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Colgan pilots say many felt pressure to work while ill

Colleagues of Rebecca L. Shaw, the co-pilot of the Continental Connection flight that crashed into a home in Clarence on Feb. 12, aren't surprised that she went to work that night even though she had a cold after a red-eye flight the previous night.

In fact, pilots at Colgan Air, which ran Continental Connection Flight 3407, said they have flown sick or tired themselves -- because it's less painful than calling in sick or tired.

"I have done it myself because I was afraid of the hassles I'd get" for missing work, said a current Colgan pilot.

Similarly, pilots at Pinnacle Airlines -- Colgan's parent -- have a hard time balancing the airline's "unforgiving" attendance policy with their duty to be fit for flight, said Scott Erickson, head of Pinnacle's pilots union.

"Sometimes, doing the right thing and missing work means being branded a poor employee," Erickson said.

In interviews over the past month, those two pilots and six other pilots and former pilots at Colgan and Pinnacle offered a harshly different portrait of the airlines than did Philip H. Trenary, the Pinnacle president.

Pinnacle has a "nonpunitive" safety program, Trenary told the Senate Commerce Committee last month.

"If a pilot is fatigued for any reason, all they have to do is say so, and they're excused from duty," he told senators.

In the wake of Trenary's comments, pilots at the airlines said calling in sick or exhausted has become easier since the February crash, which claimed 50 lives.

But they also said that for years before, management made sick calls and fatigue calls difficult, and potentially career-ending, experiences.

"I'm sitting here with a letter from the chief pilot saying that if I have seven occurrences of sick time, I could be fired. I don't know how that's not punitive," said a Colgan pilot who, like seven of the eight pilots interviewed, asked that his name not be printed, saying he could be fired if identified.

Another Colgan pilot recalled the time when he was undergoing surgery. Afterwards, while still in the hospital, his cell phone rang.

"The chief pilot called and started giving me a hard time," the pilot said. "And I was just coming out of general anesthesia."

>Pilots 'harassed'

Whether you're sick or tired, Colgan managers "will harass you until you give up and fly," said another Colgan pilot.

However, Joe F. Williams, the spokesman for Pinnacle and Colgan, disagrees.

"Our policies are in line with other carriers, both mainline and regional," Williams said.

"Should we discover an instance in which a manager 'harassed' a pilot calling in fatigued, the manager would be counseled about the procedure for handling a fatigue call," Williams added.

Contrary to what the company said, the pilots interviewed for this story said their experiences prove how tough it is to miss work at Colgan and Pinnacle. And they said that's important because a federal probe into the crash of Flight 3407 has raised sickness and fatigue among pilots as key issues.

Shaw, the first officer, took a connecting red-eye flight from Seattle to Newark and then slept in the crew lounge at Newark International Airport before boarding Flight 3407. The transcript of the flight's cockpit voice recorder shows Shaw sniffling and complaining of a cold.

"Oh, I'm ready to be in the hotel room," she said before takeoff.

While it's unclear where the pilot, Capt. Marvin Renslow, slept the night before the flight, the federal crash probe showed he logged onto the company computer system at 3:10 a.m. that morning and was seen in the crew lounge at the Newark airport about four hours later.

Flight 3407 left Newark for Buffalo at 9:18 p.m. that night. Less than an hour later, the crew allowed the plane to slow to the point where a stall warning activated.

Federal investigators said Renslow reacted improperly to the warning, pulling back on the yoke when he should have pushed it forward to gain speed.

"Even the worst pilot knows not to do that," said Les Westbrooks, an associate professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "For him to have had that reaction, he had to be really fatigued."

Yet the attendance policies at the airlines are so tough that pilots are reluctant to call in fatigued, according to the pilots interviewed by The Buffalo News -- two from parent Pinnacle, four from Colgan and two who have left Colgan for other airlines.

"We have an attendance policy that is threatening in nature and disciplinary in action," a Pinnacle pilot said. "We have pilots and flight attendants that fly sick all the time to avoid this disciplinary action."

>Called in hospital

In addition to the pilot who got that phone call while in the hospital, another pilot complained of getting a call from the chief pilot while at a doctor's office.

In both cases, the airline demanded a doctor's note, which is standard operating procedure at Pinnacle and Colgan, according to several pilots.

"They treat you like a child," still another former Colgan pilot said.

Williams, of Pinnacle, disagreed, saying: "No notes are requested for sick calls that fall within the policy . . . We use doctors notes for safety or absence abuse issues only."

However, Pinnacle's attendance policy says: "A physician's certification of health (Doctor's Note) whether being provided freely by the pilot or specifically requested by management normally acts as verification of his absence due to illness or injury."

