Monday, January 24, 2011

How Not to Build a Trip

Last month I was assigned a trip that is an excellent example of how the current rest and duty rules are woefully inadequate and change is long overdue. I have reproduced the trip key below with only format changes to improve clarity. I hasten to add that although this is a NewCo pairing, every airline out there has these trips to some extent, and they are relatively rare here. Since their work rules were stripped away in bankruptcy, even the major airlines build some rotations like this one, and a few regionals build trips far worse than this one as a regular practice.

M7284 BASE REPT: 1050L

MO 5694 MSP-YYC 1135 1343 308 37
MO 5876 YYC-MSP 1420 1803 243 132
MO 5778 MSP-MDW 1935 2103 128
BLOCK 719 DUTY 1028 REST 1658
DUTY END: 2118L REPT: 1416L

TU 5749 MDW-MSP 1501 1635 134 230
TU 5755 MSP-BHM 1905 2134 229
BLOCK 403 DUTY 733 REST 926
DUTY END: 2149L REPT: 0715L

WE 5887 BHM-MSP 0800 1038 238 237
WE 5784 MSP-OMA 1315 1425 110 30
WE 5729 OMA-MSP 1455 1606 111 254
WE 5657 MSP-MSN 1900 2004 104
BLOCK 603 DUTY 1304 REST 926
DUTY END: 2019L REPT: 0545L

TH 5649 MSN-MSP 0630 0740 110 240
TH 5696 MSP-MKE 1020 1132 112 35
TH 5696 MKE-MSP 1207 1332 125 208
TH 5850 MSP-ORD 1540 1657 117 103
TH 5850 ORD-MSP 1800 1925 125 E75
BLOCK 629 DUTY 1355
TOTALS BLOCK 2354 LDGS: 14 CREDIT 2354 T.A.F.B. 8050

Since most readers don’t likely see many trip keys, I’ll break this one down. The first two days are pretty easy, with three and two legs, respectively. The first layover, at Chicago-Midway (MDW), is a long one of nearly 17 hours. The following day, two legs to Birmingham (BHM), has less than 8 hours of duty time. That night, though, has only 9 hours and 26 minutes of rest time. In this situation, 9 hours is the legal minimum. It might even be adequate if followed by a moderately easy day and a long overnight. The trip, however, goes rapidly downhill from there.

On day three, there are four legs, three of them short, which combine for 6 hours of block time. Duty time, however, is 13 hours and 3 minutes thanks to two lengthy sits in Minneapolis. The day ends in Madison, WI with another barely-legal overnight. After 9:26 minutes of rest time, day four begins at 5:45am - completing the circadian swap from a trip that began on a P.M. schedule. There is a nearly three-hour sit in Minneapolis after the first leg, followed by a Milwaukee round trip and another two-hour sit. The day concludes with a Chicago O’Hare turn, with a little over an hour spent in Chicago. Block time and pay is 6 hours 29 minutes, but duty time is nearly 14 hours.

In all fairness, I bid for this trip, although not intentionally. I set my computer bidding preferences to look for efficient trips, those that have the most pay per day. This one is fairly efficient from that standpoint, with nearly 24 hours of pay in 4 days. It is inefficient from the standpoint that much of the down time is spent at airports, where there is no possibility of sleep, instead of at layovers. This is not, however, a criteria that our bidding system can sort. I was surprised when this trip appeared on my line, but on closer inspection saw that it did indeed meet all my criteria. There was nothing to do but fly the trip and get as much rest as I could in the little time allotted.

The first two days went fine. Everything was on time, the weather was good, and we even got into Birmingham a half hour early on day two, lengthening the layover to a full ten hours (although a late hotel van meant that less than nine was actually spent at the hotel). Day three was pretty long and tiring. We had plane swaps on each of our long sits, and the Omaha turn was delayed for a late inbound and for deicing. When we got to Madison, I was ready to hit the hay. Instead, we got to wait a half hour for the hotel van, and then spent twenty-five minutes riding to the complete opposite end of Madison. It was 9pm by the time we got to the hotel. I hurriedly ate a late dinner and went to bed. I tossed and turned for a long time before finally falling asleep, and then woke repeatedly throughout the night for a noisy fan that wouldn’t turn off.

