Any one of us boarding an airplane, or watching loved ones head for the boarding gates, expects and trusts that the pilots and crew are top-notch, skilled and, above all, rested. That trust now has been shattered.
The image of the well-cared-for pilot, ready and able to execute his or her duties, crumbled in the aftermath of the awful tragedy of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence earlier this year. Investigation of that crash revealed that the co-pilot of the plane had taken a cross-country "redeye" flight to work, and had come down with a cold before going on the job for the Newark-Buffalo flight.
Worse, the emerging information now shows, she may have felt compelled to show up for work.
News bureau chief Jerry Zremski recently reported that pilots at Continental Airlines have been voicing their discontent and feeling compelled to fly even when they are too tired or sick. According to Zremski's article, several pilots at Colgan Air -- the subcontractor airline -- said they had felt pressured to fly while sick.
Capt. Jayson Baron, head of the Continental pilots' council based in Newark, had it right in his blog post last weekend when he said the article read like a recounting of third-world sweatshop working conditions.
The News article reported that pilots at Colgan and Pinnacle Airlines, its parent, can be fired if they get sick seven times in a year, and they receive warnings once they have had four "occurrences" of sick time. An occurrence can be one day or several days long.
Passengers who purchase airline tickets with a large-airline brand name rightfully should be able to expect a top-notch crew whose mission and singular purpose is to transport the aircraft and everyone in it safely. And safety begins well before anyone shows up for work. Crew members should not feel compelled to work at all hours at very low pay without any prearranged accommodations that would allow real rest, not make them grab a few winks in the pilot's lounge; if they are legitimately ill, they shouldn't feel as if they still have to report to work.
These are no-brainers. Ask anyone about to undergo surgery or step on an aircraft whether it's OK to go forward even if the doctor or pilot might be exhausted or ill. The answer will surely be a resounding no. In both cases, precision is critical and slight error could mean the difference between life or death.
And ask any doctor or pilot whether he or she wants to proceed under such adverse conditions and the answer still will be a resounding no. The fact that several pilots are complaining that they felt pressured to fly while sick shames the airline, and raises real questions about how widespread that problem could be in an economy-pressured industry struggling for profits.
Federal investigators found that the co-pilot of the plane that crashed in Clarence, Rebecca L. Shaw, had flown a connecting redeye flight and had a cold before reporting to work. She was earning very little money for someone with responsibility for other people's lives, although this is a reflection on a flawed system and no reflection at all on Shaw. Federal Aviation Administration rules mandate that pilots not fly when they are sick, yet there's no regular review of illness or fatigue policies at the nation's airlines.
There's something fundamentally wrong with haranguing, threatening or browbeating a pilot into working when that person has a legitimate reason for staying home. Worse, there's something fundamentally wrong with giving passengers a false impression of safety when, in fact, the flight could be unsafe at any altitude.