Thursday, May 14, 2009

Greed Kills

As I have been (casually) following the news about the crash of Continental Flight 3407 on Feb. 12, I accepted on face value the general media consensus that it was most likely due to the inexperience of the pilots, and for the most part I think that's correct.

For example, the pilot had not been trained about what to do in a stall and what the signs were in that particular aircraft. The co-pilot apparently hadn't ever seen icing on wings in flight before.

But, when I heard about the pay the co-pilot was getting, the fact that she was sick, AND the circumstances of her employment with the airline, it was clear this was just an accident waiting to happen.

Back when I worked for a puddle-jumper airline, I was shocked when I found out how hard they worked the pilots and how little rest they were allowed between flights. On the amount of sleep they sometimes got - after being on shift for quite a few days on end - you wouldn't want these folks to pop open a twist-off beer for ya, let alone rocket your ass into the frozen, wind-torn sky in a plastic bottle fitted with wings and half-filled with explosive fuel.

When you put someone in that kind of a circumstance, pay them poorly, train them even worse, and expose them to schedules and working conditions that are essentially illegal in the manufacturing sector, it's bound to result in exactly what happened. Someone like an airline pilot should be aggressively groomed and trained, not treated like a temp whose primary duty is filing, where only fingers and a basic grasp of the alphabet are required.

From this article (read the whole thing, it's gripping), here are part of the details of how the co-pilot was paid and what her conditions were:

Shaw, 24, flew 774 hours in her first year at Colgan. Roger Cox, a safety board aviation safety expert, said she earned $21 an hour, meaning that she would have been paid about $16,254 that year. As a result, Shaw worked a second job in a Norfolk, Va., coffee shop when she started at Colgan, safety board witnesses said.

So, after handing folks their freakin' Venti's for a shift or two, she'd sleep on a chair in the pilot's lounge or on a plane, and then grab the controls of a FREAKIN' JET.

Dear God.

There are going to be a lot of corporate executives in hell, methinks.


Anonymous said...

Remember, yahm, ever since 9/11 the airline industry has been shrinking like an erection in an icy stream. Pilots, in particular, have been dealing with layoffs and pay cuts that would make the rest of us cringe. Airline executives have been dealing with mergers or bankruptcy or both. Accusing anyone in this situation of "greed" is silly. No one goes into the airline business nowadays thinking they're going to get rich.

It is also worth noting that the copilot was exhausted at the start of her flight because of *her* decisions, not Colgan Air's. They didn't make her live in Seattle while working out of Newark. They didn't make her commute by jumpseat on a cross-country red-eye. It was her choice, and clearly not a smart one. (From the article: '“It is their responsibility to commute in and be fit for duty,” said Mary Colgan Finnigan, vice president of administration for Colgan Air.' Damned straight.)

Finally, while Colgan executives will deny this, Colgan is what pilots call a "starter" airline. It's the kind of place that you work when you're young, live on Ramen noodles while building up enough flight hours to qualify for a job at a major, and then leave when you find one. Again, Colgan will deny this, as would the FAA. But ask a commercial pilot at *any* airline, and they'll tell you the career path.

Maybe this isn't the way things should be. Maybe the FAA should mandate a federal minimum wage for commercial pilots. If that's what you believe, then contact your congresscritters and maybe we can have a national debate on this. But flying is hardly the only career in which people start out working for beans.


yahmdallah said...

Thanks for keeping me honest Joel. Most of your points make sense to me. Maybe the pay scale isn't the primary issue.

I still think that given WHAT these folks are doing, their treatment and training - even at career start - should be better. Just sayin'.

Hell, I was treated better at a retail book store when I was back in the ramen days.

It's all about what they have been trained for when things go wrong, not the rest of the 99.9[?] when they sail through the air with the greatest of ease. Especially if I were standing at a funeral, I would be pissed with the facts pointed out in that article going through my head.

Anonymous said...

Joel, when HER decision to get more sleep would mean a pink slip (and probably end her career), is that right?

This was a case of corporate greed trumping safety. If the corporation's hurting financially, the solution is to cut service. It's not to maintain (or even boost) service and expect your existing pilot staff to cover it.

If they can't make ends meet financially, then they're poor businessmen, and should close shop. This shit is life and death.


Anonymous said...

Pete, the reason she needed more sleep is that she lived on the other side of the continent from her job and had a six-hour overnight commute. Which was entirely her decision.

Though I will readily grant your second point. A lot of airlines need to go out of business, as has been happening. Though, if you think about, more bankruptcies will hardly help the pay situation for airline employees.


Anonymous said...

If a pilot tried to domicile in his work cities, he'd be in a perpetual state of flux, dude.

Anonymous said...

Yes he would. Like construction workers, soldiers, clergy, and most academics.


Sleemoth said...

Sorry, don't buy it. Pilots are directly responsible for hundreds of human lives on a daily basis. Your other examples don't fit that bill.


Sleemoth said...

On second thought, soldiers do kinda fit there, in certain circumstances.

But soldiers aren't required to learn new technology. That's an option for them. It's a requirement for pilots.

Anonymous said...

Which is why it is *more* incumbent on pilots to live in their work cities, and move as needed, rather than commute across the continent and then try to fly while nodding off.

The only reason many pilots live 1,000+ miles from their workplace is because they can: jumpseating is a time-honored perk in the aviation community. But some pilots use that priviledge stupidly.


Anonymous said...

We're going in circles.

Like I said before, a pilot can't have a normal life and raise children if he/she has to pull up stakes and move to another city at the company's whim.

So these fledgling airlines need to buck up and make reasonable accomodations for them, with passenger safety driving this.