're unfortunate enough to fall ill on a holiday, around your vacation, or even on a weekend, they'll often demand a doctor's note - procured at your own expense under often-inferior health plans. Mind you, there are many things that a pilot should call in sick for that don't require a visit to the doctor and can usually be handled with rest and OTC medications; FO Shaw's head cold comes to mind. If their policies result in such a marginal pilot deciding to fly, management doesn't seem to mind. At least the schedule gets covered, and it's pretty rare that a sick FO fails to notice her Captain doing something disastrously boneheaded.

It's easy to vilify regional airline management for this behavior, but the reality is that it is generally borne of financial necessity rather than a perverse hatred of pilots or the pursuit of personal enrichment. Regional airlines live and die by their cost structures because the major airlines they contract with have made it this way. Virtually all regional airline management is cheap; the main difference between them is the degree of their aggressiveness in cutting costs and how vile they're willing to be to their employees. The most foul - i.e., the most cheap - have reaped the most growth in recent years as they lap up contracts with major airlines. In the case of Colgan, this came in the form of 15 Q400's to be flown as Continental Connection.

Now, the major airlines do have certain performance metrics that must be met along with the baseline requirement of low cost - witness Mesa's fall from grace - but otherwise the majors generally leave their regional airline partners to their own devices. They don't concern themselves with hiring practices or minimum experience levels, training programs, or sick and fatigue call policy. They generally are not involved in whatever safety programs the regional airline participates in. In short, by their silence they endorse regional managements' view that penny-pinching in every aspect of the operation doesn't impact safety so long as everything is legal. Of course, when a regional partner suffers a crash, the majors are very quick to point out the actual identity of the carrier involved. It's a convenient about-face after selling the victims a ticket with their name on it and festooning the outsourced airplane with their livery. Those passengers likely expected a mainline standard of safety, but only after an accident does mainline fall all over themselves to explain just how little they had to do with the operation of that flight.

The circle of blame for this unholy situation only expands outward from there. You can include the Congress of 1978 for deregulation, subsequent Congresses for lack of oversight, the FAA for turning a blind eye to the regionals' most abusive practices, pilots for being willing to take such low-paying jobs in hopes of an eventual payoff, and so on. Ultimately, though, what we're seeing is the free market at work. The situation exists because it benefits all of us as a collective group of consumers. Passengers are paying less, in real dollars, than they've ever paid to fly, and they still think they're getting stiffed. Improving safety would require increasing fares, and passengers are utterly unwilling to pay more (if you doubt me, read some of the comments here). While the flying public always make concerned noises about aviation safety, most people know enough basic math to reason that even if the regionals are more dangerous than the majors, the accident rate is still so low that there's a miniscule chance of ever being personally affected. Why spend more money for something that won't affect you? The logic isn't flawed, but it does need to be followed to its ultimate conclusion for real moral clarity on the situation: I am willing to let others die so I can save a few bucks.

As collaborators get the innermost circle of hell to themselves, I've waited to the end of this post to write about one particular group's culpability in creating the environment that fostered this accident: our very own Air Line Pilot's Association. This may come as a surprise to some of you, as I've defended airline unions on this blog before and have noted that I am active within the union. I still maintain that unions are necessary in this industry to guard against management's worst tendancies, but I fully recognize that ALPA has been utterly clueless on the matter of outsourcing and in fact fully cooperated with management in creating the two-tier system we see today when it benefitted them. Having bought into management's stance that regional jet feed was necessary for mainline growth but could not be operated cost-effectively with the payrates that mainline pilots expected, ALPA's mainline MECs declined to fly the first wave of RJs but gladly shared in the revenue they produced. They didn't concern themselves with the question of who would fly those RJs or under what conditions. When regional pilots unionized - often under ALPA - and attempted to better their lot, they got little help from their mainline counterparts. ALPA granted management scope relief after scope relief, but there was never any insistance on requiring that ALPA pilots fly the RJs, or setting a minimum standard contract, or at least insisting on some oversight of the outsourced operation's safety programs. All these things were determined to be the regional pilots' problems, despite the fact that any attempt to solve them, like the Comair strike in 2001, only made mainline shift flying to other, cheaper carriers.

