Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Airlines can't ignore fatigue as major safety factor

It's of no consolation to families of passengers and crew killed in the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Connection flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., that airline travel still is statistically the safest way to travel.

Today's aircraft are the best that can be designed. Crew training is thorough and technologically advanced. Airway route electronic navigation systems are impeccably maintained.

However, one factor—the deadliest of all—has been given too little attention in the enforcement of safety: pilot fatigue.

Repeatedly, flight crew fatigue continues to be the unwelcome culprit in so many incidents and accidents. Also consider this data: Of six fatal scheduled passenger flights since Sept. 11, 2001, four involved commuter or regional airline flights that took the lives of 133 people.

What has been common gossip in the industry is now becoming something of public alarm—regional and commuter airlines hire new pilots at astonishingly low salaries, require far less experience and flight hours than major carriers and operate flights at lower altitudes, and thus often in terrible weather.

In the wake of the Buffalo crash, pilot fatigue once again is suspected as a contributing cause.

The captain commuted from his home in Florida to Newark, N.J., to begin his workday, and the flight's co-pilot flew in from her Seattle home, creating long days before their flight departure.

Though crews are limited in hours on flight duty, the Federal Aviation Administration has no rule covering pilots' commuting from distant homes to their bases. Higher-salaried pilots of large airlines sleep in rental apartments or hotels before beginning their duty hours. But pilots of small regional carriers admit they can't afford pre-flight rest accommodations, unless it's a reclining chair in a noisy crew lounge, after commuting from their faraway homes.

Unrested pilots who endure delayed departures because of weather or runway traffic and then must navigate through exhausting instrument weather conditions are pilots unfit to handle those demanding moments when judgment and quick-witted skills are needed to avoid accidents.

In the past, the Federal Aviation Administration has backed down on tougher duty-time standards for regional carrier pilots when airlines complained of costs.

How foolish for any carrier to buy the best and most expensive aircraft and then skimp on the pay and workplace amenities of the very people responsible for conducting a safe flight.

The flying public deserves better. Air carriers must take every step, including improving pilot pay standards and rest facilities, to eliminate crew fatigue and thus drastically reduce odds of accidents.

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