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May. 13 2009 - 10:38 am | 96 views | 5 recommendations | 13 comments

From Sully…to Sullied

airlinederegulationactWhen the wreckage of Colgan/Continental Flight 3407 was still smoldering near Buffalo, I blogged that aircraft icing was a likely potential cause of the crash. Turns out, it was just icing on the cake – a cake that has been in the oven for more than thirty years now.

It was October 24, 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act. There were a lot of good reasons then to remove the tie-downs and chalks on the airline industry. The Civil Aeronautics Board had become egregiously bureaucratic and good people with good business plans were stymied by government rules and inaction.

So why not allow the free market to prevail? Wouldn’t competition be a win-win for the American people and the airlines? Thirty years later, it is hard to find a winner – unless your only metric is your ability to fly roundtrip coast-to-coast for $200.

Well I have news for you: your mother was right…you get what you pay for. And tragically, Flight 3407 is what we ordered up back in 1978.

A “Sully” was not at the controls that dark and misty night. If he were, I would not be writing this now because it would have been just another routine arrival on a cold, misty night at BUF. There was no reason this airplane should have crashed – and yet it makes perfect since when you understand how stressed the system has become.

You will hear all kinds of spin and posterior-covering as the NTSB continues its hearings, but here it is in black and white for you: the flight crew was overworked, overtired, underpaid, undertrained and inexperienced. Period.

Some rules were broken. Before the flight Captain Marvin Renslow slept in the crew room at Newark after commuting from Tampa. First Officer Rebecca Shaw flew through the night from her home in Seattle and was up all day before signing in for her final trip. And the crew did not maintain a “sterile cockpit” (meaning no chit-chat) as they descended below 10,000 feet.

Otherwise, they – and the airline – apparently met the minimum FAA requirements.

But the those minimums still allowed:

  • A captain to flunk no less than five flight exams and still hold the “left seat”.
  • Those long commutes between a pilot’s home and base.
  • The airline to pay pilots paltry wages.
  • Only 8 hours of rest time (from wheel-stop to sign-in for next flight).

Reading the transcript of the CVR  is a gut-wrenching experience for me. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who lost a loved one that February night.

The crew was shockingly disengaged and unappreciative of the ice that had built up on their craft – and had minimal experience flying safely though it.

Said Shaw: “I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never deiced. I’ve never seen any— I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’dve freaked out. I’dve have like seen this much ice and thought oh my gosh we were going to crash.”

They also never even made mention of their rapidly degrading airspeed once they deployed the landing gear as they  began the final stage of the approach.

And then, when the airplane started demanding their attention  (in most urgent terms) with an automatic “stick-pusher” designed to remind the pilot to push on the yoke, get the nose down and build up some airspeed or face imminent aerodynamic stall, they overruled it – pulling back hard – sealing the outcome. The 3-D animation is also hard to watch.

But it really wasn’t their fault at all. They were set up to fail by a system that operates on the ratty edge of disaster every day.

This is a systemic problem, people. And it needs to be fixed now. Should the airlines be re-regulated? Well, for one thing, they are already the most regulated “unregulated” industry I can think of. But, no, there has to be a way to keep the free market alive, level the playing field for all competitors, keep barriers to entry low and yet preserve the kind of safety margin that is embodied in the “Sully” generation.


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  1. collapse expand

    This nails what aviation professionals have known for years. The free market wrecking crew has sown an amazing crop of regulatory agencies packed with people who really don’t believe in govt regulation, and destroyed a great industry – along with a few lives. The cost of doing business? American has been conned bigtime in the ‘government bad – free market good” fairy tale. It’s time we woke up and started acting like adults and really taking care of business.
    As a followup, I recommend: “Wrecking Crew” by WSJ reporter Thomas Frank, for a better look at what free market hath wrot.
    http://www.mavenandmeddler.com

  2. collapse expand

    Miles,
    I know this is crazy, but for the past few years I just hate flying in bad weather. When the plane I’m in stops on the tarmac for de-icing, well, I just hope for the best. I never felt like this. But my trust in the entire system is pretty much non-existent right now. The financial pressures, the governmental issues, my perceived loss of qualified pilots, the training of mechanics… I just don’t know how all that can sync up to give me faith that it will all work out.

  3. collapse expand

    If making sure pilots are trained to fly the planes they’re flying is re-regulation, then I’m all for it. How many people have to die before the airline industry decides to put safety ahead of cost efficiency?

  4. collapse expand

    Miles,

    The truth among veteran airline pilots is that deregulation opened Pandora’s box. It has taken 30 years for us to reap what we sowed but reap it we have. As Sully said before Congress, the pay, working conditions, and experience levels have all slid drastically south. I retired (early) 5 years ago after a 30-year airline career, mainly to avoid losing what I could salvage from my retirement plan as I watched my airline enter chapter 11. Sad state of affairs. It took us 75 years to create this aviation system and one day to destroy it, the day deregulation was approved.

    Regards,

    Rocky

  5. collapse expand

    First let me identify myself as a pilot. I am medically grounded now, but in my 34 years in aviation I have held or currently hold the following credentials:

    Private Pilot Single Engine Land
    Instrument rating
    Commercial Pilot Single Engine Land
    commercial Pilot Multi Engine Land
    Certified flight instructor
    Certified Instrument Instructor
    Certified Multi-Engine Instructor
    Airline Transport PIlot (this is the PHD of flying) Multi Engine Land

    I’ve flown for 3 small regional airlines. Taught all sorts of students how to fly, some now airline pilots. I’ve flown bank checks (mail) in rotten little planes in terrible weather. My last assignment was as captain for a major airline flying the 737.

