Friday, February 19, 2010

PBS Frontline's "Flying Cheap"

I recently watched PBS Frontline's premiere of the episode "Flying Cheap", which questions the safety of the regional airline industry. You can watch it online here. The program highlighted the growth of regional airlines in general, and Colgan Airlines specifically. Frontline focused on the crash of one of Colgan’s Dash-8 Q400 Turboprops a year ago in Buffalo, New York. Colgan was operating the flight as Continental Connection 3407, and fifty people perished, including one on the ground.

The NTSB is establishing that pilot error is the cause of the accident. Both pilots let the plane get too slow while configuring for an instrument approach, and then the Captain, the pilot flying, responded improperly to wing stall warning indications. The First Officer made the situation worse by retracting wing flaps at the wrong time, and without being commanded to do so by the Captain. The plane's wings fully stalled, then the big turboprop started to enter a spin. There wasn't enough altitude above the ground to recover from that and the resulting dive.

This sort of basic airmanship pilot error is unconscionable; it is hard to believe that it occurred. But when the Captain’s and First Officer’s record and relatively low experience levels are taken into account, and added to the fact that they both were very likely affected by short term fatigue, it is conceivable that together they could make this series of errors which added up to this horrific tragedy. Another contributing circumstance to the crash that the NTSB might emphasize is that Colgan had an insufficient training and operating program for the Q400, and consequently both pilots’ limited experience in the airplane exposed them to a higher risk of an accident than otherwise.

The Captain had failed checkrides five times, but had notified Colgan about only one of them. When he was hired he had failed three checkrides, and unfortunately he failed two more at Colgan.  Colgan has stated they would’ve never hired him if they had known he lied about two of them of them. Failing a checkride is common, however. I’ve failed three myself, unfortunately, and consider myself to be a pretty capable and skilled aviator. I know in detail why each one didn't work out, but it comes down to the fact that each time I rushed my training and lacked preparation in exactly where I busted the ride at.  My last one was nine years ago on my Captain upgrade checkride at Great Lakes, a commuter turboprop airline with a reputation for failing many Captain upgrade applicants. I retrained and passed the checkride a few days later.

A failure doesn’t mean you’re an unsafe or bad pilot. Does failing the bar exam mean you’re a bad lawyer? Does failing important medical exams while an intern mean you’re an unsafe doctor? No and no. However, if a pilot has basic airmanship deficiencies, it should show up in the training process as a new hire. I’ve heard of new hires failing in training at my current airline and seen it happen at Great Lakes. Should it have happened in this case at Colgan? I don’t know, it would be unfair for me to say without having specific knowledge, but it’s clear that basic but critical flying mistakes were made.

Furthermore, some pilots just need more experience, then they will be able to successfully complete airline pilot training.  The right stuff is real stuff, but it also depends on experience; experience is important.

Our airline has a probationary period of one year for new hires; it’s a period where a pilot can be terminated without job protection from the union. Some have not made off probation at my airline, for airmanship reasons, but the most common reason is having a bad attitude.

I don’t know how well Colgan taught the following operating procedure, but in my opinion the First Officer should’ve had it down pat. When operating in icing conditions, with the icing speed reference switch selected ‘on’ then the pilot not flying must set higher that normal approach and landing speeds (about 20 knots higher) to compensate for the artificially higher stall warning speed produced because this aforementioned switch selected ‘on’. On the accident flight the Q400 was starting an approach in the clouds, in icing conditions. For an unknown reason the higher speeds had not been set; the normal, slower, non-icing condition speeds had been set instead. This left the Q400 dangerously slow when configuring for approach. Neither pilot voiced concern nor presumably noticed that the plane’s airspeed was too slow. The stick shaker (a device which vibrates the control column and indicates an approaching wing stall) activated and the Captain responded by raising the nose of the plane, not lowering it as he should have.

Then the First Officer made another mistake, in retracting the wing flaps of the plane in the midst of the captain fighting the wing stall with the plane’s bank and pitch angles gyrating wildly. Retracting flaps is part of the recovery from wing stalls practiced in the simulator, but only on command and after control is recovered with an increase in airspeed and performance is observed by the pilot. In real life, retracting flaps after recovering from an approach and landing stall would occur long after the airplane is back under control.

Fatigue reared its ugly head in this one, in a way unlike other accidents recently. Each pilot was under the effects of short term fatigue, from sleeping in the crewroom at the airport after commuting in the night before (the captain) and from commuting through the night on a major cargo airline (the first officer), then napping the morning before their showtime. This accident brings it home to me more than ever before: commuting through the night and/or sleeping in the crewroom will leave you very tired and you will sacrifice alertness and airmanship ability if you do it.  If you’re wondering, I don’t sleep in the crew room; I have a bunk bed with my name on it in an apartment within walking distance of the airport.

