A Better, Safer Airline Cockpit

Nearly three months after co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane into the Alps, airlines and regulators are still debating how to prevent such a tragedy from repeating itself. Recently, in his first newspaper interview since the crash, Lufthansa’s CEO suggested random psychological checks on pilots and advocated medical professionals breaching doctor-patient confidentiality.

As a professional pilot, I can state with a great deal of confidence that such strategies will only alienate pilots from their employers and make the situation worse. It’s a major overreaction, because from a statistical standpoint, flying on a scheduled airline is safer than ever — and cheaper, too.

That’s not to say we cannot improve things. Take those cheap fares, for example. They come with a price, and much of it has been paid by those of us who fly for a living.

Airline passengers — at least those old enough to reminisce about the days when people dressed up for flights that offered good food and impeccable service — are well aware of how conditions in the passenger cabin have deteriorated over the years. What they don’t know is how much the situation has degraded for those in the cockpit.

Just like you, pilots are nostalgic for the days when well-dressed passengers and better working conditions were the norm rather than the exception. This is cause for concern, because while nobody enjoys a sullen passenger, the person stuffed into that row 39 middle seat isn’t responsible for the safe conduct of the flight.

If you find air travel unpleasant — and let’s face it, most people do — remember that airline pilots constantly deal with its worst aspects: surly customers, mechanical issues, jet lag, overcrowded airport terminals, long lines getting to and from the runway, and a wide variety of weather issues. They’re circumnavigating thunderstorms in summer and making critical decisions about airframe icing potential in the winter.

The vocation involves long days. A three-pilot airline crew is allowed to be on duty for as long as 17 hours. In addition, this is not a 9-to-5 gig; work might start at 8 a.m. one day and 8 p.m. the next, and much of that time is spent strapped into a seat in a space not much larger than a phone booth. This workplace isn’t exactly serene. It’s full of vibration, wind noise, turbulence, heat, and electronic sounds from avionics. There are lights, switches, and screens to watch over, radios to monitor, controllers to talk to, paperwork to be filled out, and fuel burn to gauge. Pilots try to find the altitude with the smoothest air for their passengers and, as Sinatra crooned, “get them to the church on time.”

That said, many aviators love flying so much that they want to do it when they’re off work. You’ll find plenty of professional pilots hanging out at smaller airports for fun. Can you imagine going to the office on your day off because you enjoyed your job that much? It takes a lot to beat that kind of passion out of a person… but the airline industry has proven quite successful at it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a few common-sense changes that could make flying a scheduled airliner more humane.

The Seniority System

One fact of airline life that often amazes civilians: the captain is not always the oldest or even the most experienced pilot aboard. A pilot’s status with the airline is based exclusively on his or her seniority with the company. As long as your conduct isn’t bad enough to get you fired, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best pilot at the airline or the worst.

Promotion from first officer to captain is based solely on your date of hire with that specific airline. You could be at the top of the seniority list at one airline, but if you move to another company, you start out at the very bottom. It makes no difference if you quit voluntarily, were furloughed, or were laid off due to a merger, bankruptcy, or liquidation of your old company. You are welcomed aboard at NewCo with the worst pay and worst schedule, flying the worst equipment to the worst destinations.

As one industry veteran put it, “It’s like a hospital with a staffing problem that refuses to hire experienced doctors unless they start out as an intern, even if they happened to be an experienced surgeon from another hospital with 30 years’ experience.”

The unions are heavily entrenched at most airlines, so eliminating this system would be difficult. But at the very least, why not combine the seniority lists of all airlines into one master list? This would allow pilots to move between airlines and maintain a relative career position. It’s an easy way to bring some stability to an unstable industry.

It also would reduce the strain on the many pilots who must commute by air to their jobs because they live in a different city than the one where they’re based.

An Awful Commute

What’s the big deal about such commuting? Many people travel significant distances for school or work. But for an airline pilot, it can thousands of miles each way. A surprisingly large number of pilots commute, in part because of those seniority lists. Whether the airline has closed a hub or the pilot is changing aircraft, it’s less disruptive to commute than uproot the whole family, sell the house, and re-establish one’s life in another location — especially when there’s no guarantee you won’t have to do the same thing again in a painfully short period of time.

From what I’ve seen, commuting does more than just about anything else to destroy a pilot’s quality of life. It dramatically raises stress and fatigue levels, and it’s so unnecessary. An industry-wide master list would make it easier for pilots to switch jobs so they could work closer to where they live.

