This week's NTSB hearings on the Colgan Air crash have been all over the mainstream news, which means that many of us who fly, and/or work in the aviation industry in whatever capacity, are addressing questions from our friends and relatives about the safety of flight. Most people don't like riding on those "little" airplanes anyway -- meaning anything smaller than a 737 -- and when they hear that the pilots are underpaid and overtired, it makes them understandably uneasy.
The stark realities of airline jobs, especially for young pilots starting out on the regionals, may be old news to most of us, but it's something most passengers are unaware of or prefer not to think about. Long hours, low pay, constantly changing schedules, and long commutes make it hard for pilots to do their best. Managers who focus solely on the economic bottom line create unhealthy expectations. Instructors who teach only to FAA minimum standards are not being realistic.
The Colgan Air accident happened just a few weeks after the "Miracle on the Hudson," when a well-rested and experienced crew dealt successfully with the total loss of both engines on climb-out. A congressional hearing about that incident stands in stark contrast to this week's safety board hearing. That panel, which met in February, was in the enviable position of trying to learn from what went right. Capt. Chesley Sullenberger used his 10 minutes of testimony to plea for changes in the way pilots are treated by the airlines. "The single most important piece of safety equipment is a well-trained pilot," he said. "If future pilots are less experienced and less skilled, we will see negative consequences." Capt. Sullenberger added that he doesn't know one single airline pilot who wants to see his or her children choose that career. (Click here for a video of his remarks.)
I spent many hours in the jumpseat of 727 and DC-10 cockpits when I worked for a freight airline back in the last century. Those pilots would joke around plenty, but when it came time to preflight and fly, they were all business. That was my first introduction to the "sterile cockpit rule" and it was strictly adhered to. It's not easy to read the CVR transcript from the Colgan Air flight, and see how much idle chatter was taking place while nobody was watching the airplane.
So where will the airline pilots of the future come from? Will the profession find a way to attract the best and the brightest, even if the pay and benefits and schedules are not enticing? Do those years of slogging and poverty build character and allow the best to rise to the top, or are they just exhausting and disheartening -- and dangerous? There are no easy answers in sight, but maybe this week's hearings can remind us all that training to the minimums is never enough, and safety must always be our bottom line.