To improve airline safety, give all pilots the same schedule

Friends have asked about the crash of Colgan 3407, stalled by a very junior captain and a moderately junior first officer. How could two experienced pilots have made the kind of mistake that befalls rusty Private pilots in a little four-seater? Evidence suggests that both pilots were fatigued and one was sick. The captain had failed quite a few check rides, but the first officer had 1600 hours before she joined Colgan and held a current flight instructor certificate. She probably built up most of those 1600 hours saving students from their mistakes. Sick and tired, evidence suggests that she could not save the captain from his mistakes.

Politicians have focussed on the low pay for regional airline pilots. I think that AIG, Wall Street, and our public school systems demonstrate that paying employees more does not necessarily generate higher performance. Working for $19,000 per year and living with mom doesn’t sound very glamorous, but there are plenty of people who want to do it. Paying Rebecca Shaw more would not have saved the airplane and its passengers.

What could have saved the airplane? Well rested pilots.

Most airlines have a seniority-based system for everything, including, critically, scheduling. A senior pilot at a major airline might be able to arrange his schedule so that he need only work 8 or 10 days per month. He will be able to choose his home base so that it is close to his actual house. The senior pilot will have a short commute and 20-22 days per month of rest.

The junior pilot, by contrast, gets the trips and the schedule that the senior pilots don’t want. The result may be 22 days month of 16-hour days (measured not by flight time but by hotel room to hotel room). A typical 16-hour day may include a 6-hour stop at an airport where the airline does not have a base and therefore there will be nowhere for the pilot to rest. He or she will be sitting near a gate, in uniform, reading a book, trying to shut out the noise of thousands of passengers walking by and hundreds of public address announcements.

Note that the least experienced pilots at an airline are getting the least rest. The most experienced crews are getting the most rest. I.e., the crews that really need to be sharp to do the job are the ones who are flying while tired.

The seniority system for pay and schedule increases commuting time. Suppose that an experienced Boeing 737 captain lives in New York and flies for an airline with a New York base. His wife gets transferred to Los Angeles and he follows her. His airline doesn’t have a base on the west coast. You’d think that he would quit and join an LA-based airline flying Boeing 737s, right? Doing so would cost him a 70 percent cut in pay and a 50 percent increase in hours worked. Having lost all of his seniority, he would start as the most junior first officer at his new employer. It might take him 15 years to work his way back up to captain. What will he do? He can fly free on any airline, so he’ll keep his job in New York and start every 4-day trip with a 6-hour flight from Los Angeles, possibly followed by a night in a “crash pad” (2BR apartment shared with 10 other pilots).

Does it have to be done this way? No. NetJets and many other corporate jet operators have the same schedule for all of their pilots. In the case of NetJets, it is 7 days on and 7 days off.

A few simple ideas for improving airline safety and giving the future Rebecca Shaws a chance to save the passengers:

  • require that airlines come up with a scheduling system that gives an equal amount of work and rest to all pilots (the average amount of work done by pilots would not change, so this should not cost the airlines anything extra)
  • require that airports served by commercial airlines build crew rest lounges that pilots from any airline can use for naps, etc. (airports collect a hefty tax on every passenger who goes through, so this should not break their budgets)
  • come up with a procedure whereby pilots can move from airline to airline without having to start over at the bottom of the pay scale (there will no longer be a “schedule scale” so we don’t have to worry about that), in order to discourage long-distance commuting

[Note that the typical tiny airport in the U.S., which the average person would call an “airstrip”, and which may not have any full-time staff, will have a comfortable lounge in which visiting pilots can rest. There will be sofas. There may be recliner chairs. Some of these small airports for private planes even have small bedrooms for naps. How come the guy flying a four-seat prop plane has a better place to rest than the pilot of a 150-passenger jet?]

