Pilot's arduous 2-day schedule reflects demands on flight crews
12:36 AM CDT on Sunday, November 1, 2009
By ERIC TORBENSON / The Dallas Morning News
This time, he required coffee. And Doug Gibbs doesn't like coffee; he's more of a Coke guy when he needs a boost. So he dulls the taste with lots of cream.This Tuesday would demand maximum caffeine: a 3:40 a.m. wake-up call to ensure he was on a shuttle bus by 4:30 from the hotel to the Little Rock airport.
A first officer for American Eagle Airlines, Gibbs had to check in for the 5:40 a.m. flight to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – the first of five flights he'd be in the cockpit for on a workday that wouldn't get him back to his Lewisville home until after 6 p.m.
That's not an everyday occurrence for Gibbs, who was on the second day of a two-day sequence that saw him making eight flights in 35 hours. But because he's paid only for the time when the plane is actually moving, he's got to work several such sequences each month to log enough hours to earn his $38,000 a year.
It's the accumulation of days like this over a month that has the nation's air safety regulator moving to change how often pilots can fly and when they must rest.
The proposed rules change comes in the wake of a February regional jet crash in Buffalo where the cockpit transcript showed both pilots were clearly tired, plus a string of small-jet crashes in recent years where pilot fatigue played a role. The Federal Aviation Administration's proposed rules are due before the end of the year.
This week speculation over whether two Northwest Airlines pilots may have been sleeping when they flew 150 miles past Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport brought more attention to whether pilots are overscheduled.
The Northwest pilots – in their mid-50s and with decades of experience – told regulators they were distracted by a discussion about pilot scheduling and denied being asleep.
While regional airlines have been in the FAA's spotlight, the Northwest incident demonstrates how concerns over pilot behavior go beyond the small carriers.
Both small- and large-jet operators have been scheduling pilots with decades-old limits that critics say haven't kept up with the economic pressures that airlines and pilots face today.
Under current scheduling rules, pilots can be at work – preparing for flights, actually flying and waiting to fly again – up to 16 consecutive hours. They can physically be flying a plane only eight of those hours.
Initial reports from the FAA's rulemaking process suggest that a pilot's duty day – the time at work – will shrink, but the amount of actual flying time allowed may increase, if the flights are scheduled during daylight hours.
"On one end you've got pilots doing long-haul international flights and on the other you've got guys slogging through bad weather in the Northeast on turboprops flying five or six times a day," said Bob Mann, an aviation consultant for R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y. "It's a tall order to make a set of rules to fit that."
The new rules will alter how airlines plan flights, force them to hire more pilots and potentially lead to unprofitable routes being eliminated.
Airline pilot scheduling has changed in the last decade for a host of reasons:
•Regional airlines try to keep costs low by maximizing the productivity of their pilots and using as few reserve pilots as possible.
•Pay cuts have prompted pilots to fly as much as they can to keep a standard of living.
•Many pilots choose to commute to their assigned crew bases because of high living costs, adding more travel time even before they punch the clock to start flying.
Compounding the problem for commuting pilots, recent cutbacks in airline flights have meant far fewer empty seats available. Consequently, some pilots have to fly a day in advance to ensure they make it to their crew base, lengthening their time on the road.
In the Buffalo crash, for example, the 24-year-old co-pilot had flown overnight from Seattle to New Jersey before starting her day.
The Regional Airline Association, which represents nearly all regional carriers including Eagle, has launched its own study of pilot fatigue that will also examine commuting's effect, president Roger Cohen said.
"There's been very little research in this area, and we need better science," said Cohen, who has been defending his industry's safety record since the Buffalo crash.
He also questions whether regional pilots are more prone to fatigue than their mainline counterparts.
"There could be more fatigue, but it may also be the opposite outcome," said Cohen. "Maybe the frequency of the flights keeps them more alert and active."
That frequency of flights is where regional pilots may have it tougher than pilots at mainline airlines.
Eagle has an average flight length of 350 miles compared with American Airlines' 900 miles. So, if they fly an equal distance, Eagle pilots will make about three times as many landings and takeoffs – the most stressful part of the job.
American's pilots have schedules that aren't easy to fly either, but with longer flights they can work fewer total days a month than Eagle's pilots do.
"I wish the industry would raise the bar on flight time and duty time rules, which hopefully is coming," said Gibbs, the first officer, over a lunch of chicken fingers at TGI Fridays at D/FW's B Concourse. He gets $1.75 an hour for food per diem, but "eating out three times a day can really add up." To save money, he often packs Pop Tarts (Frosted chocolate fudge or chocolate chip are his favorites).
Eagle seems to be a better place to fly than other regional airlines, Gibbs said, after comparing notes with friends at other carriers. "The safety and training programs here are top-notch," he said.
