Thursday, June 18, 2009

Commuter Airline Safety

The Continental Connection Flight 3407 that crashed near Buffalo has prompted the Senate to initiate changes in the commuter airline industry to improve safety. Gadabout wrote a piece that was published in Military.Com that addressed the inadequacy of pilot experience in the industry and it is reprinted below for reference. Your best bet in the never ending quest for survival when taking to the skies is to fly Southwest – an airline without a commuter partner.

Youngsters at the Controls:

Forecasts are grim for qualified pilots to fill empty cockpits for the airlines. A major shift in pilot hiring practices during the next 10 years is likely as newer technologies are incorporated into aircraft cockpits and as the military pilot production continues to decline and flatten.

In the past, seeking a career in aviation has always been influenced by timing. Hiring by the major airlines is usually cyclic. An applicant lucky enough to be hired at the beginning of a hiring cycle generally enjoys an uninterrupted career and takes home some serious dough. Those who come in on a downward cycle or hire on with a carrier that goes belly up risk personal and financial hardship.
But times are changing. There is a serious pilot shortage looming with age 60 mandatory retirement age limitations. Many pilots will be leaving over the next few years.

Until about 10 years ago the military supplied over half the pilots for the airline industry. Today, that number is about 35%, with the remainder coming from civilian universities, academies, and smaller flight schools. The military, as it continues to reshape its workforce and mission areas, has significantly reduced its aircraft inventories thus reducing the number of pilots required. Increased incentives (hard cash) offered to retain pilots has helped the military to keep qualified pilots, resulting in lowered initial pilot training demands.

Airline pay scales have been slashed during post 9-11 era industry turmoil, and military pilots have chosen to stay the course and enjoy the financial stability supplied by Uncle Sam. Since these pilots remain in the services until retirement, fewer of them seek aviation careers once they finally do walk out the door and hang up their uniforms for a last time. The age of these retirees range from 42-55 years, and after 20 to 30 years of active duty assignments, kids in college and a refined golf swing, the prospect of climbing into a cockpit as a first officer is not appealing. With anywhere from a $40,000 to $80,000 annual retirement income under their belt, why would our freshly retired pilot take a job starting out at the bottom of the food chain taking orders from some young punk captain? Most won’t, unless they possess a deep rooted desire stay in the air and don’t mind packing a suitcase and living on the road 15 or more days a month.

So where will the airlines find replacement pilots? Well, they reduce flight hour, experience, and educational requirements. No, they don’t mess with FAA minimum requirements for certification, but they are hiring pilots with surprisingly low flight hours and throwing them in the right seat of regional jets (RJs). You have flow in RJs, those cute smaller jets that are operated by airlines with “express” after their corporate logo.

“Regional” airlines have always represented a stepping stone for civilian trained pilots to hone skills and accrue flight hours before moving up to the majors (very much like professional baseball). Since major air carriers are under pressure to replace retiring pilots, the regional airlines have become bountiful harvest grounds. These fields are now over harvested, to the point where gleaning has begun, leaving smaller outfits with few choices for replacements.

Today, a young aspiring pilot, if trained in aircraft deemed desirable, might be hired on with as little as 500 flight hours. Ten years ago, 2,000 hours was required before consideration, and pilots had to pay for their own training (training that sometimes exceeding $10,000). I mentioned “training in aircraft deemed desirable” above and that is key to this discussion since civilian training aircraft are rapidly changing to support hungry industry demands. The regional hunger is for pilots that are proficient in aircraft cockpit designs that incorporate integrated multi-function displays and instrumentation. Airlines (and the military to some degree) no longer fly aircraft with dozens of dials, switches and levers. Today’s cockpits have been upgraded with high tech equipment with moving maps, advanced autopilots, integrated GPS and so forth (often referred to as Glass Cockpits) -- really fantastic stuff.

The problem is that many flight schools still operate older aircraft, and pilots trained using antiquated equipment are less desirable than those trained in newer aircraft that have converted over to “like” cockpit layouts used by airlines. The number of training aircraft with updated cockpits is accelerating to keep up with demands, but new aircraft are expensive. A glass cockpit Cessna C-172 sells for over $250,000 -- cost that’ll directly affect the price of flight training (per hour).

The solution for the industry is simple; hire glass cockpit trained pilots with fewer flight hours. This is all very well and good to fill empty cockpits, but there may be severe safety implications with these hiring practices. Ten years ago a traveler could take some comfort knowing that the two pilots sitting up front were fairly well trained and possessed broad experience levels. Not today. The pilot in the right seat could very well be the kid who bashed in your mailbox last year. The pilot in the left seat? He bashed in your mailbox three years ago. College degrees? They are desired, but not mandatory.
I’m not saying the airlines are wantonly jeopardizing flight safety. I’m just saying . .

Well, I told you so.


Anonymous said...

Do you mean those 22 year old kids wearing four stripes of an airline captain are inexperienced? I always assumed those gents were child savants with a thousand hours in their logbooks before graduating high school. But really, don't you think all this talk about experience is a little over the top. Just how many flight hours does it take to effectively respond to severe icing in major league IFR conditions? I think most anyone can do that, don't you? I think you're being a little harsh on those kids. Give 'em a break.

maureen said...

Sadly, Southwest doesn't fly everywhere.