Are pilots flying beyond their limits?


Halfway through his 13-hour shift, the Pinnacle Airlines pilot was already tired. After landing in Indianapolis, he headed to the terminal to catch a quick nap during a three-hour layover.

Once there, he discovered that the waiting areas were jammed with passengers and there was no lounge for airline crews. So the pilot found a remote corner of the building and curled up on the floor, using his black uniform jacket as a pillow.

Although airline officials generally frown on the practice, the pilot said naps in terminals were one way to fight fatigue -- something that’s important when you’re at the controls of a $25-million aircraft with 50 passengers aboard.

“A regional jet can go more than 500 mph. Its approach speed is 160 mph,” the pilot said. “When you’re tired and the workload is high, you sometimes have to fight to stay alert. You ask air traffic control to repeat calls. You can forget things.”

The account from the pilot highlights what federal safety officials and independent experts say is a persistent problem in U.S. aviation: pilot fatigue.

Seven of the last nine airline crashes in the United States have involved regional carriers, and pilot fatigue was likely a factor in at least four of those incidents, according to federal safety investigators.

The most recent accident involved a Colgan Air turboprop plane that crashed in Buffalo, N.Y., last February, killing 49 people aboard and one person on the ground.

Critics say the situation has been exacerbated by the airline industry’s long slump, putting pressure on airlines to cut costs by forcing pilots to work longer hours.

The Pinnacle Airlines pilot spoke to The Times on the condition he not be identified for fear of reprisals.

The account he gave of a typical workday, however, was consistent with the depiction of conditions at regional air carriers contained in years of reports by the National Transportation Safety Board, testimony in congressional hearings and statements from outside analysts.

Philip H. Trenary, chief executive of Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines Corp., said his company has striven to be a safety leader and has met or exceeded all regulations, including federal rest requirements for crews. As such, pilots are expected to be rested when they go to work.

“I can assure you that our 5,000 employees are dedicated to ensuring the safe transport of 13 million passengers annually,” Trenary told Congress during testimony last summer. “Our No. 1 guiding principle is ‘never compromise safety.’ ”

Even so, inadequate rest has been associated with 250 fatalities in air carrier accidents over the last 16 years, according to the NTSB. Although experts say fatigue also afflicts pilots at some major airlines, since 2002 seven of the last nine crashes in the United States have involved regional carriers -- two of them Pinnacle.

NTSB officials found that pilot fatigue probably contributed to three of the regional accidents and perhaps a fourth -- the Continental Connection’s flight that crashed Feb. 12 in Buffalo. That plane was operated by Colgan Air Inc., which is owned by Pinnacle.

About 70 regional airlines operate in the United States, often in partnership with major carriers. For example, a passenger taking a typical Delta Air Lines flight from New York to Fresno would start out in a roughly 200-seat Boeing 757 jet, but switch at Delta’s hub in Salt Lake City to a 50-seat Canadair jet operated by the regional airline SkyWest.

Other regional carriers in the West include Horizon Air, which like Alaska Airlines is operated by Alaska Air Group Inc.; American Eagle, a unit of American Airlines’ parent company, AMR Corp.; and United Express, which is operated by United Airlines’ parent, UAL Corp.

Pinnacle also partners with Delta and Northwest Airlines on flights to smaller airports in the East and Midwest. In 2008, it was the sixth-largest regional carrier in the nation, according to the Regional Airline Assn.

Getting off the ground

The pilot interviewed by The Times joined Pinnacle after working several years as a flight instructor and charter pilot. His starting pay as a first officer, or co-pilot, was $1,650 a month, plus benefits.

Last year, the pilot earned about $28,000 -- less than a typical Los Angeles bus driver. For that pay, he is often on duty 12 to 13 hours a day, four days a week, flying through the South and Midwest in a Bombardier CRJ 200 -- about half the size of a Boeing 737. He makes as many as 12 takeoffs and landings a day.

For him, the opportunity to fly for a regional carrier was a major accomplishment. It took years of training and an investment of $35,000 to obtain the necessary flight credentials. It also was a break for a young man who had dropped out of high school and joined the military, where he took college extension courses that would eventually lead to a bachelor of science degree.

“ ‘Awesome,’ I thought to myself. I was gonna fly jets,” he said. “ ‘I’ll suck it up for a couple of years, pay my dues. Then life will be good.’ I was naive.”

His typical work week begins and ends with a commute of at least 1,600 miles between his apartment in California and one of the company’s hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit, Memphis or Atlanta. Like other pilots, he has privileges that allow him to fly for free with other carriers.