Overall, this is a good and balanced program, and a needed notification to the public about the present problems at regional airlines. However, it did at times go too far toward the ‘Nancy Grace Tonight’ style of TV journalism sensationalism. One scene showcased the cynical response of a crash victim’s father, who discounted a regional airline executive’s personal expression of sympathy and promise to him that they corrected the 'safety gaps'.  The executive was one for Pinnacle Airlines Corporation, another regional airline company which bought Colgan in June 2007. 
Host Miles O'Brien, who is a private pilot himself, did good in showing the economic hardships new regional pilots face, making as little as $16,000 the first year employed, while possibly being based in a city which has a high cost of living (Newark, NJ in this case). Regional pilots fly smaller planes, and airline pilot's salaries are based on the number of seats the plane has. Thusly, the average Co-Pilot's annual salary at a regional airline is $32,000, and for a Captain it’s approximately $70,000, according to the Regional Airline Association's President Roger Cohen.

The program questioned the safety that a regional airline has when it pays that little of a starting wage, and when grows rapidly. The idea it expressed is that safety suffers when rapidly growing, low paying regional airlines hire unsuitable and inexperienced pilots as compared to the past. It also showed that when paid at these salary levels, some pilots will choose to commute to their base and forego suitable rest facilities in order to save money.

Colgan did double in size, twice, in 2005 and 2008. One Colgan Pilot testified that he upgraded to Captain in nine months, to O’Brien’s surprise. To anyone who has spent time in the trenches at a regional, this is nothing new, but traditionally the quick upgrades to Captain have happened on a nineteen seat turboprop, not a brand new advanced 74 seat turboprop or 50 seat jet. With the rapid growth of regional airlines in the 2000’s, this was the new norm. One really nice fella from my first crashpad in DC upgraded to captain of a 66 seat jet before he had two years in at his airline. When the major airlines and the better regional airlines are hiring, the worst regional airlines operate like a revolving door. Flights are typically canceled not because a pilot is sick or the airplane is broken, but because the staffing is simply not adequate.

With interviews and commentary, Frontline opined that the FAA didn’t do much to spur Colgan to correct safety problems that pilots reported flying there. Frontline seemed to say that the FAA has been too busy promoting the airlines and defending them to properly regulate them when their safety is out of bounds. However, in their defense (am I really defending the FAA here?) the FAA has shut down unsafe cargo, commuter/regional, and low-cost (ValuJet) airlines in the past.

But more experience and qualifications doesn't necessarily equal safer, meaning that pilots with very high levels of experience and qualifications can make simple but critical mistakes as well. In the nineties two different major airlines attempted takeoff without the flaps set properly, both ending in disaster. A Spanish airline did the same recently. Pilots are human and prone to mistakes, whether they have 6,000 hours or 600.

Experience does count for something though, and it should. The last six fatal airline accidents in the US were regional airline accidents, according to the program.

Frontline also took major issue with the facts that major airlines don’t have direct oversight or safety management ability over the regional airlines that carry their name and logo, and that each regional airline is liable for accidents, not their parent airline. These are facts which shock passengers and politicians, and Frontline posited that this modus operandi should be corrected because it is seemingly false advertising when an airline, because of the ‘seamless’ marketing and ticketing, ‘advertises their level of safety on their regional airline when it isn’t actually as safe’.

I don’t wish to denigrate airline pilots, this airline profiled by Frontline, the FAA, or the airline industry in general. But because of the facts behind recent accidents and incidents, I feel that I should share my views. The FAA is focusing sharply on improving the level of professionalism and flight discipline in the flight decks of all airlines, major and regional alike. Randy Babbitt, the new FAA Administrator, speaks honestly and unapologetically on this issue, and he should.

There are new, good changes in regulations coming down the pike from the FAA. ALPA, the Air Line Pilots Association, is on board with these changes too.  To see ALPA's position on 'producing a professional airline pilot', click here.  In the future the minimum level of pilot experience to be an airline pilot will increase from approximately 250 hours to 1,500 hours minimum. There is a big difference in a pilot between these experience levels. For pilots who’ve been hired under this experience level and/or with limited time in jets, there will be more frequent ‘line checks’, a flight observed and evaluated by an instructor captain. There are other regulations and programs which will be put in place as well.

I still believe that airline travel in the US, even on a regional airline, is safe, in spite of recent events and current issues. I will still travel on regional airlines with my family. I hope that safety, professionalism, and standards of livings of pilots improve in the future. However, with each accident, no matter how decreased the frequency becomes, we’ll be reminded of the great responsibility pilots have, and of the fragility of life we all have in crossing the sky.

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