Even after everything that's happened since then, this mindset is still quite prevalent at ALPA. A few months ago I was involved with a group of WidgetCo pilots in a grassroots effort to force their union to at least study the feasability of recapturing 76-seat flying. Just before a meeting of the union's Atlanta council, we were called into a meeting with the MEC chairman. He rejected the idea of recapturing outsourced flying outright, saying it would be too expensive and there would be no benefit for the majority of the membership. He said not to worry about scope, that ALPA was done giving up scope (this was a few days after he had granted scope relief to increase the allowed number of 76 seat airframes!); he then stated that outsourced flying was good for mainline pilots because the low cost flying brought in revenue they shared in. This is coming from the popular union head of the world's largest airline, and a likely future candidate for ALPA's presidency. I left that meeting utterly shaken that ALPA would or could be part of the solution to the mess we're in, at least in its current form.

If anything is going to change, it will likely come through the legislative response that has already begun in response to the Colgan hearings. Randy Babbitt, the FAA's new administrator, is much more favorable to changing duty and rest regulations than previous administrators have been; meanwhile the Senate's Aviation Subcommittee is going to be holding hearings into working conditions and safety at the regional airlines in early June. It'll be interesting to see whether any substantial legislation actually emerges from the process. In the meantime, those of us at the regionals can do our own little bit to keep our airlines safe, whether that means enforcing cockpit discipline, making an active effort to refresh our knowledge of systems and procedures, or standing up to management intimidation when we shouldn't be flying.

33 comments:

cathairinmyknitting said...

So, after reading your various posts on this issue, one wonders how to find out the real safety record and practices of a regional carrier. How do I really find out about the crew of the Dash 8 I fly on to visit my parents?

cathairinmyknitting said...

Should have said, thanks for your blog! It's always interesting to read the inside story.

Gaz said...

This is all very scary. We have similar problems in Europe with low cost airlines stretching the definition of 'safe' to save on the pennies. The unfortuante thing is that people like to travel, and now that they've had a taste of doing it for cheap - they don't (and won't) pay more. So, without increasing fares - is there anyway that aircrew's can expect better pay and working conditions? I fear not.

Steven Pam said...

Thanks for taking the time to write such an interesting and thoughtful post on this. I've been following the story with interest, and appreciate your perspective.

MathFox said...

Getting reliable information on safety is hard... there are too few accidents (in the EU and US) to compare airlines in a statistically relevant way. Working with inside information, Aviation Authority inspection reports and such may give some insight (but remember any inspection report is coloured by the views or the auditor).

So, what's left for the average customer: price, schedule convenience and observable (food and drink) quality on the airline. OTOH, the current certification system with safety audits weeds out the bad airlines rather quickly. But if I wanted to spend 2% extra on safety, how can I do that? If the regionals would get 5% more, would that be spent on safety, pilot salaries or squandered on management bonuses.

Sean O. said...

'Great series Sam. My view is pretty old school -- I believe that flying today is too cheap. The competition shouldn't be Greyhound.

Anonymous said...

As a flight instructor in canada waiting to make the next step, it scares the crap out of me that this is happening. Ive been fortunate enough to have good training, and work for a good employer where safety is paramount. To think that a company is going to cinch out on training for the bottom line boggles my mind, and is the very anti-thesis of my job as a flight instructor. Great insight Sam, ill continue to follow your blog

Anonymous said...

It's a little hypocritical of you to harp on experience when you chose to go and flew at an airline that had a waiver for green on green (the requirement that at least ONE of the pilots have 75 hours on the piece of equipment they are flying).

You make many good points, but lest we forget you are part of this same crappy business, you are doing and have done many of the same things you sneer at as "safety issues" in order to advance your career. Your ability to ignore this when writing is unfortunate.

kbq said...

Sigh...

http://blog.infinitemonkeysblog.com/files/images/obvious_troll.preview.jpg

Keep on with the high quality stuff, Sam, and the rest of us will try to ignore Billy Goat Gruff.

Kevin

Brent F. said...

So how do you think "NewCo" compares to all of this? While Anonymous @ 7:47 stated it in a kinda accusing way, you are part of the system, so what are NewCo's darkest secrets? I'm sure they have some practices that aren't the safest; it would be interesting to hear your opinion on them.

Or is NewCo's relation with WidgetCo and RedCo (I think that was the names you used for them before?) stronger, and then (hopefully) safer and less penny-pincher?