    15 thoughts on “To improve airline safety, give all pilots the same schedule

    1. It’s exactly the same way in health care (union nurses) and other fields like law enforcement. About a year ago, here in the Bay Area, a police officer pulling a double shift (because he didn’t have seniority) plowed into three cyclists killing two of them because he fell asleep at the wheel. It’s systemic.

    2. I’m not against them per se, but aren’t you saying that the pilots’ union caused the crash of this airplane?

    3. I forget where I saw the quote, but someone made the point recently that the airline seniority system was one that worked fine when the industry was growing. Now that it’s in a long-term shrinkage phase, the system has become an absurd Ponzi scheme suspended in mid-collapse. But no individual airline can change the system by itself, of course. And the pilots at younger airlines (JetBlue, AirTran, etc) where nobody has a lot of seniority would balk at being bumped by 30-year United and American veterans.

      This is a case where the airlines and unions are unable to solve the problem themselves due to interlocking vested interests. Federal legislation may be the only way out.

    4. billb: Are unions the problem? Not necessarily. NetJets pilots are unionized and all work the same 7-on, 7-off schedule.

    5. Philip Aaronson is on to something. A similar situation exists in California public schools, where senior teachers get to pick what classes they teach. They, of course, pick the accelerated and honors classes, where the students can practically teach themselves. The truly important courses, where students are failing and have problems at home, etc, are always taught by struggling junior teachers.

    6. I am surprised to hear that the first officer was more experienced than the captain. In the NPR reports about the FAA investigation of the crash they presented the situation as the captain acting as a mentor throughout the flight. Ultimately of course this ended up in a scenario of ‘the blind leading the blind’.

    7. Tom: The first officer was not more experienced at Colgan, which is why she was the F.O. and the more senior Marvin Renslow was the captain. Prior to joining Colgan, however, she had been an instructor (or at least had the CFI). Renslow seems to have gone through very specific training towards an airline career. He did not hold a CFI according to the FAA Airmen’s registry.

      Regardless of who was more experienced, one pilot flies and one monitors. It is the job of the pilot monitoring to keep the pilot flying out of trouble.

    8. I’m a captain, recently retired from one of the few “major” US airlines left. philg has written a good piece, above, and I agree with almost everything he says. I do think, however, that paying “Rebecca Shaw” more money might well have prevented the crash, in that doing so might have kept Shaw and Renslow out of the cockpit altogether. There are VERY different standards for new hires nowadays compared to 30 years ago. The industry is, obviously, not nearly as attractive for pilots as it once was – pay has been cut, pensions unilaterally wiped out, working conditions are much less attractive, employers have gone bankrupt. If you are a college graduate, finishing five or more years flying fighters for the Navy or Air Force and ready to get out – the job doesn’t look like what it used to, and law school or an MBA starts to look much more attractive. If you have an Associates Degree from a community college and you’re flying Cessna 150’s as a CFI for a living, then being an F/O on food stamps for Colgan or someone else and aspiring, as a career goal, to be a captain like Renslow in your 50’s, earning perhaps $70k/yr may seem reasonable. In any event – the airlines are hiring much less qualified personnel, and, at least IMO, personnel with less potential to BE good captains someday. This is certainly a generalization – there are undoubtedly new hires today that are virtual Chuck Yeagers – but in general, I’ll stand by my characterization of the situation – it’s based on my own observations in the business.

    9. I am a regional pilot. When we went through our most recent hiring phase, we took 200 hour pilots as no one else wanted the job. It is the reality. It is largely due to lower fares. Anyone who complains about the low time / experience crews needs to look at how they choose who they fly on. Studies show the overwhelming majority go with “whoever is cheapest.”

      On the accident itself, my friend pointed out that it appears as if the Captain may have been focused on trying to save the approach. Instead of recognizing the stall, he fixated on the glide path indicator and was pitching up to get back on path. Pilots I know that have flown that aircraft all say the pitch angle would have been uncomfortable (as in any aircraft but a fighter), but clearly, they were already out of sorts. I wonder if that is what he was trying to do.

