Federal investigators are set Tuesday to blame a chain of cockpit mistakes for the fatal crash of a commuter airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., last February. But pilots, safety experts and company officials disagree over how much commuter carrier Colgan Air Inc. has since done to combat the key issue of pilot fatigue.
Persistent airline safety lapses and lax government oversight—in addition to pilot fatigue—are likely to be cited by the National Transportation Safety Board as major factors in the crash that killed 50, according to industry and government officials.
A unit of Pinnacle Airlines Corp. since 2007, Colgan said it has completely recast itself from a safety point of view, ushering in programs to reduce risk and shaking up its management to get a better grip on operations.
Critics including pilots and outside safety experts contend that the airline, known for its hard-nosed management style and previous run-ins with government regulators, still seems intent on squeezing crews to fly extra hours while punishing those who complain about the resulting erosion of safety, a charge Colgan denies. These critics argue that Colgan managers still cling to an overly punitive attitude when it comes to pilots who call in sick or tell managers they are too tired to fly.
Months after embracing what the company described as a “no questions asked” approach toward pilots requesting to be taken off scheduled trips, Colgan’s management in late December switched back to a tougher line.
A memo to pilots said that “frivolous [fatigue] calls are now the majority.” It concluded that “blatant abuse” of time-off requests “at the expense of our customers and our operational reliability is not an acceptable practice,” and will prompt speedy disciplinary action.
The airline last week reversed course again on its fatigue policy, restoring some of the elements the pilots believe are less draconian, but it isn’t clear precisely when the new rules will be implemented.
It isn’t clear what prompted the company’s shift. A Colgan spokesman said late Sunday that in cooperation with pilot union leaders, the latest changes set up a review board to analyze why aviators were calling in fatigued. “We’re not looking to punish people,” spokesman Joe Williams said, but rather “to help understand the reasons” for such calls and whether scheduling adjustments or other moves can alleviate the problem.
Some pilot union leaders and safety experts say the rules, as revised, are still punitive partly because management hasn’t fundamentally altered internal guidelines for assessing the legitimacy of fatigue complaints.
Pilots contend that other carriers have found ways to deal with similar pilot concerns—and managed to reduce the dangers of fatigue—without threatening or unfairly punishing employees.
Many airlines, for instance, have strict rules emphasizing that pilots who ask to be removed from a trip because of fatigue won’t face punishment or be grilled by management.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been prodding major airlines to help enhance the safety of the commuter carriers that fly certain routes under their name. Yet Mark Rosenker, a former safety board chairman, said “industry is not moving forward in this area.”
Colgan, with a fleet of 48 planes, flies on behalf of UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, US Airways Group Inc. and Continental Airlines Corp. The accident flight on a snowy evening early last year was on behalf of Continental Flight 3407.
Colgan has ramped up hiring and promotion standards, insisting on at least 1,000 hours of previous flying experience for new-hire pilots, and 3,250 hours for a captain of the Q400, the plane that crashed. Some experience requirements are three times what they were before the crash. Later this month, the company will phase in twice-yearly proficiency checks for all co-pilots, something Colgan says no other U.S. airline is doing.
Colgan also has restructured management, revamped pilot training so aviators are better prepared to cope with stalls or unusual aircraft maneuvers, and pledged to aggressively confront safety hazards before they can lead to accidents.
In the past few days, Colgan and its pilots finalized the substance of an agreement—similar to those in place for many years at dozens of carriers—to jointly assess incident information downloaded from flight-data recorders without punishing the pilots involved.
A Pinnacle spokesman said a management reorganization is under way to coincide with Colgan’s previously planned move to Memphis, Tenn., where Pinnacle is based, from Colgan’s former headquarters in Manassas, Va. The shift was intended “mainly for the benefit of getting everyone together for better decision making and communications,” according to the spokesman. Senior Colgan officials now can concentrate “solely on safe, reliable operations,” he said, while finance and other support functions have been melded into Pinnacle’s corporate structure.
Colgan’s “management team has been in a transformational state,” said Capt. Mark Segaloff, chairman of the local pilot union. “There is still much work to be done.”
Despite a history of tension between Colgan management and pilot-union representatives, some Colgan pilots recently praised the company for enhancing training and ensuring that two inexperienced pilots aren’t assigned to the same flight.
There is no dispute over the fact that Colgan Capt. Marvin Renslow allowed the twin-engine turboprop’s speed to drop dangerously low while approaching the airport, and then failed to react properly to warnings of an impending stall.