For Scott Sickler, an Atlantic Southeast Airlines pilot from Atlanta, long hours and lower pay than he expected have taken their toll.
“I’m quitting flying altogether. I’ve given up the dream of airline pilot,” Sickler said. “The regional pilot is the whipping boy of the airline business.”
Pilots for regional airlines such as Atlantic Southeast and Comair, in general, work harder and are paid less than their counterparts at the big national carriers, several pilots and industry experts said.
And though the pilots’ hours are regulated, some say their schedules are pushed to the limit.
Officials have said the pilots on Comair Flight 5191 were “legal” -- they had had the proper rest period before Sunday’s flight. First Officer James Polehinke landed in Lexington at 2 a.m. Saturday, the day before the crash, and Capt. Jeffrey Clay arrived in Lexington at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The families of both officers have said they were in condition to fly the plane.
Because major carriers such as Delta Air Lines fly bigger planes over longer distances, pilots of commuter aircraft fly more trips and are responsible for many more takeoffs and landings than pilots at the major airlines, said Bob Buck, a retired pilot from Vermont who has written six books on aviation.
“Their pressures are harder,” he said. “A regional guy might be going up and down the East Coast in a bunch of lousy weather all day. ... It’s a hard, tough day.”
Sickler said he typically flies four or five legs a day, frequently works 12-hour days and spends four or five days every week in a hotel.
He said a quarter of his shifts are what the airline industry calls “stand-up overnights,” “continuous duty” or simply “naps.”
Those shifts typically begin in mid- to late evening, when the pilots show up for work at the airport. They fly to one location, arriving late. Then they are taken to a hotel, where they often get just four to five hours of sleep, and sometimes less. Then, Sickler said, they fly the plane back early the next morning.
Airlines like to book pilots for stand-up overnights because it allows for easier scheduling, said John Greaves, a Los Angeles aviation attorney who was a pilot for Comair in the 1980s.
“You can get more flying hours out of the pilots,” he said.
Such schedules, which require waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration, were once rare, but “over the years it got to be routine.”
Pilots for regional and major carriers are permitted by the FAA to be scheduled for no more than eight hours of flying per day. The maximum time they can be on duty is 16 hours.
Rick Bernskoetter, a pilot and spokesman for the Atlantic Southeast Airline Pilots Association, said companies often schedule pilots for the maximum, and then delays sometimes force pilots to be on duty longer.
The Air Line Pilots Association in Washington, D.C., has long pressed for tightened regulations on pilot rest and flight time. A spokesman for the organization said he was unable to comment publicly because of the association’s involvement in the Lexington crash investigation.
The organization’s Web site says pilots should have at least 10 hours off duty every day “to allow for adequate sleep.” In a speech July 26, the organization’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, said fatigue is one of several major airline safety issues.
“The problem is real and solutions exist,” he said. “I’m challenging everyone -- airlines, regulators, pilots -- to address this issue now and to commit to change that will make chronic, and potentially dangerous, fatigue a memory.”
But Bernskoetter said getting the FAA to make changes in rest requirements is an uphill battle.
“There’s tremendous lobbying power at work” from the airlines, he said. “There’s going to be extreme resistance.”
Alan Bender, an airline economist who teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said regional airline traffic has picked up significantly since 1993, when small jets first came on the scene for regional carriers.
Partnering with regionals is more economical for major carriers than flying big jets with many empty or deeply discounted seats, Bender said. They can instead save the big jets -- and more highly paid pilots -- for transcontinental and international trips.
At one time, Bernskoetter said, the pressures of being a regional pilot were just considered stepping stones to bigger and better jobs at major airlines. A handful of senior pilots command salaries of more than $200,000, Buck has said.
But those jobs are becoming fewer. Contracts have changed, and pilot pay rates at the majors have been slashed.
“The dream job kind of has evaporated,” Bernskoetter said. “The gap has been closed on us and them.”
Sickler said he invested $110,000 into his education to become a pilot, thinking he’d be earning $100,000 a year. Instead, he started out at $18,000 a year. After six years with the company, he’s making $58,000.
He plans to quit his job a month from now to move to California, where he will work for a family member marketing agricultural products. He’ll be paid half as much while living in one of the most expensive regions in the country, but he said the sacrifice is worth it.
“I’ll be home every night and I’ll be off every weekend and holiday,” he said. Flying is “an almost impossible lifestyle with a family.”