I'm glad to public eye is still focused on Regional Airlines. I was afraid after a month or two people would move on. CHANGE can't come fast enough.
FAA seeks rapid overhaul of rules that govern pilot training and scheduling for regional airlines
Scott Shaw/The Plain DealerMichael Zaite, recently a co-pilot with CommutAir flying the twin-propellor planes seen in the background, resigned rather than take a transfer to Newark, N.J. He said pilot fatigue and occasionally lax discipline in the cockpit raise safety concerns at the regional partner for Continental Airlines.
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CLEVELAND -- Michael Zaite learned a lot when he flew as a co-pilot for Cleveland-based CommutAir, but it wasn't the education he was expecting.
Zaite, 30, saw how grueling schedules at the regional airline left crew members sleep-deprived, with bags under their eyes, "not thinking straight." He attended in-house training sessions where instructors skimmed over safety procedures. He sat in the cockpit next to rabid BlackBerry fans who text-messaged friends while the plane was taking off.
"They've got themselves deluded into thinking they have sufficient safety and sufficient training," said Zaite, a Garfield Heights resident who resigned from CommutAir in October rather than take a transfer to Newark, N.J. He now works for his family's business building musical amplifiers.
Zaite and other current and former pilots discussed their experiences with The Plain Dealer at a time of increasing national scrutiny for regional airlines, which have expanded rapidly and now account for half of all domestic flights.
In Cleveland, half of the passengers and three-fourths of the departures are on the smaller regional planes, often branded with the names of mainline carriers. Four regional carriers, for example, fly under the names Continental Express and Continental Connection, often serving the smaller markets where Continental Airlines' bigger planes don't fly.
Continental and its regional carriers say their planes are safe and their training thorough. A Continental spokeswoman declined to comment specifically about its affiliates but said safety is Continental's top priority "and we expect the same from our regional partners."
Nevertheless, the Federal Aviation Administration is seeking a rapid overhaul of rules that govern pilot training and scheduling because of concerns about a Colgan Air plane, flying as Continental Connection, that crashed in February in Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people. Investigators say the pilots were tired, insufficiently trained and poorly paid.
Legislation to require more stringent screening and training standards for pilots who fly for commercial air carriers is scheduled to be introduced Tuesday in the House.
A Plain Dealer review shows an increased rate of deadly incidents at regional airlines since 2002. Regionals doubled their annual flights between 2002 and 2008. But fatalities increased at a much faster rate, with 156 deaths in six crashes. U.S. mainline and low-cost carriers during the same period had three fatalities.
A decade ago the situation was the opposite, with fatalities at regional airlines a rare occurrence and major carriers marred by catastrophes that took 365 lives from 1999 through 2001 - aside from 265 killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Regionals during the same time had two fatalities.
"The statistics flipped," said Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney and the Department of Transportation's inspector general during the 1990s.
Schiavo thinks major airlines cut their accident rates in part by modernizing their fleets. The airlines got billions in federal subsidies after the Sept. 11th attacks and used some of the money to buy new jets, she said.
Commuter airlines expanded their reach as major airlines cut capacity and outsourced less profitable routes.
CommutAir Chief Executive John Sullivan said his airline surpasses FAA rules on training and safety and pays on a par with other regional airlines.
"By any measure that is reasonable, the air transportation system, including the regional sector of it, is very safe," he said.
However, interviews with current and former pilots for regional airlines that serve Cleveland Hopkins International Airport reveal a startling picture of sometimes minimal training and experience of men and women in the cockpit.
The pilot flying a commuter plane out of Cleveland might be as young as 23. The co-pilot could be 18. They may be weary from a tight schedule, limited sleep and lousy food.
Amy Vidovich, a pilot for Colgan from 1999 to 2001, described a relentless schedule flying short hops throughout the Northeast.
On a single day she might go from Boston to Augusta, Maine, then to Rockland, Maine, then back to Boston for refueling. She'd fly out again, perhaps to Rutland, Vt., before heading to Augusta, then back to Boston, then repeat the sequence again. The weather was often foggy, and some days she flew 10 legs -- 10 departures and 10 landings.
