Commuter airline pilots continue to fly while dangerously fatigued because the government and the airlines have failed to enact safety recommendations, according to families of the victims of the crash two years ago this week of a Continental Connection jet in Buffalo.
The families were in Washington, D.C. today to press Congress and regulators for "more urgency" in addressing the issue of fatigue and underpaid pilots who are forced to commute to their flight bases.
"I had a goal to walk my daughter down the aisle," said John Kausner, whose daughter Elly was among the 50 victims who died in the crash of Continental 3407. "I'm infuriated it hasn't changed. If airlines know a pilot is traveling, they should be responsible for giving proper rest the evening before."
"The airlines don't want to do anything about commuting, regulators don't want to do anything about commuting," said Kevin Kuwik, whose girlfriend Lorin Maurer died in the crash. "It's not safe. Something's got to be done."
An ABC News investigation to air on Nightline Wednesday found that sleep-deprived pilots may be creating a serious safety risk for the nation's air passengers, and that pilot fatigue may already have claimed lives.
In the past 20 years, more than two dozen accidents and more than 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue, according to the NTSB. The NTSB investigation into the Feb. 12, 2009 crash of Continental 3407, operated by Colgan Air, determined that both pilots were sleep-deprived at the time of the crash, since they were "commuters" who had slept in the airport crew lounge before the fatal flight.
"Commuters" are often poorly paid pilots and other crew members who may live more than 1,000 miles away from the airports where they are based. At smaller regional carriers, crew members make as little as $17,000 a year but are often based at hub airports in expensive major cities. In order to make ends meet, they often live far-away in cheaper towns. The airlines, however, do not provide sleeping arrangements for commuters at the base airports before the start of trips.
The pilot of the Colgan flight, which originated in Newark, New Jersey, commuted to work from Florida, while the first officer commuted from Seattle.
Families Worry About Airline Industry Pressure
A safety bill passed by Congress last August calls for the FAA to combat pilot fatigue. The FAA has proposed increasing the rest period between pilot shifts, which is currently 8 hours, and decrease the maximum length of a pilot's workday, which is now 16 hours.
But the families of the Continental victims warned at a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday that the law "will only be as strong as the regulations that come forth from it, to be executed by the Federal Aviation Administration," and are worried that industry pressure will water down the measures.
The law does not require the FAA to address the issue of "commuting," or of sleeping arrangements for airline crews. Instead it calls for a study by the National Academy of Sciences, to be completed this summer.
"We are here today," said the families in a statement, "just four days before the two-year anniversary of when our loves changed forever, because the job is not done. The mission is not accomplished."
"Safety has a cost," said the statement, "and we have learned the hard way that it can be paid on the front end, or on the back end."