While the law passed by Congress last summer addressed pilot work schedules, it did not address "commuting," another workplace issue that critics say contributes to pilot fatigue. "Commuting" is an industry-wide system in which crew members, especially those working for regional feeder airlines, live far from the "hub" airports where they are based and commute to the hubs by air in order to work a shift. Crew members commute, sometimes from homes more than 1,000 miles away, because of annual starting salaries as low as $17,000, and because of the cost of living in large hub cities.
Pilots told ABC News in February that commuting can be treacherous when pilots try to grab what sleep they can in crash pads and airline crew rooms. The NTSB investigation into the crash of Colgan flight 3407 found that both pilots were commuters. The pilot of the plane, who commuted to his Newark base from Florida, had spent the night before sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark airport, raising concerns about the role of fatigue with NTSB safety investigators.
The 24-year-old co-pilot had commuted across the country, hitching rides on FedEx planes overnight from Seattle to get to her Newark, New Jersey base the day of her flight. Neither pilot even had a chance to sleep in a hot bunk at a "crash pad," where up to two dozen other pilots or crew members sleep after commuting into their base for duty.
Congress did ask the National Research Council, a non-profit national scientific research group, to complete a study on the issue. When researchers asked airlines for data on commuting patterns and practices, however, dozens of airlines failed to respond. The NRC report concluded that pilot commutes could contribute to fatigue that may endanger passengers, but that it had not been able to gather "enough data to support strict regulation." The study also concluded that the government should fund another study to determine how well pilots with long commutes sleep.
Meanwhile, the flight 3407 families wait for the FAA to implement new rules on pilot work schedules, and continue to apply pressure where they can. The families meet regularly with officials at the FAA, said Scott Maurer.
"The FAA has to keep the ball rolling forward," said Maurer. "They're behind on a lot of things."