The FAA is investigating a complaint that pilots on a flight to Hawaii were sound asleep in the cockpit instead of reading the newspaper or talking politics like normal.
I immediately contacted a close associate who has given us some valuable insights on the workings of the aviation industry in this space previously, and he naturally had some input.
So without further ado, my guest columnist gives us a look at what goes on when the cockpit door closes and you push back - CAUTION THIS IS NOT FOR SQUEAMISH READERS!
FROM THE FLIGHT DECK
Well it looks like some of my brothers and sisters did it again. The FAA has opened an investigation into whether some pilots fell asleep during a trip from Honolulu to Hilo on Feb 13th.
Well I have news for you ... they probably did fall asleep! And it happens more often than you think.
The computer can fly the plane and if anything serious happened the alarms and bells would have gone off. And let me be the first to say, the passenger jet manufacturers make sure that when the fire alarm goes off it can awaken Rip Van Winkle from a 20-year nap.
Beyond that, the fire bell is a little more difficult to shut off than the snooze button on your alarm clock. It's a guarded switch so you have to lift the guard first and then press, meaning you have to be fully awake and aware enough to both shut off the alarm and deal with an emergency.
In fact the new Boeing 777 is so automated that every 15 minutes or so the computer will prompt the crew to make an input just to make sure they're not "incapacitated."
The real story behind the sleep-deprived flight crew is "why does this happen?"
The short answer regards the pilots' work rules. Pilots are compensated based on flight hours, not how many hours they are on duty. What's the difference you ask?
If a pilot checked in at the airport at 7 p.m. and has been there for 15 hours, he is "on duty" all that time. But if that pilot only flew for 5 hours, the paycheck is only for 5 hours, not the full time the pilot was working.
So let's say a pilot is scheduled for 5 days a week for the next 4 weeks at 15 hours per day. 15 hours x 5 days = 75 hours per week on duty. Multiply that by 4 and you get 300 hours on duty in a 4-week period.
But if pilots only fly 5 hours each of those days then they will only be paid for 25 hours per week x 4 weeks. Using this example you have a pilot who worked 300 hours in one month but was compensated only for 100 hours.
Ask yourself how many other folks who collect an hourly wage only get compensated for one-third of the time they worked.
The pilots also don't have a choice about being at the airport, or how long they will be there until they are assigned a flight. Some days pilots check in and are flying within an hour, and other days they can sit in the ready room for hours and hours without an assignment.
In truth, pilots and flight crews are "on duty" whenever they are in uniform and in a public arena, since their actions in the terminal or coming and going reflect on their industry and their carrier every bit as much as their skills in the cockpit.
Now, these pilots in Hawaii have it even worse. They're part of a regional airline called Mesa Air Group. Many pilots and aviation employees believe Mesa Air Group has one of the worst working rules contracts in the entire industry. But don't take my word for it.
Try logging on to www.airlinepilotforums.com. Once on the site go to the regional tab and post a message that you’re new to the industry and thinking of working for Mesa. You have been warned.
Mesa pilots are only allowed 8 days off per month. And MAG management will push their pilots right to the extremes of FAA working rules. Before you respond that "If they don't like it, leave," consider the severe pilot shortage that is on the horizon.
Pilots' time on the job should be calculated from the moment they check in, not from the time the aircraft door closes, as is the standard now. A pilot's performance is unquestionably going to be different if the trip leaves at 14.75 hours into a 15-hour day, rather than if the trip leaves 3 hours into a 15-hour day.
It may not be right that we are hearing more and more often of pilots sleeping in the cockpit. But we should understand the reasons behind the situation, and while not desirable, it isn't as dangerous as it may seem.
More to the point, it can be rectified by applying the same standards to pilots' wage and hours regulations as those taken for granted in other sectors.
Friday, February 22, 2008