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05/29/2009

Flight 3407, Part II

In the investigation of Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, the issue of pilot fatigue came up. Co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, for example, flew overnight from her home in Seattle, changing planes in Memphis, Tenn., before dawn. Many of the Colgan pilots live far outside their hubs due to costs, and we learned, for example, that Ms. Shaw earned less than $17,000. Staggering.

So it brought to mind a piece I posted November 2007 that is worth repeating. At the time I was struck by a story in Crain’s New York Business by Hilary Potekewitz and received their permission to run the story on my link. During the congressional hearings, Roger Cohen, the president of the Regional Airline Association, conceded “50 to 70 percent” of the pilots commute long distances to the city where they were “domiciled.” 78 of the 137 Newark-based pilots for Colgan had commutes ranging from more than 400 miles to more than 1,000 miles. No wonder Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he was “stunned” by the Buffalo crew’s lack of sleep (let alone their relative inexperience).

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“Airline pilots detour around NY” by Hilary Potkewitz / Crain’s

When a flight lands at one of New York’s airports, the pilot usually says over the loudspeaker, “On behalf of your New York-based flight crew, we’d like to thank you for flying with us.” But don’t assume he lives here. More likely, the crew commutes from homes in the Midwest, the South or upstate cities like Buffalo.

Deterred by the high cost of living and salaries relatively the same as a decade ago, many pilots assigned to New York or New Jersey refuse to relocate.

Senior pilots usually have a say in their placements, so it’s often junior pilots who draw the city’s airports. Less able to afford New York area real estate – their pay ranges from $37,000 to $70,000 – junior pilots feel they have little choice but to commute from cheaper parts of the country.

Pilots endure stress-filled journeys to get to work, and when they hit the same delays that bedevil other travelers, their late arrivals can further disrupt airline schedules.

“You can end up spending two of your three days off flying, just to make it to work then home again,” says Capt. Craig Hoskins, a pilot with JetBlue Airways. He’s been based at John F. Kennedy International Airport for more than four years but lives in Bradenton, Fla. “The delays put additional stress on getting to work.”

Two decades ago, pilots could afford to live in New York, or at least nearby. When Capt. Jack Norman took a job with People Express Airlines in the 1980s, he moved his family to New Jersey from California. He rented a townhouse near Sparta, about 40 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport. The town became so popular with airline personnel, they called it the “pilots’ ghetto.”

But real estate prices kept rising, so when Mr. Norman wanted to buy, he wound up in Bethlehem, Pa., a 90-minute drive to Newark. The 59-year-old pilot can now count at least 30 pilots living within a 30-mile radius. “As suburban New Jersey became pretty expensive, this became the next big place for people to look for nice, middle-class family housing,” says Mr. Norman, now a captain with Continental Airlines.

Out of range?

Only Detroit is a less desirable posting than New York, says a spokesman for the largest pilot’s union, the Air Line Pilots Association. Of Continental’s 2,200 Newark-based pilots, only about a third live locally – many in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, 75 miles from Newark. Only 20% of JetBlue’s 1,300 pilots live in the New York area, even though the Queens-based company is concentrated at JFK. American Airlines has 1,090 pilots based here, but just 50% live in the area. The few pilots who want to be stationed here tend to be natives.

“Everything’s done by seniority,” says Kit Darby, president and publisher of AIR Inc., an Atlanta-based pilot career information service. “What you fly, when you fly and where you’re based.”

All this traveling, whether by plane from the Midwest or by car from Pennsylvania, adds to the potential for complications. A rain delay or a mechanical hiccup can send a cascade of woe through the schedule.

“Whether it’s coming to work or transferring between trips, we are subject to the same constraints and limitations as the general public,” notes Capt. Gerry Dupree, Northeastern vice president of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. “It may be a little easier for us to get on a plane, but if flights aren’t moving, we’re not moving.”

Fewer extra seats

Airline personnel have long had more flexibility because they have access to jump seats – the extra seat up front where an off-duty pilot can hitch a ride – even on competitors’ flights. But with packed flights and more pilots commuting, there are fewer jump seats available. “It adds so much uncertainty; you just never know what flight you’ll be able to get on,” says Mr. Hoskins.

But airlines and pilots insist that delays are rarely due to commuting snafus. Pilots are required to leave room for at least three flights to deliver them in time for their shift, and failure to report on time can be cause for termination, especially in the first year.

Pilots and consumer groups say delays are instead largely due to flight overscheduling. If a pilot’s first flight misses a connection, most airlines have a few reserve pilots on call. But when delays are lighting up the screens, a handful of reserves aren’t enough to get things back on track.

“Airlines are overscheduling pilots, and there aren’t enough of them,” says Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. She blames pay cuts and a history of furloughs for driving pilots to cheaper cities. “Not having a crew available for all these scheduled flights is certainly one of the problems, especially in New York,” she adds.

Capt. Demico Black knows the scenario well. One of the few native New Jersey pilots, the 25-year-old works for a regional airline and often has trouble getting home to Newark.

“We know that if there’s even one cloud in the sky [in the Northeast], you’re going to be delayed,” says Mr. Black from a waiting area at Charlotte Douglas International airport.

He is scheduled to fly to Newark and within an hour be in the cockpit on a flight to Pittsburgh. His Newark-bound flight is delayed.

“That Pittsburgh trip is probably not going to happen [for me] today,” says Mr. Black.

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Wall Street History returns June 5.