Sam said...

Anonymous 7:47, any startup company is going to have a green on green waiver. NewCo had one for a while but we no longer do. It was pretty rare to actually get green-on-green, I don't think I ever did.

I'm not ignoring my company's part in all this (and by extension, my own part). Self-preservation leads me to censor myself from being too explicit, but suffice it to say that not all the practices I describe were heard from friends at other companies.

Heck, our contract is public knowledge, so I'll go ahead and say that NewCo's contract directs the chief pilot to investigate fatigue calls and permits disciplinary action if the CP decides it wasn't warranted. Moreover, NewCo pilots get one fully paid sick call per rolling 12 month period, after that they're paid at 75% and they can demand a doctor's note for any sick calls beyond two for the rolling 12-month period as well as any calls that take place on holidays, around vacation, etc. Keep in mind RedCo-ALPA negotiated our contract and no NewCo pilot got to vote on it.

That said I don't hesitate to put my family on NewCo planes - not because of anything management has done to improve safety, but because an accident of industry timing resulted in us having a very experienced group of pilots from around the airlines.

Anonymous said...

Preface the following with God Bless this crew and may they rest in peace.

"You get what you pay for"...a lot of truth to that in many facets of life. Unfortunately the common practice of the lower feeder airlines stocking their cockpits with inexperience will continue as long as the competition is stiff and these 250 hour programs continue to spit out snot-bubbles. Does the paying public realize that most pilots flying cargo around in Caravans have more "real world" experience than those flying the right seats and occasional left on many of the RJs and other 50+ pax aircraft? Scary to think, but a reality none the less. This cycle will continue. We can only hope flying the line stays "routine" and when things get a little tense in the cockpit, there's a crew up there experienced enough to remember that "flying the aircraft" is page one of the aviation bible.

hoggin said...

Airlines will never pay more unless there is a shortage of supply of ready pilots. There will never be a shortage of pilots if the min to get hired is 250 hrs. It has been discussed that no pilot has enough real world experience at 250 hrs. At a min airlines should be required to hire pilots with ATP mins. Duty time is another big issue. Pilots should be limited to 10 hrs of duty and extended to only 12 hrs for unforseen delays. Would anyone want to be a passenger on a plane where the pilots have been on duty for 12 plus hrs. All aviation rules are written in blood. These are issues that need to be addressed

Senior Captain said...

1. Gulfstream can't get enough negative publicity IMHO. That place is an absolute joke. I've heard more than I care to about their operation, and I hope they close soon. I have no pity for the Gulfstream folks who will now have a hard time finding a job after "paying to work". As the old saying goes- a fool and his money are soon parted.

2. Aside from the financial problems that pilots face, what can be done about how many airlines treat sick and fatigue calls? Surely the FAA can have a system in place to audit such calls at Part 121 and 135 operators. What about whistleblower protection? Having to work for nearly a year before being able to call in sick should be against the law. It should be made illegal for airlines to use these scare tactics to force crews to fly.

Admin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jeff said...

"OTOH, the current certification system with safety audits weeds out the bad airlines rather quickly."

Not in the USA under the current FAA.

"what can be done about how many airlines treat sick and fatigue calls? Surely the FAA can have a system in place to audit such calls"

The FAA isn't in a position to monitor this practice. They forbid controllers from using "fatigue calls," and persecute them for using sick leave. I could give you examples of controllers who had cancer (and had their FAA medical revoked) who then received sick leave abuse letters.

zb said...

Thanks for the very well-written posts! German airline Air Berlin, the second largest carrier in the country next to Lufthansa, currently has large advertisements on bus and tram stops. They say (translated to English): "We save on flying, not on comfort." For a second, I thought it was a joke, but I guess they are serious.

Is it just me who thinks that this ad is quite cynical -- or does this really say that they still provide salty peanuts, but cut on their pilots' sleep and on maintenance? Anyhow, the airline is notorious for not hiring staff organized in the German pilots' union.

Anonymous said...

Sam, My name is Jamie-James Medina and I'm journalist and photographer from London, England. I'm researching a story on the cargo industry in America. I was hoping you would have some time to be interviewed or just give me some behind the scenes knowledge of your work as a pilot outside of your blog.

jamiejamesmedina@aol.com

tax processing outsourcing said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sam said...

