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Continental pilots blast Colgan's response to illness

Pilots at Continental Airlines are lashing out at the working conditions at the subcontractor that ran Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed in Clarence Center in February, saying pilots shouldn't feel compelled to fly when they are too sick or too tired to do so.

"The rules of the FAA and just plain common sense are clear on the issues of fatigue and illness -- you don't fly when you're not fully rested or when you're sick," said Capt. Jay Pierce, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association unit representing Continental's 5,000 pilots. "Pilots must be allowed to make the critical decision to fly or not fly without fear of losing pay, their jobs or facing discipline."

Pierce made his comments Tuesday in response to a Buffalo News Sunday article, which quoted several pilots at Colgan Air, the subcontractor, saying they had felt pressured to fly while sick.

The article "reads like a recounting of third-world sweatshop working conditions," Capt. Jayson Baron, head of the Continental pilots council based in Newark, said in a blog post over the weekend.

Pierce said Colgan and Pinnacle Airlines, its parent, should revise their policies governing pilot fatigue and illness.

"It is our belief that when a passenger buys a ticket that says Continental, that passenger is our responsibility from origination and destination," Pierce said in an interview.

The News article revealed that pilots at Colgan and Pinnacle can be fired if they get sick seven times in a year and that they get warnings once they have had four "occurrences" of sick time. An occurrence can be one day or several days long.

That's important because federal investigators have found that the co-pilot of the plane that crashed in Clarence, Rebecca L. Shaw, flew a connecting red-eye flight and came down with a cold before going to work on the doomed Newark-to-Buffalo flight.

Federal Aviation Administration rules mandate that pilots not fly when they are sick, but the agency does not regularly review the sick policies or fatigue policies at the nation's airlines, said Les Dorr, an agency spokesman.

And while Pinnacle spokesman Joe Williams did not respond when offered a chance to comment further on the matter, Dorr said there is a good reason why airlines are vigilant about sick time among their pilots.

"Many airlines have developed programs to detect patterns of sick leave abuse," Dorr said. "For example, sick calls typically increase around holidays. In other cases, an employee calls in sick on a day he or she previously requested as a regular day off. This may be abuse of sick leave, not a legitimate medical deficiency."

In addition, there is nothing unusual about an airline asking for a doctor's note from its sick pilots, as Colgan and Pinnacle have done. "In fact, it can be beneficial to both the air carrier and the employee," Dorr said. "The air carrier has the opportunity to discover if an individual has an undisclosed condition that may affect the individual's medical certificate. The individual has an opportunity to discuss his or her medical concerns with the airline."

Nevertheless, Baron complained of the Colgan pilots being "harangued," "threatened" and "browbeaten into flying tired." And that has an impact on Continental's reputation, he added. "We, the professional pilots of Continental Airlines, have watched the former quality of our Continental Airlines brand disappear" because of the airline's habit of subcontracting flights to lower-cost operators, Baron wrote.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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