Leaving home the night before he must report to work, he travels three to six hours, sometimes longer if he has to hop a red-eye. After arrival, he tries to sleep through the early morning on a reclining chair in a crew lounge, which big airports usually offer. About 45 minutes before getting to his plane, he cleans up and buys the first of three or four large coffees he will drink during the shift.

His daily schedule, which usually starts between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., often requires him to fly four to six flights a day. On his longest days, he works into the night, flying the last “push” from a terminal’s gate. At the plane’s destination, he grabs a few hours of sleep at a hotel before heading back to the airport at 4:30 or 5 the next morning to pilot another flight.

Following the rules

Federal Aviation Administration regulations state that during a 24-hour period, airline pilots can be on duty up to 16 hours but cannot fly more than eight. When a shift is over, airlines are required to provide eight to 12 hours of time off, depending on the hours flown.

Pinnacle shifts fall within these guidelines, company officials say, adding that their pilots regularly fly fewer hours and spend less time on duty per day than the maximums allowed. Although there are exceptions, on-duty hours are generally limited to 13.5 a day, they say, while the average time spent flying is 5.5 hours.

But sleep experts say that the federal limits fail to take into account the effects of flight delays, jet lag, increased workload, night flights and multiple flights during a shift. Pilots also work irregular hours -- sometimes starting in the middle of the night -- which can disrupt the body’s natural sleep cycle.

The Pinnacle pilot says he has seen his co-workers take short naps or have trouble staying awake while in the cockpit. A 2008 study by NASA found that about 80% of regional pilots said they had nodded off during a flight.

John A. Caldwell, a Hawaii-based fatigue consultant who has worked for airlines, the armed forces and NASA, said pilots with long hours on duty can develop sleep deficits. The lack of rest can make it hard to perform even routine tasks and trigger a phenomenon known as micro-sleeps, nodding off from a fraction of second to several seconds.

Fatigue “is an epidemic type of problem,” Caldwell said. “These guys really have a tough time. Most of the studies have involved pilots on long-range flights. But the regional guys make more landings and takeoffs a day. Their schedules are a lot more unpredictable. I’m sure it is a problem for [the pilot who spoke to The Times].”

The Pinnacle pilot said his pace was so demanding that he once took a day off because he felt too tired to fly. Two weeks later, management threatened a reprimand, he said, though company policy provides for fatigue days.

Pinnacle officials deny threatening any pilot and say that when someone reports being tired the company is non-punitive and gives them advice on how to reduce fatigue. However, in recent congressional testimony, John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Assn., said that about a third of Pinnacle’s pilots report being reprimanded for illness and fatigue-related absences each year. Prater, an airline captain, said the figure was based on grievances and complaints from captains and first officers.

A smaller-carrier problem

Although there are regional airlines with less-demanding schedules for pilots, Prater said fatigue appears to be more of a problem for smaller carriers than major airlines because of more serious staff shortages and labor contracts that give companies more leeway to push their pilots.

The Pinnacle pilot says evidence of fatigue can be easily found in internal company bulletins that list the safety issues that pilots report to the FAA.

One recent bulletin reviewed by The Times noted an upward trend of pilots taking off without knowing their aircraft’s weight and balance figures -- numbers crucial to the way stabilizers are adjusted on a plane’s tail. Improperly set controls have caused crashes.

According to the bulletin, two pilots said they did not notice the missing information during preflight checks because they were fatigued after working shifts of 11 to 13 hours.

In a separate incident, two other Pinnacle pilots complained that they were tired before their plane ran off a runway in Traverse City, Mich., while landing in snowy weather in 2007. Although the regional jet was damaged, the passengers and crew were unhurt.

The NTSB concluded that fatigue probably contributed to the pilots’ poor performance, including a failure to calculate how much runway would be needed to land in bad weather.

According to the cockpit voice recorder, about an hour away from the airport, the captain told the first officer that it was “too late for this.”

“I’m tired dude, just . . . worn out,” one of the pilots said, using an expletive.

The Pinnacle pilot said the flying public and pilots alike would be better off if airlines opened more crew lounges and added a couple of hours to mandatory rest periods. But he is not optimistic any of that will happen, given the fact that federally mandated rest rules have not changed since the 1940s.

“I used to love flying,” the young man said. “I am good at what I do, but Pinnacle and the airline industry have sucked the passion out of it for me.”