"I remember being so tired at the end of the day that I couldn't do basic math to fill out the flight time in the log book," she said.
Dan Morgan, Colgan vice president of safety and regulatory compliance, said the airline's policies allow for rested and fit flight crews. The airline limits flying time to 7½ hours in any 24-hour period. Colgan pilots average four hours 44 minutes of flying time per day and as much as six hours, he said.
"It would be highly doubtful that anyone could fly 10 legs in a day," he said.
Federal rules now limit pilots to no more than eight hours of scheduled flight during one shift. But pilots can be on duty a total of 16 hours, with nonflying time spent on duties such as checking weather and dealing with paperwork. They must have eight hours off between shifts, but the minimum break includes waiting for a hotel shuttle and going through airport security.
The National Transportation Safety Board has linked fatigue to more than 250 fatalities in aviation accidents in the past 15 years. A military consultant at a recent FAA symposium on fatigue and performance said 80 percent of regional pilots surveyed said they nodded off during a flight. The first skills to go are vigilance and attention, researcher say. They liken the effect of deep fatigue to being drunk.
An examination of pilot training and experience are part of the post-Colgan-crash probe into regional carriers.
The FAA pushed to require "one level of safety" in the 1990s, requiring commuter airlines to comply with more stringent rules that applied to major airlines. But FAA rules provide only general subjects to be covered in training and minimums on flight hours. And as the majors assigned more marginally profitable routes to regionals fighting for the work, two levels of safety resurfaced, Schiavo said.
Zaite, the former CommutAir co-pilot, said the airline's in-house training wasn't rigorous.
"They go through the motions, repeat the power points as fast as they can and go home," recalled Zaite, who was hired with just 507 flight hours, 25 hours of it on multiengine aircraft like the twin turboprops at CommutAir.
Inexperience shows up in the cockpit, said a CommutAir captain, who asked not to be identified because he feared repercussions for talking to the press.
"It's very exhausting for me to monitor [co-pilots] because I have my own duties," he said.
The climb after takeoff, for example, requires multiple tasks in quick succession. Co-pilots raise the landing gear and wing flaps, talk on the radio to air traffic control and open the "air bleeds" at about 1,000 feet to pressurize the cockpit so it doesn't lose oxygen.
Some co-pilots are sharp; others seem "overwhelmed" and "frazzled," the captain said. And things get missed.
"You feel the popping of your ears and you look up and the air bleeds aren't on," he said.
Passengers shouldn't expect quick fixes to the regional airline industry, officers of the Air Line Pilots Association warn.
One stubborn issue is a business model that pits regional airlines against one another to win contracts with mainline airlines, said Capt. John Prater, ALPA president. Airlines that spend more on safety or pay higher wages risk being penalized in the marketplace, Prater said.
Weekly take-home pay for beginning pilots of $300 to $350 forces some to take second jobs to support their families.
Schiavo blames safety differences between mainline and regional airlines on the relative inexperience of pilots at smaller airlines and the rapid turnover -- when economic times are good -- as they move to more lucrative and prestigious jobs at the major carriers. Salaries at many regional airlines changed little as they ramped up, "meaning many pilots who can find better jobs do so," Schiavo said. "The experience level has fallen."
A statistical analysis to see if there is a link between accidents and pilot experience and pay is part of the government's post-Colgan accident review.
For all the talk about the stresses of flying, pilots say today's highly computerized cockpits relieve some of the cognitive demands of their job. Veteran United pilot Frederick Dubinsky says he taught his son to "fly" a Boeing 777 in a simulator in 45 minutes.
"Airplanes are big computer games, is all they are," he said. "Anyone who's sat in front of a Nintendo can do it."
But learning to fly and learning to be a pilot are not the same.
"When the picture goes bad," Dubinsky said, "these kids have nothing to fall back on."
News Research Director Dave Davis and researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this report.