Pilot Fatigue: Bunk or Real?
Stories about pilot fatigue as potential accident factor seem to come and go in the daily media. At the moment, ABC News has been running a series of reports that it claims shows that many regional pilots are so poorly paid that they can't afford hotels when on non-reimbursed commuting time. ABC's reporting showed at least one multi-bunk crash pad, where dozens of regional pilots say they try to rest between trips, often fitfully.
The low-pay part is well documented and hard to deny. Starting salaries in the high teens or even $20,000 is hardly a living wage. Adjusted for inflation, I made more than that as a tyro journalist in a field notorious for low pay. But does this automatically translate to the widespread horrors of fatigued pilots that ABC claims? Or is the story just more mainstream media hype?
I was surprised to see FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt aggressively deny that commuting pilots aren't getting the rest they need. "We've asked very plainly to heads of all safety committees on these airlines [if] this is an issue," Babbitt told ABC, "They're telling us it simply isn't going on." (I'm assuming these are union safety committees, not company committees, but the quote wasn't clear.) This isn't the mealy mouthed statement you often get from government officials not willing to go record with a lucid response to a question. If it's a bluff, it's one easily called by those thousands of bleary eyed pilots living the dream.
Furthermore, Babbitt says when he was a commuting airline pilot, he never saw these practices directly, either. Worth noting is that Babbitt's career extends to the Eastern Airlines days and commuting isn't what it used to be. Neither are salaries. He's not unaware of this.
Frankly, I can't imagine that Babbitt would allow himself to get that far out on the plank if he didn't think he had a good sense of what's really going on. Just as surely, I don't have a clue what the situation really is. I suspect there are more than a few regional pilots burning the commuting candle at both ends, but I can't tell how widespread it is. The NTSB thinks it's an issue.
So you tell us. If you're in the airline biz, is Babbitt right or has ABC nailed it? And is pilot fatigue the potential accident factor it's made out to be? If it is, how widespread is it?
If you'd rather your name not appear, I'll make an exception to our anonymous posting rule if you'll e-mail me directly. I'll redact and publish your response.