Senators are demanding that federal regulators do something about airline pilots who regularly make exhausting commutes of hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of miles to work.
The senators said at a hearing Thursay they are concerned that in the year since 50 people were killed in a regional airline crash near Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA hasn't taken any action to prevent pilots who commute long distances from showing up for work fatigued.
The pilots of Continental Connection Flight 3407 were based in Newark, N.J., but the captain lived in Florida and the first officer lived near Seattle. Neither had a hotel room or apartment in Newark. The captain had slept two of the three nights before the flight in an airport crew room where there were no beds and sleeping was discouraged. The first officer spent the night before the flight commuting across the country in a cockpit jump seat.
The case has turned a spotlight on regional airline pilots, who often have substantially less experience than pilots at major carriers, are paid lower salaries and sometimes can't afford to live in the cities where they are based or can't afford to pay for hotel rooms or a shared apartment there.
Over the past decade, major carriers have outsourced most of their short-haul flight to cheaper regional airlines, which now account for half of all flights and a quarter of passengers. Regional carriers are the only scheduled air service to more than 400 communities.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said it is urgent that the FAA look into commuting and figure out a solution. He said he wouldn't want to get on a plane with a pilot who hadn't slept in a bed the night before and he doubted anyone else would either.
Seventy percent of the pilots based at Newark for Colgan Air Inc. — the regional carrier who operated the flight for Continental Airlines — commuted from other cities, and 20 percent commuted from more than a 1,000 miles away, an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found.
The commuting situation at Colgan isn't unique to the industry, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman testified at the hearing. She cited an example of a pilot who lived in Florida but commuted to Hawaii.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he was "somewhat alarmed" by the large share of Colgan pilots who commute long distances.
"People push themselves and put themselves in situations where they are fatigued and clearly thats a situation that needs to be addressed," Thune said.
Peggy Gilligan, an FAA safety official, told the committee it's up to pilots to show up for work rested and ready to fly.
"Many pilots have commuted throughout their careers and have done so very responsibly," Gilligan said.
Airline officials and pilot unions told FAA last year that they didn't want to restrict commuting, but the agency plans to ask again if something should be done.
Commuting, long a widespread practice, clearly hasn't affected safety since the overall accident rate is very good, Gilligan said.
Senators said they disagreed. "Just because the safety record is good doesn't mean the pilot is rested," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "All of us have driven cars on long trips and wondered how we ever got there."
DeMint expressed surprise that in the year that has elapsed since the accident FAA hasn't attempted to determine how widespread is commuting.
"We're flying in the dark here," he said.
Gilligan said the agency would attempt to learn more, noting the issue is complex with no easy solution.
Some cargo airlines pay for hotel rooms or provide rest facilities for commuting pilots, Dorgan said.
"It is true commercial aviation accidents have become rare," he said. "Yet as I look at this accident, it seems to me we are very fortunate."
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