Working conditions may have contributed to Colgan air crash

When one thinks of commercial airline pilots, one doesn’t ordinarily think of working part-time at a coffee shop, living with mom and dad, sleeping on crew lounge couches, and making $16,000 per year. But at that rate of pay, what other options are there?

That was the life of Rebecca Shaw, first officer of Continental Connection flight 3407, which crashed after stalling in skies above Buffalo, New York.

Tuesday we wrote that the National Transportation Safety Board was focusing its investigations on how much training and experience Captain Marvin Renslow had and whether he was competent enough to pull the airplane out of a stall that he likely caused by allowing the plane to fly at a dangerously slow speed.

Now, in light of the pilots’ working conditions, it seems that their level of training was a formula for disaster. That Colgan Air escaped similar catastrophes before February 12 is a remarkable accomplishment.

Paying pilots $16,000 per year and knowing that they were also commuting across the country to their job, as Shaw did, constituted what the NTSB called “winking and nodding” at safety policies.

Shaw left her parents’ home in Seattle the night before she was scheduled to fly 3407 from Newark to Buffalo. She flew to Memphis on a FedEx airplane and then hopped aboard another FedEx plane for her flight to Newark. According to a report in the New York Times, Shaw told the pilot of one of the FedEx flights that there was “a couch with my name on it” at the Colgan Air pilots lounge in Newark.

Anyone reading this can appreciate Shaw’s work ethic. Who hasn’t graduated college and entered the workforce with youthful ambition, eager to work and succeed? There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with doing your time in an entry-level position, earning a salary that holds you at or just below the poverty level. But when people put their lives in the hands of a company by boarding an airplane, they expect qualified, experienced pilots. At the very least they would expect fairly paid, well rested pilots.

But the fact is Colgan Air’s commuter flights were a mill for cheap pilot labor. It’s unfortunate that Renslow wasn’t better trained to handle a stall. And it’s unfortunate that Shaw didn’t know, presumably, what to do in a stall situation either. It’s unfortunate that both pilots weren’t paired as first mates with more experienced, knowledgeable pilots and required to test in simulators the dangrous flight situations that real life experience lacked.

Colgan Air’s vice president for administration, Mary Finnigan, acknowledged the low pay its pilots receive (Can any of its pilots earning $16,000 per year live in the Newark area without living in a government housing project?) and the high turnover, telling the New York Times that the company looked at it as “a stepping stone.”

So the next time you must commute by air, you may want to step over the Colgan Air option until that company addresses the problems that likely contributed to the crash of 3407.