Several years ago, author Stephen King wrote a novella called The Langoliers. In it, several passengers on a cross country flight fall asleep. When they awaken, most of the other passengers and both the pilots have disappeared. It is revealed, over the course of the story that the plane has flown through an inter-dimensional rift, destroying everyone on board who was awake at the time. Reading the story on a darkened airliner was always a disturbing experience. Fortunately, this week has brought a piece of good news, at least for those primarily worried about inter-dimensional rifts. We learn, via the New York Daily News that pilots quite regularly fall asleep in the cockpit.
Is this really a problem? After all there are two pilots in the cockpit. Surely one of the pilots will do as Alex LaPointe, a pilot for an unnamed regional airline does, “If I notice the other guy is nodding off, I make it a point to make myself extra alert.” Apparently not, as we saw in February of 2008, when both pilots fell asleep during a 36 minute flight between two Hawaiian islands.
It would be easy enough to blame the pilots for all this. After all, who among us can’t stay awake for 36 minutes? And yet, the investigation into the recent Continental flight 3407 tragedy outside of Buffalo has revealed some disturbing structural problems. For instance, pilots, such as Rebecca Shaw, who was forced to commute 2400 miles to work because she wasn’t paid enough to live anywhere but with her parents. Is it a problem when airline pilots make $16,000, approximately the same money as dishwashers? (¶ 9). Not according to the airline industry. “Compensation has nothing to do with safety,” said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. By this logic then, why not reduce pilot pay to minimum wage? Perhaps pilots, while waiting for their flights, could supplement their income by handling baggage or washing dishes at the food court.
Pilots are expected to work 14 hour days, above and beyond their commute. (pg. 1, ¶ 11). This is the sort of shift prohibited in the trucking industry by the Department of Transportation. See Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Regulations §§395.2, 395.3. Today is not the first time this concern has been raised. The NTSB has been recommending that the FAA tighten regulations concerning pilot fatigue since at least 1995. So has the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). “Unless the rules are revised soon, we can expect fatigue to contribute to more accidents and incidents,” said Captain Duane E. Woerth, president of the ALPA, testifying before Congress in 1999. The Air Transport Association (ATA) responded (pg. 92) before Congress that, “there has never been a scheduled commercial airline accident attributed to pilot fatigue, not one, not ever.” Whether the ATA still maintains this position is unclear.
The industry itself insists that these incidents are not a problem. According to Roger Cohen, “statistics show passengers should feel safe on commuter airlines.” And that may in fact be true, statistically. Of course that is essentially the same argument employed by Ford engineers in the exploding Pinto debacle. If airlines continue as they have, there will come a day when the two pilots fail to awaken in time to return to an airport. And, on that day, if tragedy strikes, we shall see how well the statistical argument fairs in front of a jury.
The reality is that while we enjoy reading about frightening things, the almost 200 million passengers a year who fly regional airlines (¶ 6) are not characters from a novel. (all figures regarding U.S. air passengers from here, table 2). They are actual people, with loved ones waiting for them to return home. The airlines are legally regarded as common carriers. This means that they owe all passengers the highest duty of care. Putting an over tired pilot in the cockpit is a breach of this duty owed to the passengers. It is clear that pilot fatigue is a problem and that it has been for some time. The only question is, will the airlines correct it because it is the right thing to do, or must they be forced to fix it?