The 4:30am wakeup call came bone-achingly early. The long ride to the airport, coupled with a shuttle that leaves on the top and bottom of the hour, meant we had to take a 5am van for a 5:45am show time. A hot shower and early cup of coffee didn’t do much to break my stupor. The short flight to Minneapolis seemed to take forever. A nap on our long break would have done wonders, but there was nowhere to sleep at MSP. The crew room is constantly busy, bright, and loud, and the designated quiet room off the side has been declared off limits to all but airport reserves. Instead I had another large cup of coffee. It worked, for a while: I was practically jumping off the seat on our way to Milwaukee.

Then I came crashing back down on the return leg, and I found myself missing radio calls and messing up simple things. On the descent, I fought an aggressive case of the nods by using the oxygen mask on 100% oxygen. We still had a two hour sit in Minneapolis – often more tiring than actually flying – followed by a four hour Chicago turn. There was no way I was going to make it. I called in fatigued shortly after landing.

The crew scheduler sounded incredulous. “Fatigued? You’ve only done three legs!” I told him to take a look at the trip, but that didn’t move him. “You’re going to have to talk to a chief pilot about this!” he exclaimed, obviously annoyed that he would need to find someone to cover the O’Hare turn. I told him I would go downstairs and talk to the base chief pilot that very minute, and hung up.

I’m happy to report that the base chief pilot was very supportive. I showed him the trip key and explained how the cumulative shortage of sleep was affecting me, and he agreed that the trip wasn’t exactly conducive to obtaining sufficient rest and thanked me for doing the safe thing. I know that fatigue calls are handled in a much less positive manner at certain other airlines, and that previous flight ops managers at NewCo reportedly took a different tack. In this case, the only negative effect I suffered was the loss of around $180 in pay.

It’s worth noting that none of my other crewmembers called in fatigued. They all said they were tired, but felt they could battle through the day safely. Fair enough; fatigue affects different people differently, and they may have been more successful in getting sleep the previous night. It’s impossible to say how the loss in pay may have affected my poorly paid flight attendants’ and First Officer’s decisions.

In any case, it’s hard to see how our crew planner could put together that pairing without it occurring to him that chances were excellent that at least one crewmember might become severely fatigued. At most airlines, not just NewCo, there is a prevalent attitude that “If it’s legal, it must be safe.” From a statistical perspective I suppose they’re right. We just finished the third year out of the last four without a major airline fatality in the United States. If pilots are flying around tired, they’re doing a remarkable job of not killing people in the process. The ATA and RAA’s obstructionism of the new rest and duty regulations shows they’re utterly willing to accept an occasional Colgan 3407 here, an American 1420 there, right up to the point that the body count causes passengers to start booking away.

Fair enough. They have tickets to sell and profits to make, and these days corporate responsibility in this country tends to start and end with the stockholders. It’s not like the majority of passengers disagree; I suspect the vast majority would willingly sacrifice 100 strangers every few years to keep ticket prices low. As a pilot, though, safety is my only concern. Sure, I put in the effort to run my ship in a timely and efficient manner, but I don’t lose any sleep if I block out a few minutes late or burn an extra hundred pounds of gas. My real job, indeed the very core of my professional identity, is to minimize the risk to my passengers in every way practical.

This is also, theoretically, the FAA’s only job. They do not have a responsibility to ensure the airlines turn a profit. Congress removed their responsibility to promote aviation economically a few years back for the very reason that I’m writing this post. Now, the FAA’s only job is to manage risk, and fatigue is clearly the chief risk factor they have allowed to go unaddressed for too long. It’s high time to put the new rest and duty regulations into effect and end the silliness of asking pilots to fly exhausting trips that tempt them to fly fatigued.


elodea said...