Brian Trumbore

 



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Wall Street History

05/29/2009

Flight 3407, Part II

In the investigation of Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, the issue of pilot fatigue came up. Co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, for example, flew overnight from her home in Seattle, changing planes in Memphis, Tenn., before dawn. Many of the Colgan pilots live far outside their hubs due to costs, and we learned, for example, that Ms. Shaw earned less than $17,000. Staggering.

So it brought to mind a piece I posted November 2007 that is worth repeating. At the time I was struck by a story in Crain’s New York Business by Hilary Potekewitz and received their permission to run the story on my link. During the congressional hearings, Roger Cohen, the president of the Regional Airline Association, conceded “50 to 70 percent” of the pilots commute long distances to the city where they were “domiciled.” 78 of the 137 Newark-based pilots for Colgan had commutes ranging from more than 400 miles to more than 1,000 miles. No wonder Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he was “stunned” by the Buffalo crew’s lack of sleep (let alone their relative inexperience).

---

“Airline pilots detour around NY” by Hilary Potkewitz / Crain’s

When a flight lands at one of New York’s airports, the pilot usually says over the loudspeaker, “On behalf of your New York-based flight crew, we’d like to thank you for flying with us.” But don’t assume he lives here. More likely, the crew commutes from homes in the Midwest, the South or upstate cities like Buffalo.

Deterred by the high cost of living and salaries relatively the same as a decade ago, many pilots assigned to New York or New Jersey refuse to relocate.

Senior pilots usually have a say in their placements, so it’s often junior pilots who draw the city’s airports. Less able to afford New York area real estate – their pay ranges from $37,000 to $70,000 – junior pilots feel they have little choice but to commute from cheaper parts of the country.

Pilots endure stress-filled journeys to get to work, and when they hit the same delays that bedevil other travelers, their late arrivals can further disrupt airline schedules.

“You can end up spending two of your three days off flying, just to make it to work then home again,” says Capt. Craig Hoskins, a pilot with JetBlue Airways. He’s been based at John F. Kennedy International Airport for more than four years but lives in Bradenton, Fla. “The delays put additional stress on getting to work.”

Two decades ago, pilots could afford to live in New York, or at least nearby. When Capt. Jack Norman took a job with People Express Airlines in the 1980s, he moved his family to New Jersey from California. He rented a townhouse near Sparta, about 40 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport. The town became so popular with airline personnel, they called it the “pilots’ ghetto.”

But real estate prices kept rising, so when Mr. Norman wanted to buy, he wound up in Bethlehem, Pa., a 90-minute drive to Newark. The 59-year-old pilot can now count at least 30 pilots living within a 30-mile radius. “As suburban New Jersey became pretty expensive, this became the next big place for people to look for nice, middle-class family housing,” says Mr. Norman, now a captain with Continental Airlines.

Out of range?

Only Detroit is a less desirable posting than New York, says a spokesman for the largest pilot’s union, the Air Line Pilots Association. Of Continental’s 2,200 Newark-based pilots, only about a third live locally – many in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, 75 miles from Newark. Only 20% of JetBlue’s 1,300 pilots live in the New York area, even though the Queens-based company is concentrated at JFK. American Airlines has 1,090 pilots based here, but just 50% live in the area. The few pilots who want to be stationed here tend to be natives.

“Everything’s done by seniority,” says Kit Darby, president and publisher of AIR Inc., an Atlanta-based pilot career information service. “What you fly, when you fly and where you’re based.”

All this traveling, whether by plane from the Midwest or by car from Pennsylvania, adds to the potential for complications. A rain delay or a mechanical hiccup can send a cascade of woe through the schedule.

“Whether it’s coming to work or transferring between trips, we are subject to the same constraints and limitations as the general public,” notes Capt. Gerry Dupree, Northeastern vice president of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. “It may be a little easier for us to get on a plane, but if flights aren’t moving, we’re not moving.”

Fewer extra seats

Airline personnel have long had more flexibility because they have access to jump seats – the extra seat up front where an off-duty pilot can hitch a ride – even on competitors’ flights. But with packed flights and more pilots commuting, there are fewer jump seats available. “It adds so much uncertainty; you just never know what flight you’ll be able to get on,” says Mr. Hoskins.

But airlines and pilots insist that delays are rarely due to commuting snafus. Pilots are required to leave room for at least three flights to deliver them in time for their shift, and failure to report on time can be cause for termination, especially in the first year.

Pilots and consumer groups say delays are instead largely due to flight overscheduling. If a pilot’s first flight misses a connection, most airlines have a few reserve pilots on call. But when delays are lighting up the screens, a handful of reserves aren’t enough to get things back on track.

“Airlines are overscheduling pilots, and there aren’t enough of them,” says Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. She blames pay cuts and a history of furloughs for driving pilots to cheaper cities. “Not having a crew available for all these scheduled flights is certainly one of the problems, especially in New York,” she adds.

Capt. Demico Black knows the scenario well. One of the few native New Jersey pilots, the 25-year-old works for a regional airline and often has trouble getting home to Newark.

“We know that if there’s even one cloud in the sky [in the Northeast], you’re going to be delayed,” says Mr. Black from a waiting area at Charlotte Douglas International airport.

He is scheduled to fly to Newark and within an hour be in the cockpit on a flight to Pittsburgh. His Newark-bound flight is delayed.

“That Pittsburgh trip is probably not going to happen [for me] today,” says Mr. Black.

---

Wall Street History returns June 5.

Brian Trumbore