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
DAY FLT DEP-DEST STD STA BLK TURN
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
DUTY END: 1940L
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.