This is exactly why the FAA changing the flight time requirements for ATP and commercial tickets, as a knee-jerk reaction to Congress and the public, will accomplish absolutely nothing.

typingtalker said...

It is a very competitive and highly regulated business. If the regs are changed, they are changed for everybody and ticket prices go up for every airline. There is no competitive advantage (unless the airline is competing with Greyhound or a Toyota Corolla) to fighting for unsafe duty regs.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Great posts, I love them.. but you know, they are making me feel uncomfortable about my decision of becoming a professional pilot: This is not the only pilot's blog in which they say they are working WAY many hours, under fatigue conditions and bored.. but in the end they all say the love their jobs. I don't get it, if it turns out to be boring throughout the years, poorly paid and exhausting, how come they love it? If you could clarify this for me, I would be very grateful.. should I continue fighting (cuz that is what I do) to become an airline pilot? Thank you a lot, keep up the writing;cheers!

Jonathan B. said...

If any member of the flying public could experience even a minute of what it would be like sitting in the seat of a commuter that's spinning in (which is what I believe happened in the case of Colgan air) I'm quite certain they would support mandatory 12 hours of rest a night, the costs be damned.

What's amazing is not that people want to save money, but that they are so mind numbingly stupid as to want to save it when being hauled in the back of an airplane going Mach 0.8 at 40,000 feet.

coreydotcom said...

thanks for that informative piece

Michael said...


Thanks for giving a solid, real world example of the letter F in the IMSAFE checklist! I prefer my airline flights to be crewed by pilots such as yourself, ones with a well honed sense of self preservation :)

Carl said...

Another great post, Sam!
I am curious though, do you ever get tired of doing MSP turns? I can imagine you get to the point where you could brief an approach barely glancing at the charts.

doru said...

That's the unseen (from us, pax) side of aviation. However, something puzzles me: you said "the designated quiet room off the side has been declared off limits to all but airport reserves". I suppose it's a rather small room, but still, isn't it's very reason for existance to provide an area for pilots to rest/sleep? So why ban pilots form using it? I'd understand reserves having priority access to it, but not banning all other pilots.

On the other hand, I know most airports have hotels on the premises, and also I imagine that during the day, most of those hotels' rooms aren't occupied, so wouldn't it be possible for the airline to arrange with the hotel to rent rooms to pilots for a few hours for a small fee? (in the said situation, I'd have paid $10-$20 for 1 or 2 hours of sleep, and I guess others would, too)

best wishes, Ted

WILLO2D said...


A number of comments here, but not one really includes comment on your decision to call in "fatigued". As far as I am concerned, you did exactly the right thing; the fact that the "scheduler" effectively "tore you a new one" yet the Base CP backed you up indicates something.

Although I am not aircrew, I have experienced similar situations myself - after a 19 1/2 hour day, I arrived in work the next morning 15 mins into "core time". I ended up advising a company director(?) that, if he was so inclined, he could dismiss me and I would see him in court. I had already explained the circumstances to my line manager but the so called director had to make his point. I spent the remainder of that day "working at home".


Kind regards / IanH

Anonymous said...

You had me right up until this comment: "The ATA and RAA’s obstructionism of the new rest and duty regulations shows they’re utterly willing to accept an occasional Colgan 3407 here, an American 1420 there, right up to the point that the body count causes passengers to start booking away."

Putting aside the fact for a moment that ALPA and CAPA also are working on Capitol Hill and within the Obama Administration to make changes to the new flight time/duty time regs (they were in my office just this week lobbying on changes they want made prior to implementation that give them more flexibility on commuting), you're implying that it was some draconian crew rotation that led to the Colgan 3407 and AA 1420 crashes when in fact, they were both on the first day of their trip. Yes, the Colgan Captain decided that he wanted to fly in the night before and sleep in the crew room in explicit violation of company rules. Yes, the Colgan F/O decided to double leg commute to EWR from SEA via MEM on a red eye. Yes the AA Captain (who as I recall was the Chief Pilot in ORD) decided to work a full day in this office before picking up a trip. Those were personal decisions they made before even signing in for Day 1 of their rotations. And, if they were fatigued, they shouldn't have signed in for the trip. Would anyone really have questioned the Chief Pilot if he said he was too fatigued?