    I agree with the majority of Miles’ blog. It boils down to this. This crash was avoidable if the MONEY had been spent to properly train the crew, and for the crew to afford a lifestyle that any of you would consider standard. How many of you would sleep in the office building you work in? Could you live in the New York metropolitan area on $16,000 a year? Could you live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on $16,000 a year?

    I came up flying the hard way as we pilots call it. I spent years teaching others how to fly and during that time I learned more about flying than I have ever had to use while keeping safe those passengers aboard my airline.

    When I was young, I read “The Spirit of St. Louis” by the great Charles A. Lindbergh. Even he mentioned he never learned more about flying than when he taught someone else and could see the myriad of mistakes that can happen.

    One of the finest books on the subject of flying is “Stick and Rudder” by noted test pilot Wolfgang Langweische. One of the huge fallacies of flying is that you pull back on the ‘’stick” (or control wheel) and you go up. Indeed the control is called the ELEVATOR…so what would someone think? But if you pull back or UP too much the plane will fall out of the sky and kill you. The entire book is an explanation of what pilots call THE ANGLE OF ATTACK. That magical way of air moving across the wing to produce lift, which is the way a plane is held up in the sky.

    Colgan crashed because the pilots didn’t understand the fundamentals of stall recovery. Some huge error in their training, or in fatigue compromised judgment, or something as yet fully understood caused this crash. It might have been prevented by reading “Stick and Rudder”.

    BUT, as Miles has said, this crash was 30 years in the making. It costs a lot of money to fly right. But the airline industry no longer pays a lot of money to pilots, or for their training. And the public still complains about high fares, baggage fees and the like.

    I disagree with Miles about the cure. I do support Re-Regulating the airlines. The new Civil Aeronautics Board could be headed by someone who thinks like me. You do things right and then you charge what you have to, to pay for doing it right and a reasonable profit (say ten percent). You also make sure that the plane is well maintained, the seats comfortably large, and do you know what an airline could compete on? SERVICE. Not how cheap something could be done.

    After this crash, shouldn’t we wake up? Are you aware that pilots for Federal Express and UPS, who fly boxes around for a living, are PAID MORE than pilots at American Airlines or United Airlines? Think about that! And the pay at a Colgan or something similar is much, much worse.

    Aren’t you, the traveling public, worth a few extra bucks?

  6. collapse expand

    I thought of your earlier blogs the minute I saw this morning’s newspaper. I am very, very glad the pilots in my family (major airlines and small planes both) are obsessive about both rules & training, but after reading the transcript I ache even more for the survivors. Of crew and passengers alike. Thanks for the good coverage.

  7. collapse expand

    Miles, I read the transcript of the flight yesterday, and it was one of the most disturbing things I’d read in quite some time. I didn’t know how to respond to it, except for feeling great sympathy for both the passengers families and the two pilot’s families.

    A question: is it normal for the NTSB to release crash transcripts like that? Have any victim’s families ever objected?

    Would be grateful for your insight and expertise.

  8. collapse expand

    “… overworked, overtired, underpaid, undertrained and inexperienced.”
    Thank you Miles O’Brian for bringing the industry’s dirty little secrets to the forefront!

    I entered the industry as a pilot for a major airline within a year of airline deregulation. Over the ensuing years I have witnessed the industry’s decline in most all areas. The corners cut across the board post-deregulation – including safety – are forever fueled by thin margins, persistent cutthroat competition, and forever cost-cutting managements.

    It has fostered a downward spiral, especially for those on the bottom. Indeed, the sweatshop wages and hour, and superficial training for those on the lower, but still professional tier are almost criminal.

    For years I (and many other pilots) fought against the many deleterious effects of deregulation upon the airline pilot profession; effects that also directly affect and threaten a mostly unknowing, flying public. But I had little success against the massive, economic interests of those in both the private and public sectors.

    12 years ago I wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal ( http://www.flitetime.net/wsj_ltr.pdf ) concerning pilot fatigue and lax regulations. Nothing has changed since. In fact I believe the risks have increased.

    Although retired, I am still in tune with the industry. And I do advise my family on certain flights, and certain airlines they are to avoid.

  9. collapse expand

    Miles,

    You and all the other journalists missed the most important thing about the Colgan crash at Buffalo. When the Captain called for flaps 15 the copilot only put out 10 degrees of flaps. Then when the stall began the First Officer raised the flaps without being commanded to do so by the Captain. The Captain did not use the correct procedure of lowering the nose to recover from the stall but when the FO raised the flaps, the plane was doomed to crashing as it did soon after. The FO also never monitored the airspeed during the approach as the Monitoring Pilot is suppose to do.
    At one point during the stall the plane was at about 960 feet above the ground and with 133 kts of airspeed but the wing flaps were incorrectly retracted. If the flaps were at 15 degrees at that point, as they were called for by the Captain, a stall recovery would have been most likely possible. The NTSB testimony from a Bombardier Engineer makes it clear that retracting the flaps during a stall is the worst thing you can do.
    Please try to get some good sources who can explain all of this to you.

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    I am a 26-year broadcast news veteran - with nearly 17 years as CNN’s science, aerospace, technology and environment correspondent. I am an active pilot, airplane owner and a lover of all things that fly. I was slated to be the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle before the Columbia accident ended that dream. I am based in New York City - married with two teenagers and two dogs.

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