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Are pilots flying beyond their limits?

Long shifts and multiple flights can take their toll, a pilot for a regional airline says. In recent years, fatigue has been cited as a likely factor in four crashes.

January 17, 2010|By Dan Weikel
  • Inadequate rest has been associated with 250 fatalities in air carrier accidents over the last 16 years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Inadequate rest has been associated with 250 fatalities in air carrier… (Alicia Buelow / For the Los…)

Halfway through his 13-hour shift, the Pinnacle Airlines pilot was already tired. After landing in Indianapolis, he headed to the terminal to catch a quick nap during a three-hour layover.

Once there, he discovered that the waiting areas were jammed with passengers and there was no lounge for airline crews. So the pilot found a remote corner of the building and curled up on the floor, using his black uniform jacket as a pillow.

Although airline officials generally frown on the practice, the pilot said naps in terminals were one way to fight fatigue -- something that's important when you're at the controls of a $25-million aircraft with 50 passengers aboard.

"A regional jet can go more than 500 mph. Its approach speed is 160 mph," the pilot said. "When you're tired and the workload is high, you sometimes have to fight to stay alert. You ask air traffic control to repeat calls. You can forget things."

The account from the pilot highlights what federal safety officials and independent experts say is a persistent problem in U.S. aviation: pilot fatigue.

Seven of the last nine airline crashes in the United States have involved regional carriers, and pilot fatigue was likely a factor in at least four of those incidents, according to federal safety investigators.

The most recent accident involved a Colgan Air turboprop plane that crashed in Buffalo, N.Y., last February, killing 49 people aboard and one person on the ground.

Critics say the situation has been exacerbated by the airline industry's long slump, putting pressure on airlines to cut costs by forcing pilots to work longer hours.

The Pinnacle Airlines pilot spoke to The Times on the condition he not be identified for fear of reprisals.

The account he gave of a typical workday, however, was consistent with the depiction of conditions at regional air carriers contained in years of reports by the National Transportation Safety Board, testimony in congressional hearings and statements from outside analysts.

Philip H. Trenary, chief executive of Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines Corp., said his company has striven to be a safety leader and has met or exceeded all regulations, including federal rest requirements for crews. As such, pilots are expected to be rested when they go to work.

"I can assure you that our 5,000 employees are dedicated to ensuring the safe transport of 13 million passengers annually," Trenary told Congress during testimony last summer. "Our No. 1 guiding principle is 'never compromise safety.' "

Even so, inadequate rest has been associated with 250 fatalities in air carrier accidents over the last 16 years, according to the NTSB. Although experts say fatigue also afflicts pilots at some major airlines, since 2002 seven of the last nine crashes in the United States have involved regional carriers -- two of them Pinnacle.

NTSB officials found that pilot fatigue probably contributed to three of the regional accidents and perhaps a fourth -- the Continental Connection's flight that crashed Feb. 12 in Buffalo. That plane was operated by Colgan Air Inc., which is owned by Pinnacle.

About 70 regional airlines operate in the United States, often in partnership with major carriers. For example, a passenger taking a typical Delta Air Lines flight from New York to Fresno would start out in a roughly 200-seat Boeing 757 jet, but switch at Delta's hub in Salt Lake City to a 50-seat Canadair jet operated by the regional airline SkyWest.

Other regional carriers in the West include Horizon Air, which like Alaska Airlines is operated by Alaska Air Group Inc.; American Eagle, a unit of American Airlines' parent company, AMR Corp.; and United Express, which is operated by United Airlines' parent, UAL Corp.

Pinnacle also partners with Delta and Northwest Airlines on flights to smaller airports in the East and Midwest. In 2008, it was the sixth-largest regional carrier in the nation, according to the Regional Airline Assn.

Getting off the ground

The pilot interviewed by The Times joined Pinnacle after working several years as a flight instructor and charter pilot. His starting pay as a first officer, or co-pilot, was $1,650 a month, plus benefits.

Last year, the pilot earned about $28,000 -- less than a typical Los Angeles bus driver. For that pay, he is often on duty 12 to 13 hours a day, four days a week, flying through the South and Midwest in a Bombardier CRJ 200 -- about half the size of a Boeing 737. He makes as many as 12 takeoffs and landings a day.

For him, the opportunity to fly for a regional carrier was a major accomplishment. It took years of training and an investment of $35,000 to obtain the necessary flight credentials. It also was a break for a young man who had dropped out of high school and joined the military, where he took college extension courses that would eventually lead to a bachelor of science degree.

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