Now, in the Colgan case you can revert back to the script and say "well, they're underpaid and they couldn't afford a hotel room and couldn't afford a crashpad." Aside from the fact that thousands of other CO employees on the ground with similar responsibilities for safety and similar salaries somehow manage to live in the area, again these were decisions that they made. They chose to work for this company at these rates.

No doubt fatigue is an issue, and steps are being taken to remedy it. Your blog is entertaining and informative, but too often you revert to the union line and simplify what is in fact a more complex issue than you lead on.

Sam said...

Lots of good comments. I'll start with the latest Anonymous and start backwards.

I think you read a bit much into my comment. I've previously written extensively about the Colgan crash and have never stated that the rotation was to blame; they were only about nine hours into day one (and on the first leg). Fatigue was very likely a factor, but as you point out it was pretty self-induced in this case due to some poor commuting decisions. The American case is different, as the crash came at the end of a 14 hour duty day that I would describe as potentially fatiguing no matter where it fell within the trip and regardless of the pilots' pre-trip activities.

The whole point of my comment, while it was admittedly a tad hyperbolic, was not to say the airlines "caused" these particular accidents. It's the fact that we know that fatigue has very deleterious effects on pilot performance, we know that fatigue-related accidents continue to happen, every iota of scientific research into pilot fatigue suggests that the current regulations are utterly inadequate for dealing with it, yet industry groups have fought every effort to change them. What conclusion can you take from that but that the industry beancounters are comfortable with the current fatality rate?

For that matter, I put ALPA and CAPA in the same boat when they fight tooth and nail against looking into irresponsible commuting as a contributing factor towards fatigue, though it's clearly a potential problem. How's that for spouting the union line?

"No doubt fatigue is an issue, and steps are being taken to remedy it." From your post, it sounds like you're fairly close to the process. That sentence smacks of "Now, now, don't worry, be patient, we're going to take care of everything." Forgive me for being skeptical, the feds started to address this in the 90s when it was just as much of a hot-button issue as it is today, and the reforms died an ignominious death amid a swell of industry opposition. Feds I've talked to say this round is in danger of going the same way. Feel free to correct this impression in detail, if you wish.

Sam said...

doru/ted - I'm not privy to management's rationale on the quiet room usage, but I assume they want to avoid people "camping" in it, ie using it as a crashpad. I think this could be solved with a change to "This room may only be used by on-duty employees; airport reserves have priority." Heck, I think I'll go suggest that to the base CP on my next sit.

Good point on the airport hotels, maybe they do this some places...MSP does not have one attached.

Carl- Since the merger, we see lots of other hubs so there's definitely some variety. MSP is familiar but I enjoy operating from there as it runs fairly smoothly even in inclement weather. ATL is the very model of efficiency and LGA handles a lot of traffic for its size, but throw some bad weather at either and things quickly grind to a halt. In winter, give me MSP trips...and send me to points west!

typingtalker- Heh, my first draft of this point contained that very point. If I were the CEO of AA, DL, UA, or US, I would support the rule change on the grounds that the large unions on legacy property are the most likely to recoup rule changes in the upcoming round of negotiations, and a rule change would at least keep the low-cost competition on a level playing field.

elodea- huh? First off your comment is a total non sequitur, secondly the FAA is not changing the time requirements for a CPL or ATL (they are requiring an ATP to be a 121 FO), and thirdly that rule change will have no practical effect at any airline in the short term because nobody is hiring sub-1500 hr pilots right now anyways. Feel free to explain your logic, though.

Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam said...