What's more, several Colgan pilots recounted instances when they tried to call in sick only to get a call from management, urging that they reconsider.

The chief pilot sometimes counsels pilots to "work something out" with management over the sick call, said the pilot contacted at the doctor's office.

"That means you don't get paid for taking time off," that pilot said.

Pilots at Colgan and Pinnacle have a strong incentive for doing that. Both airlines have policies that discipline employees with multiple occurrences of sick time each year (an "occurrence" can be one day long or several consecutive days long).

Those policies call for the dismissal of those who get sick seven times in a year.

Under those rules, about a third of Pinnacle's pilots were reprimanded for having at least four occurrences of sick time in 2008, said Erickson, the union official.

Similar rules cover flight attendants. The pilot who got that call after surgery recalled an instance where Colgan tried to get a flight attendant to work even though she had a high fever.

Fearing that the rest of the crew and the passengers could get sick, the pilot of that flight refused to fly with her, at which point the airline called in a substitute for the attendant.

That pilot refused to fly with her because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations that require pilots to remove themselves from duty if flying "would not be consistent with the standard of safe operation."

Several pilots noted that the Pinnacle/Colgan policy of threatening employees with dismissal for seven sick calls conflicts with that rule.

"It's a company policy that could get you fired for following the law put forth by the FAA," a Colgan pilot said.

Williams disagreed, calling that charge completely false.

"As I have stated, Colgan's policy is nonpunitive and no jeopardy. Same with Pinnacle," Williams said.

Nevertheless, pilots at the sister airlines remember a time when the fatigue policy was clearly punitive.

"It was a battle calling in fatigued," a former Colgan pilot said. "They would do anything they could to talk you out of it. They just want to get the plane moving."

Current Colgan pilots said, though, that the fatigue policy has improved recently.

"It's night and day since the crash," said another Colgan pilot.

In wake of the Flight 3407 crash, the airline shifted responsibility for handling fatigue calls from the chief pilot to the Safety Department, which, pilots said, takes a much more reasonable approach to the issue.

And Williams said that change was about to be implemented at Pinnacle.

Pilots said Pinnacle's fatigue policy has improved in another way as well. Pilots now must contact base management within 72 hours of a fatigue call, and no longer "get called on the carpet in front of the boss," as they did before the policy change, Erickson said.

Despite the changes, Erickson still wonders if Pinnacle takes too harsh an approach on fatigue -- given that only recently a Pinnacle pilot was, for the first time ever, reprimanded for calling in fatigued.

"It's kind of bizarre to be reprimanded for doing your duty under FAA regulations," said Erickson, who noted that the agency also requires pilots to pull themselves off duty when they are too tired to fly.

>Bad policies

The sick-time and fatigue policies at Colgan and Pinnacle are not unusual for the regional airlines that operate the less-traveled routes for major carriers, said Capt. Paul Rice, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

But they are bad policies because they leave sick and tired pilots thinking about the discipline they may face rather than about whether they are fit to fly, Rice said.

"Pilots should never be forced to make this decision on anything but safety," he said.

Major airlines have much different policies on sick time and fatigue.

JetBlue gives beginning pilots 108 hours of paid time off every year and charges them five hours for each vacation day or the length of their shift for a sick day, the company said. Other airlines give pilots upwards of a month's sick time every year.

That's not the only difference between regional airlines and the larger carriers.

Whereas pilots at the major airlines can earn in the six-figure range, Colgan said pilots on its largest plane are paid $67,000, although pilots said many of their colleagues make about $50,000. First officers, such as Shaw, can make less than $20,000.

Another Colgan pilot said the tough policies on sick leave and fatigue were the company's way of dealing with low-paid, demoralized employees who might abuse more generous policies.

"I know where the company's coming from -- but they're not paying qualified people the right amount of money to work for them," the pilot said. "You expect a certain level of professionalism, but at $25,000 a year you're going to get a certain level of professionalism in return."

Meanwhile, those policies at Colgan and Pinnacle earned some criticism from Jerry M. Newman, a professor of business at the University at Buffalo who specializes in studying compensation and employee benefits.

"These look like policies from companies that have a difficult relationship with their employees," Newman said.

Both Newman and Westbrooks, of Embry-Riddle, said the Colgan and Pinnacle sick policies are tougher than those at most companies.

And both lashed out at the economic trends in the airline industry that prompted big carriers like Continental to outsource many of their flights to lower-cost operations like Colgan.

"It's a clever thing with potentially disastrous implications," Newman said.

For proof, just look at Flight 3407, Westbrooks said.

"This whole accident was, unfortunately, about economics," he added.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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