However, Eagle can't escape the declining economics of regional flying, especially as fuel prices rise. Eagle stopped flying 54 planes in June 2008; other regional airlines have seen their flying for major carriers cut and the rates they get paid reduced.
Living his dream
Despite the hours and disruptions to his sleep schedule, Gibbs said being an airline pilot is the job he's wanted since he flew in a 1956 Cessna 172 when he was 15 ½ years old and growing up on his family's farm in central Illinois.
"I love the freedom," he said. "I love not being in an office all day."
Gibbs, who's flown for American Eagle for almost four years, nearly got a job at Comair, which does regional flying for Delta Air Lines Inc., but Delta's bankruptcy filing in September 2005 scotched it. An extension program through Southern Illinois University got him in the door with Eagle.
In his first assignment, Gibbs was stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he and his colleagues dubbed themselves "Pilots of the Caribbean," which explains the skull and crossbones sticker on his crew-kit bag.
It's also where he met his wife, Iris, a sixth-grade English teacher, who, ironically, doesn't like flying though she's getting more comfortable with it – and with having her husband in the air all the time.
"It's hard on her, but she supports me," said Gibbs, who turned 27 last month but often gets asked by passengers if he's 13.
As a first officer on Eagle's Canadair Regional Jet, Gibbs' duties are basically the same as his captain's, though Gibbs does the "walk-around" of the plane before and after each flight to check its airworthiness.
Gibbs also serves as an elected union representative for the Air Line Pilots Association, which bargains for the 2,500 Eagle pilots. His union status allows him to talk to the media; everyday pilots – like his captain – cannot be quoted without permission from the airline.
Pilots use their seniority to bid for flying and fly in "sequences." Gibbs and his captain flew a sequence of eight flights over two days Oct 19-20.
During this trip, Gibbs will do the takeoffs and landings on the outbound parts of the schedule; the captain will handle the inbound parts. They're fortunate: two cloudless fall days to fly to the cities on their schedule – Little Rock on the first day, Lubbock and Des Moines on the second.
The first flight to Little Rock nearly never happens. When a flight attendant closes the Canadair Regional Jet's door, a bolt snaps, and Gibbs gets out of the cockpit to assess the problem and call in maintenance. It is one of five mechanical issues he deals with among the eight flights.
The plane he's flying this day also lacks a functioning auxiliary power unit, a not-too-uncommon issue. It's not a safety concern, but the unit does help start the engines and can run the air conditioning on board. Passengers complain about the stuffiness on board the 70-seat plane.
Good news: Maintenance finds the needed bolt and fixes the door. It's fortunate for Gibbs and his passengers because it's the last one in stock and a Canadair Regional Jet a few gates away just snapped the same bolt. A little more than two hours after the scheduled departure, they're off to Little Rock.
After turning around and returning to D/FW Airport, Gibbs flies back to Little Rock – his third flight on day one – and hops on the employee shuttle to a riverfront hotel. He does two hours of phone work before grabbing dinner, and then turns in around 6:30 p.m. for as much sleep as he can get before his 3:40 a.m. wake-up on Tuesday.
The layover is longer than usual for Gibbs and his captain. Mann and other consultants say short overnight layovers for regional pilots contribute considerably to fatigue because they can't get adequate sleep if they're on flying trips that last four, or in some cases, five days. And rest periods can get eaten up by paperwork at the airport and traveling to and from hotels.
"At some point these regional carriers push productivity to a point where it's no longer gain but pain," Mann said.
Gibbs' first flight on day two starts with another minor mechanical problem; the plane's backup de-icing system was giving it trouble, even though there wasn't any ice in Little Rock.
Eventually the problem clears, and he returns to D/FW to then make a quick hop and back to Lubbock, just 243 miles away.
Back at D/FW, Gibbs has a three-hour wait until his final round trip to Des Moines. That's the frustrating part of the schedule; it allows a leisurely lunch, but he'd rather be flying and getting home sooner.
After flying out and back from Iowa, Gibbs is finished with his two-day sequence. If he's tired, it doesn't show in his greeting passengers or in his cheery public address announcements.
Gibbs heads to the employee parking lot and eventually back home. He'll be back in the air in three days headed to Pittsburgh.
If Gibbs wants to be a captain – which could ultimately boost his pay at Eagle to more than $100,000 a year – he'll be waiting for several years as the seniority list at Eagle isn't moving quickly.
If the FAA changes the rules on rest, it would likely mean regional airlines like Eagle would need to hire more pilots. That's potentially good news for Gibbs' career advancement.
However, if American Airlines can't make money on Eagle routes, it could cut more flights, reducing the need for more pilots.
At some point, Gibbs may have to make a choice to commute from D/FW if he wants a chance at being captain, though it would mean more time away from home.
Being a captain "is always a target that's off there in the horizon," he said. "This is all I want to do."