Anonymous 3:59--

Heck, if you didn't feel a *little* uncomfortable with your decision to become a professional pilot I'd say you haven't paid enough attention over the last ten years! But I hope what you take from this blog isn't that I'm working way too many hours under fatigue conditions and I'm bored. Quite the opposite. I work relatively few hours, I am seldom fatigued, and am only rarely bored with my job. Of course there are some days with long hours, every once in a great while I end up dog-tired, and sometimes I can't look at another snowy North Dakota cornfield without thinking, "What I wouldn't give to be napping in a hammock on a tropical beach right now." Perhaps we bloggers tend to dwell more on those days and moments because they run counter to the public image of a pilot's life and the Potemkin Pilot promoted by the flight training industry. Most days it's a good job, an interesting one, a rewarding one. It's become less so over the years if you aren't a bit of a nerd or march to the beat of your own drummer, and the pay and career progression have obviously taken a hit. You can still get a great deal of enjoyment out of it. Here's a little secret, though: everything I really like about my airline job, was also present in my non-airline flying jobs, sometimes to a greater degree. Don't focus so much on clawing your way to the airlines that you forget to enjoy the journey.

Anonymous said...


Since here's an idea: Since you're MSP based and the sits were in MSP, would it be possible to go over to the employee lot and rest/sleep in your car for a little while?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the MSP props in bad wx, it's nice to hear the hard work is noticed.


Cirrocumulus said...

Who represents the people sitting on the ground underneath? How much did Colgan pay for the woman they killed in her own home?

Sam said...

Anonymous 5:17 obviously is unfamiliar with the MSP climate, or is a NewCo pilot junior to me who wishes for a little hypothermia-assisted advancement!

In all seriousness, until this very week I lived in uptown Minneapolis and took public transit to work - no car to nap in even when conditions permit. I'll keep it in mind for this summer.

LT - the MSP props weren't specific to MSP ATC but certainly include ya'll, you're some of the nicest ATC folks I talk to across the country and consistently good as well. I've been meaning to ask you, what are the chances of me snagging a MSP tower tour from you? Email me... samweigel //at// gmail //dot// com.

Cirrocumulus - I believe it was a man who was the sole ground fatality of CJC3407. Not sure of the status of any lawsuits involving him, I assume some online searching would uncover the answer.

Sam said...

One other thing about your comment bothered me, Cirrocumulus. Colgan did not kill anyone in their own home. A pilot who negligently allowed his aircraft to get dangerously slow and then completely cocked up the most basic of recovery procedure was most responsible for that loss of life as well as that of his passengers, his crew, and his own. Dying with that kind of blood on one's hands is a pilot's worst nightmare. Colgan probably bears responsibility for fostering conditions that made this accident more likely (recruiting & training practices, sick and fatigue policies, etc)...but such criticisms need to me made in the proper context.

Anonymous said...

You bring up an interesting point and as a 135 charter pilot i understand how you feel about waiting around vs. flying. That being said I wonder if you would have called fatigue if you were not at your home base? Did anyone in management bring this up to you? It seems like it would have been a much more difficult decision had you been somewhere out on the road.

Rick said...

"Anonymous said" (above post); as an airline captain at Sam's previous employer, who flew many trips together I think I can unequivocally state; when one call's in fatigued you don't give a rat's posterior where you are, you most likely will be unconcious standing or otherwise in 30 minutes or less. I have called in fatigued at my home domicile only to have to "catch a few winks" in the pilot lounge just to be able to safely drive 15 minutes home.
Folks reading this, in the regional aviation world, please try and avoid the crews first leg if before 0600 or the last leg after 1100, double the risk if it's not the first and last day of their rotation. Trust me on this one.
PS- Sam, don't most airlines carry "insurance" policies for such catastrophes? If you catch my drift?
Good post, well said!

Pilot Supplies said...

There is no doubt that duty time is a problem for airline pilots; however, those of us who fly corporate have it even worse.

Companies, squeezing everything they can out of their business, abuse the use of their aircraft.


Pilot Supplies

Anonymous said...


re' the Colgan crash, the Captain was just about to recover, he almost made it out, when the Copilot raised the flaps without asking she signed the death warrant check the VSI on youtube