Sam,

I've really been enjoying your blog, keep up the fantastic work. I first heard about it from PPW.

It does seem like the low pay and quality of life issues at the regionals are starting to catch up to them. We all know they've been considered a low paying "stepping stone" pretty much since de-regulation, but at least there was a good shot at a promising career in the major airlines after "paying your dues" at the regionals/commuters flying a turboprop around.

Now there is no longer a light at the end of that tunnel. Many pilots are forced to now consider making regional flying a life long career, which the pay scales just don't support. As a result, many talented individuals have been leaving for other careers, even outside the aviation industry.

As a 1700 hour pilot flying part 91/corporate in a citation, there's no way I'd be able to take the huge salary cut required by the regionals. It's unfortunate, as I think I'd learn a lot and gain a lot of experience. But things are such a mess in that industry that it's just not feasible.

aviatorpr said...

"Surely the FAA can have a system in place to audit such calls at Part 121 and 135 operators. What about whistleblower protection? Having to work for nearly a year before being able to call in sick should be against the law. It should be made illegal for airlines to use these scare tactics to force crews to fly."

ha, the FAA doesn't give a crap, the NTSB has recommended on several occasions to the FAA the duty and rest requirements be changed and the FAA turns a blind eye and deaf ear every time and continues to have the industry work under regulations written in the 1970's

jkjcksn said...

Love your bit regarding ALPA. I've been a regional airline pilot for two years now. I decided to "fly for a livin'" after a brief ten-year stint at my last job doing something I didn't really enjoy doing. I love being a pilot and really do enjoy almost every aspect of being a professional airline pilot. I work for one of the "better" regionals, so I'm told by industry colleagues, and like most, commute to work, but I digress.

Honestly, I've not seen much benefit in ALPA towards regional airline pilots; matter-of-fact, I'm still on the fence about whether to cancel my membership just to save on paying monthly dues so I can cover other expenses (the cats out of the bag that we don't make much!). I feel that regionals should form their own pilot's union, but have a suspicious feeling that that would somehow backfire and only make things worse. I'm still new to this "game" so I'm hesitant to make much of a stink about forming a separate union.

I really enjoy your blog and appreciate what you do and are trying to do to inform and educate the public at large--let alone other pilots. Keep up the great work! You seem to really have a knack for it.

One last bit. Many pilots have been in a compromising situation similar to Renslow and Shaw's of varying degrees, but have somehow managed to survive--myself included. I say, if you're sick, tired, or just sick and tired, let crew scheduling (and your ALPA reps) now about! As a profession, we cannot allow ourselves to compromise our safety, and the safety of others, for a company, or an industry, that's unwilling to truly make safety a priority and a union that's seems unwilling to stick-up for and protect the pilots that are willing to do so.

It's fun to fly, and being a pilot can be very rewarding, but your life and the life of others just to do it, are not worth it. In retrospect, our jobs don't pay enough for any of us to die for--not that money should be a deciding factor here. Until the industry as a whole is willing to make the necessary changes to provide for a safe working environment, we as pilots need to take the lead, call it as it is, and make that call to scheduling--let the chips fall where they may.

Rich Dietman said...

Sam,
This piece in today's New York Times is a good follow-on to the issues of oversight and regulation that you've raised regarding Colgan 3407. If you believe the FAA whistleblower quoted in the piece (and I'm inclined to), then it would seem that the airline and the agency were working a little too closely in order to quickly move the Dash 8 into the airline's flying schedule. And while that allegedly occurred more than a year before the Buffalo crash, it seems to speak to the rigor (or lack of same) of training that the airline was providing. Here's the link to the article. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/nyregion/04colgan.html?ref=nyregion

aviatorpr said...

have a look at this Colgan Q400 video where this incident coincidentally took place at BUF: http://www.mefeedia.com/entry/colgan-air-q400-loses-wheel-in-buffalo/18252769

Chris Paterson said...

Really interesting post. The situation is similar here in Europe, with low-cost carriers like Ryanair hiring pilots into the right-hand seat straight out of flight school with 250hrs. Hell, even British Airways hires low-hour cadets to fly their short-haul routes. However, the difference is that these pilots then earn at least £20,000 (~$30,000) in their first year, depending on the amount of flying they do. There is still definitely the issue of experience, with cadets upgrading to Captain, sometimes within 4 years of joining, however they are at least fairly compensated for their work.