    10. Is it practical to discourage long-distance commuting merely by requiring pilots to pay for transportation when not on duty? Or is free transit on any airline an untouchable benefit of being a pilot?

    11. I disagree with your statement about pay. Paying Rebecca more would not make her flying safer, however paying pilots better would make airlines safer, because the airline could choose from more and better applicants. In the current situation, most smart and skillful people do not consider pilot career at all. The result is that many pilots we fly with are people that cannot get a better salary elsewhere.

    12. I asked a pilot friend about the accident and his opinion was that they were flying on autopilot and got the stick shake and killed the autopilot and that caused an immediate pitch up. Does that sound reasonable? My pilot friend was one of the few pilots that flew out of the Dallas crash simulation.

    13. Dilbert: I would say that switching off the autopilot did not *cause* a pitch-up. Normally the autopilot keeps the aircraft in trim, and turning it off causes no immediate pitch change. However in certain rare circumstances, this action could lead to a pitch change.

      The more likely scenario is that when the stick shaker went off, the pilot reacted by switching off the autopilot (if it didn’t switch off automatically) and then pulled on the yoke, pitching the nose up and causing a stall. This is the natural reaction to avoid losing altitude, but it’s the incorrect reaction.

      The correct reaction would have been to add power and *lower* the nose to regain flying speed. This would have resulted in a loss of, say, ~500 feet of altitude (rough guess) and then climbing away, initiating a go-around — But pitching the nose down into the blackness of the night and going below the published minimum altitudes on an approach is a VERY unnatural thing to do as a pilot. But this is likely the one reaction that could have saved this aircraft from crashing.

    14. Paying the copilot more would have allowed her to live near her duty station -this in turn would have removed the necessity to grab sleep in crew rooms -ergo she might have been wider awake and “saved the day”.

      Equalizing flight schedules so that all pilots get the same time off would have potentially resulted in the captain being sharper too. Ironically though, the higher pay goes to the easier planes and schedules while the junior guys get the harder stuff.

      The logic of the entire system however is ruined by the fact that there is a vast pool of young copilots eager to get into the mill -who will fly for peanuts. Therefore the airlines can pay them peanuts -and that is exactly what they do. The problem therefore is self-perpetuating UNLESS all junior pilots somehow get together and say “ENOUGH! We demand a living wage that reflects the importance of our job!” which is, after all KEEPING PASSENGERS ALIVE!”

      The populace, never dreaming that they are endangering their lives -do not apparently recognize that cheap pilots as with cheap brain surgeons -are a false economy. So the airlines continue to schedule terribly and pay worse!

      The alternative is legislative action -which will only come with the deaths of enough passengers.

      We call it the “blood imperative”.

      Take your choice -legislation or more lives! It seems so obvious!

      Jock Williams

    15. To come full circle, I would refer you all back to the excellent article by PG, written December 2009, in which he references this blog entry. at

      In that article, he adds depth to the issues of airline safety raised by Malcolm Gladwell in his new book, “Outlier’s: The story of success”.

      This all raises some of the thornier issues of free-market Capitalism and consumer choice. The consumer will always opt for the cheapest alternative in a marketplace. Most consumers regard flying with the least safe US airline as an acceptable alternative, because they do not know the safety rankings of carriers, or consider the likelihood of an accident to be so low that the risk is acceptable.

      To ensure safety requires Government intervention on safety and standards. However, when the issues involve unfair seniority practices, Government runs a mile because of the labor-management intervention implications, which are all a lose-lose scenario for politicians.

      Unfortunately, there has to be blood on the tarmac in rather large quantities before there is any action.

      Rather like the management maxim: “You never fire people soon enough.” If you resolve a problem situation before there are casualties, you will never get the credit for preventing what happens without such early resolutions.

      So it goes with the whole USA. We are now seeing huge systemic failure that could have been averted with better investigation and understanding, and sensible legislation to avert disaster.

    Comments are closed.