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Punitive Attendance Policies at Regional Air Carriers

(Washington, D.C.) – A Congressional hearing was held yesterday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation to receive testimony regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Call to Action” on airline safety and pilot training. A primary issue of concern at the hearing was pilot fatigue, an issue with which the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Airline Division (IBT) also has expressed concern. 

The Regional Airline Association (RAA) testified that none of the regional airlines comprising the RAA have a punitive sick or fatigue policy. The first-hand experience of IBT Local 747, the union representing the Republic Airways flight crewmembers, reveals otherwise.

One of the largest member airlines in the RAA – Republic Airways – comprising Chautauqua Airlines, Republic Airlines, Shuttle America, and now Midwest Airlines – has an attendance policy that strikes fear in the employees who fly for these airlines. In practice, it is a punitive policy. Republic has an attendance policy that ignores mitigating factors as to why a pilot would notify his or her employer of fatigue. When calling in sick, a Republic pilot is considered “unavailable” regardless of the reason for being unable to fly and the absentee policy dictates the employee is automatically charged with an “occurrence”. It does not matter whether the pilot is sick with a doctor’s note, has a bona fide family emergency, or is calling in fatigued. But here­’s the rub … if you tell your employer you are fatigued, the employer can then make an ad hoc determination of how many occurrences to charge you and eight occurrences will likely result in termination.

Data compiled by Teamsters Local 747 demonstrates that application of this policy at Republic led to about 49 attendance disciplinary letters in 2007, about 176 attendance disciplinary letters in 2008, and about 104 attendance disciplinary letters as of the first quarter in 2009. By April 2009, following two National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations and repeated pleas by the Union to amend its fatigue and attendance policies, the carriers under Republic stopped sending copies of these disciplinary letters to the Local Union.  The Union now only discovers the existence of these letters, following complaints lodged by crewmembers.  Republic is currently averaging more than three attendance disciplinary letters a day among the 2,000 pilots they employ.

Pilots are required by regulation to determine that they themselves and the aircraft are “fit to fly”.  No one would consider firing a pilot for finding eight pre-flight discrepancies during a one year period, yet flight crewmembers are often reprimanded when an honest self-assessment is not a positive one.

Title 14 CFR 61.53 and 63.19 preclude required flight crewmembers from flight duty while they have a known medical or physical deficiency. Although the regulations do not specifically cite fatigue, the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual discusses fatigue as a factor that pilots should evaluate as part of determining their fitness for flight. 

An inhuman approach to a uniquely human problem has permitted a number of carriers to place this sort of punitive attendance policy on autopilot. It is ironic that a policy implemented under the guise of reducing absenteeism resulted in a geometric increase in disciplinary attendance letters over time. Undeterred by such facts, some air carriers continue to implement these policies even though they have a chilling effect upon a flight crewmember’s regulatory responsibility for self-assessment. But don’t take our word for it.

The NTSB issued a report last year on an incident involving a Republic carrier that was doing business as a major carrier. Contributing factors to that incident were (1) the Captain’s fatigue, and (2) the carrier’s failure to administer an attendance policy that permitted flight crewmembers to call in fatigued without fear of reprisals. The report said:

The Safety Board … concludes that Shuttle America’s failure to administer its attendance policy as written might have discouraged some of the company’s pilots, including the accident captain, from calling in when they were sick or fatigued because of concerns about the possibility of termination.

NTSB Aviation Accident Report, Runway Overrun During Landing, Shuttle America, Inc., Doing Business as Delta Connection Flight 6448, Embraer ERJ-170, N862RW, Cleveland, Ohio, February 18, 2007, AAR-08/01, PB2008-910401, April 15, 2008.

Last year, fatigue management experts reported 80 percent of regional airline pilots surveyed said they had nodded off in-flight and that scheduling factors such as multiple take-offs and landings were top contributors to operational fatigue. It seems that Republic’s fatigue policy is in essence a reliability policy; and rather than properly staff the airline with sufficient pilots to cover normal and irregular operations they administer an attendance policy based upon fear and intimidation. As the aviation infrastructure shifts towards regional airlines, we need to seriously consider how these carriers operate and we must have an honest dialogue about the degree of oversight the FAA needs to exercise over these carriers. Essential to that conversation, however, is basic honesty if maintaining safety truly is the highest priority. That honesty, unfortunately, is lacking from the Regional Airline Association when it comes to discussing the issue of pilot fatigue.

The IBT Airline Division in conjunction with Local 1224 worked with the FAA’s Advisory Rulemaking Committee and the House Aviation Subcommittee to improve safety regulations.  Through this participation they have been instrumental in making strides to protect the safety of the flying public, as well as the working conditions for its members.  Local 747, representing the flight crewmembers of Republic Airways, is concerned that the RAA’s testimony made at yesterday’s Congressional Hearings is in direct conflict with the punitive attendance practices of Republic Holdings’ carriers.

 

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