FAA’s Babbitt Might Just be a Standup Guy

By Robert Mark on August 10th, 2009

FAA’s new administrator for the past 70 days, Randy Babbitt, last week spoke about regional airline safety centered around fallout from the crash of Colgan 3407. The audience in Washington was receptive, helped in part by the fact that they were all were members of the Air Line Pilots Associationbabbitt-jetwhine where Babbitt was once president. According to the FAA standards Babbitt helped initiate a decade ago when he was still at ALPA, standards that might have prevented the Colgan accident, all Part 121 airline pilots were supposed to be trained and fly essentially the same way. One Level of Safety it was called. As Babbitt rightly pointed out however, the single standard for all sounds good, but just hasn’t worked out in reality.

Sure pilots all train in simulators, but low-time pilots training in high-tech equipment are still low-time pilots. Then there are the scheduling issues that relate to fatigue that major pilots don’t often encounter, or the fallout from low pay rates and on and on. Although the publicity on these topics is relatively new, the issues are all old, some dating back at least 20 years. What I liked about Babbitt’s speech was that he called upon pilots to take part in the solution … not all of it, but some of it.

He said, …

Each of us has a responsibility here. We know as professionals that it’s up to us to earn respect and operate professionally. The tools are already out there for us to improve our performance as professionals. But your chief pilot can’t make you use them. The aviation safety inspector and the check airman can’t make you use them. I can’t make you use them. Only you and you alone can ensure that the tools are used properly.

Jetwhine readers know I’m generally no big fan of the FAA, nor the TSA. But it’s never been personal. It’s always been about results, nothing more … or less. So for now, I’m ready to give Mr. Babbitt the benefit of the doubt, especially since he speaks as if he does understand some of the problem. But I will be demanding that he earn our industry’s respect much the way he’s challenging the rest of us.

Babbitt added,

… just having experience isn’t enough. The people with the experience need to make sure they’re mentoring the ones who don’t have it. This needs to become part of our professional DNA. If you’ve got experience and you’re not sharing it, you’re doing a disservice to our profession. This is not the time to be a man or woman of few words … I can’t say this any more directly than I am right now:  We all have to take on additional responsibilities whether we’re legally required to or not. This is about safety, and safety is about saving lives. If you think the safety bar is set too high, your sights are set way too low.

Continuous Duty Overnights

The talk after Colgan’s accident was about the crew’s lack of winter flying experience, as well as how the low pay forced them to arrive for work less than rested for the job ahead. Certainly, we can’t expect Randy Babbitt to fix everything that’s wrong with regional airline safety in the first few months, but I wanted to point him to a topic that still plagues regional crews that no one is talking about. So here’s a good place to begin a little fatigue research Mr. Babbitt, continuous duty overnights, also called stand-ups. I think the standup word came to be as a slap against how little sleep pilots see on this schedule.

rj If you’re not a daily player in the regional airline world, let me tell you that stand-ups are clever little plays on pilot schedules that allow airlines to cover one of their toughest scheduling problems, making certain an aircraft is where it should be for the first trip of the day. Screw up the first line of the day and an airline’s schedule can quickly descent into a nightmare for pilots, flight attendants and most of all, passengers. Airlines then, will do whatever they can to protect that first trip.

Airlines see stand-ups as simply a change from a day schedule to nights and nothing more. Sleep research confirms that switching shifts plays havoc with not only a person’s body clock, but their attention to detail. Air Traffic Controllers and NATCA are talking to the FAA about this same topic in fact.

On a standup, the crew arrives for work about 8 PM. They might fly and hour or two to some destination, then put the airplane to bed before heading off to a hotel for a little rest … and I do mean little. Most crews are lucky to hit the pillow before midnight. Since they are also the outbound crew the next morning, they are usually back up around 4:15 AM. Again, to the airline, they are simply working nights, but to the body of the pilots, the story is much different.

Having flown these for years, I can tell you that the crew is so tired flying the outbound leg the next morning, that we all used to pray that nothing demanding occurred because we knew our reactions times would be slower. Once the plane arrives back at home plate, the crew is finished. Sounds easy, one leg out and one back, but when airlines demand crews fly two, three or four of these shifts back to back, the scariest place to be is in the cabin of an airliner with a crew that it only partially aware of what’s happening around them. That’s what continuous-duty overnight do to crews.

There’s not enough space here to share with Mr. Babbitt all the stories about how regional airlines interpret the flight & duty time regulations to suit their individual purposes, but suffice it to say that the system that gave us the Buffalo crew is alive and well out there wearing pilots out just as much as some of the majors are trying to do with their pilots on long-range aircraft. Neither is good.

The public needs to know that it’s not just pilots on big airplanes on the New York to Beijing run who are often flying exhausted. It happens on the Atlanta to Lexington trips as well.

Have a comment you’d like to pass on to Mr. Babbitt? E-mail him at randy.babbitt@faa.gov.

Rob Mark

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3 Responses to “FAA’s Babbitt Might Just be a Standup Guy”

  1. Patrick Flannigan Says:

    That’s just one take on the continuous duty overnight. There are a lot of us that really like this schedule.

    I can only speak from my personal experience at my company, but I typically show up to work around 7:00PM well rested from a day at home. I then fly one short leg before heading to the hotel and getting a nap. In almost all cases, I’ll get between five to seven hours of sleep before morning. Although I may feel a little sleepy, I feel perfectly aware and capable of handling any emergency on the homebound leg, even on the last standup of the week.

    In general, I am more fatigued at the end of a 4-day trip than I am at the end of a whole week of standups.

    And I can’t even begin to praise the quality of life. Unlike most airline pilots, I am home everyday. If I am tired, I sleep. Otherwise, I have the whole day to myself. Furthermore, I get paid guarantee -75 hours – for only 30 hours of work.

    The real problem is not in CDOs, but in 5 to 6 legs per day on long trips with minimal and reduced rest periods. That sort of schedule can wear anybody out and makes for dangerously tired flight crews.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    If I may Patrick … how old are you? The age issue certainly needs to be factored into the stand-up equation here.

    But as you said in your Tweet before, stand-ups are not THE problem. They are simply one of the problems.

    My point is that we saw some of the same issues 20 years ago that you’re coping with today.

    I fear Mr. Babbitt is going to get quite a bit of push back from the regional airline industry to simply leave things alone.

    The trick will be to see how he responds.

  3. Patrick Flannigan Says:

    I understand what you’re getting at with the age factor, and yes older pilots are more worn out by standups just as they are on reduced-rest overnights.

    The difference is that on reduced rest, you still have a full day of flying ahead, whereas you can catch up on some Z’s right away on the standup.

    And you’re right, there are a number of problems with the way regionals are scheduled and good on you for highlighting it. But of all the lines, short scheduled rest and 14 hour duty days ought to be the big focus here.

    Oh you bet the industry will fight him on this one. From a business standpoint, the current staffing models work with some degree of efficiency. When the rules change these businesses are going to have to figure out something new, and that takes time and effort. Translation: change = lost revenue. I get that, and I share your hope that Babbitt sticks to his guns and makes a few changes.

    My fear with any increased rest-period would be that companies will still want to get the same amount of work out of the pilots. So instead of flying a three or four day trip with reduced rest, you’ll get five to six day trips with long overnights. Frankly, I’d rather be home than on the road all week. It’s a tough trade-off.

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