Gene said...

Great post, Sam. Any thoughts on AF 447?

aviatorpr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi ... producer at cnn.com here looking for folks to speak with on issues like those you address here.

If you have a moment and would be willing to chat, I'd greatly appreciate it.

Thanks so much,

Doug Gross/CNN
doug.gross@turner.com

Hans said...

I do have to stand up for some aspects of "outsourcing" of training. When I first trained on the E170, my training was conducted not in house by the company I was employed by, but at Flight Safety International, in STL, by some of the most professional and experienced instructors I've ever met. Again, it was a circumstance of the time. TWA had just been excreted by AA and there were many out of work Captains in STL looking for an opportunity. FSI had just signed a contract with a regional that was getting many new E170 family aircraft. In this case, we had very professional and capable instructors as a consequence of the place and time we found outself. As we both know, outsourced training isnt necessarily the case. There are other companies which provide outsourced training that is not good at all, and that's the limit to which I will expand on the topic.

Daffyd said...

Long time no see - where you go ?

Sam said...

Still here :-) Lots of great comments here, didn't see any need to add my 2 cents. I think most people within the industry get it, it's the general public & the politicians who are only now waking up to the system they allowed to be created. I'll tell you this: airline management is running scared in the wake of the Capitol Hill hearings. They can't distance themselves from Colgan fast enough (our DO in an email distributed to all employees: "we are nothing like Colgan"...which is hilarious because I think we're more like Colgan than most regionals out there!). I think we're going to see some very major changes coming down the pike.

Anonymous said...

I know this topic is a few years old now, but I just stumbled upon it and had some interesting thoughts. In my opinion, we need more experience in the left seat; 250 hour FOs in the right seat are okay. Afterall, they had to pass all the required checkride to get their multi-engine commercial certificates as well as their SIC type in whatever aircraft they are operating. You talk about these low time pilots as if they light sport student pilots, which I find quite offensive. Just because somebody may not have ten thousand hours of total time doesn't mean they do not know a thing or two about aviation. Now, I'll agree with you when you say low time FOs haven't seen many emergency scenarios, bad weather, etc. That is why we need more experienced captains flying with less experienced first officers.

Sam said...

Anonymous-- Didn't really say too much about pilot experience in this post, it's simply one element of many when it comes to safety or the lack thereof at regional airlines. In any case, the recession has pretty much corrected the experience problem we saw 2006-2008...just in case it should rear its ugly head again, congress has passed a 1500 hr rule.

I fail to see where I talked about low-timers like they were student pilots, or anything else that would offend a reasonable person. A bit sensitive? What is *your* experience level? I'll tell you what, there are lots of low-time pilots that are good sticks and have an impressive knowledge base. There is, however, no good substitute for experience. I remember when I had 250 hrs very well, it wasn't so long ago. I was very knowledgeable - probably moreso than now! - and was a good pilot. I finished my training in the minimum time and hours and never failed a checkride. But I can unreservedly say I had no place in a 121 airliner. I learned so much in the next 2000 hours before I set foot in an airliner, and experienced so many things, that made me a far safer pilot later on. Most experienced pilots will tell you the very same thing.

Now I actually agree partway with you that inexperienced captains are more worrisome than inexperienced FOs. Low-time CAs, however, were a direct result of hiring low-time FOs. The reality is that any new captain, regardless of total flight time, has his hands full without worrying about whether the kid in the right seat can handle himself if things go downhill. And again, no matter how sharp that 250 hr guy is, he simply has not been in the air enough to experience a wide range of conditions, weather, terrain, airports, aircraft, abnormal situations, and emergencies. He's untested. He's generally flown two or three types of single-engine aircraft, and 10 or 15 hours in a docile twin like a Seminole or Duchess practicing engine-out maneuvers in very controlled conditions. A high proportion of his time is with an instructor. He may have only a few hours of actual instrument time. A friend of mine flew with several new FOs who had never even flown through a winter! All their training had taken place the previous spring, summer, and fall. So I'm sorry if it offends you, but really low-time pilots, ie 250 hrs, have absolutely no place in an airliner cockpit, at least not under our current system.