Medical Certification

Flying is a stressful job. Pilots undergo periodic medical exams, and many feel that this aeromedical certification system failed us badly in the Germanwings incident. I agree. But rather than condemn the system for failing to weed out a suicidal pilot, I fault it for creating an atmosphere where an individual with mental health issues was motivated to hide his problem for fear of losing his career.

The thing most likely to head off a future tragedy isn’t more federal rulemaking, but rather a hazard-free path for stressed pilots to get help without putting their livelihoods on the line. There are already programs in place that encourage pilots to seek help for mental health and other issues. One of those is called Project Wingman, a collaboration between airline and pilot union which established a 24/7 confidential emergency mental health hotline for pilots to report anonymously either their own or their fellow crew members’ mental health issues.

My company participates in a program called ASAP, which encourages voluntary reporting of safety issues and events that come to the attention of pilots. Employees voluntarily report safety issues even though they may involve a regulatory violation, and in exchange both the FAA and the employer waive any sanctions or enforcement. It’s a win-win, and it doesn’t require thousands of pages of rules (or dollars). These programs are proven. They’re low on overhead, and the motivation is safety rather than enforcement.

Eternal Questions

Some have opined that these are fleeting problems because flesh-and-blood pilots will soon be supplanted by automation. I have my doubts. But even if they’re right, human factors outpace mechanical failure as the root cause of accidents by a ratio of nearly nine to one. If the day ever comes when a pilot-less airliner takes to the sky, men and women will still be a prime part of the equation: programming the systems, flying remotely, servicing the aircraft, and swinging wrenches to keep it airworthy.

No one in their right mind would suggest exceeding an aircraft’s design limitations. It’s high time we started respecting the limits of the humans who operate them.

  9 comments for “A Better, Safer Airline Cockpit

  1. June 16, 2015 at 2:48 am

    great blog.
    breaching medical confidentiality is no way to solve not only airline safety problems, but medico-safety problems. Mandatory reporting of medical or psychiatric problems to “authorities” only drives the problems “underground’ and nothing is achieved. There must be a way to improve the public safety in both professions, but big brother does not achieve it.
    well done

    • June 18, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      It is sad to see how quickly and blithely some people suggest tossing privacy by the wayside. When I read about Mr. Spohr’s suggestion that doctor/patient confidentiality be axed, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d be so agreeable if the topic was, say, the financial privacy of C-level executives.

      As you noted, the breaching of vital record privacy is not limited to aviation, nor is it a new issue. I have a friend whose medical privacy was illegally breached by the FAA about two decades ago. He sued and the case, FAA v. Cooper, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where, although he was denied compensation under the Privacy Act of 1974, the Court found that his rights were indeed violated.

    • June 21, 2015 at 6:15 am

      Great comments. As a psychologist, I agree that what is most needed is a humanistic approach, not a punitive and fear-based one. Your analogy of not pushing an aircraft limits, and respecting human limits, is perfect. As always, your writing is thought provoking.

  2. June 16, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Fantastic article, Ron. Very well thought out and stated. As a pilot who has experienced most of the negatives you have highlighted here, I couldn’t agree more.

    • June 17, 2015 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks Jeff. I’m sorry you’re experiencing the, shall we say, less desirable aspects of the 121 sector. Maybe things have to get a lot worse before there will be sufficient push for real changes. But I hope not!

  3. Thomas
    June 16, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Great post Ron! This is exactly why I cannot bring myself to work for the airlines even though it has always been my dream. Though I am well qualified to do so, my career path has continually taken further away from that goal since working conditions are often much better in corporate or even cargo operations.

    • June 18, 2015 at 4:11 pm

      Your story is a common one, Thomas. It’s a shame, because in addition to your “dream deferred”, the airline industry is depriving itself of many qualified and highly-motivated employees. It’s a downward spiral. Right now it’s most evident at the regional airlines, but those are feeders for the rest of the 121 world and it’s rotting the whole house’s foundation.

  4. June 16, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    As always, well put! I always enjoy your insights. These are some practical thoughts and ideas. Although there may be a lot of red tape in the way, and much of it is likely not to happen, I like seeing the industry have this conversation.

    • June 17, 2015 at 6:49 pm

      I agree, the simple fact of having the conversation, whether or not you agree with my suggestions (and some people don’t), is important. Hopefully we can all agree that the industry is not healthy and needs some serious changes.

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