(NaturalNews) Whistleblower pilots flying for United / Continental airlines warn that they are being "worked until we drop," forced to pilot consecutive long-distance flights with as little as three hours' sleep. In a series of secret meetings with NaturalNews, three United / Continental pilots described the "utter hell" they are being put through:
"We are being worked until we drop," one pilot to me in a recent face-to-face meeting in Texas. "United-Continental is flying us in violation of FAA legal requirements. Pilot fatigue is at red alert levels. This is an accident waiting to happen."
The FAA requires pilots to have at least 8 hours of rest in any given 24-hour period. From the FAA's website:
...a pilot is not allowed to accept, nor is an airline allowed to assign, a flight if the pilot has not has at least eight continuous hours of rest during the 24-hour period. In other words, the pilot needs to be able to look back in any preceding 24-hour period and find that he/she has had an opportunity for at least eight hours of rest. If a pilot's actual rest is less than nine hours in the 24-hour period, the next rest period must be lengthened to provide for the appropriate compensatory rest.
But NaturalNews was told that United-Continental is operating in blatant violation of this rule. One pilot explained to me, in detail:
"The airline often schedules us with only nine hours of time from arrival of one flight to the departure of the next. They claim this is supposed to give us nine hours of rest, but on a recent turnaround in [city withheld for privacy], our flight had more handicapped customers than was recorded in the manifest, and we had to wait for more wheelchairs to arrive, which took an extra 45 minutes. Then we were over an hour on transportation to the hotel, and another hour for check-in and getting to the room. I had exactly 2 hours and 49 minutes of sleep before I was required to get up, shower, dress, check out, get back on the transportation van, get through the airport, and back on the flight deck for preflight. I then flew a long-duration trans-continental flight, managed to catch six hours of sleep after that, and was piloting yet another flight."
The cost of pilot fatigue: Injury, death and lost planes
The cost of pilot fatigue can be catastrophic. Earlier this year, an Air Canada pilot awoke from an in-flight nap disoriented. He thought the planet Venus (which can appear as a bright "star" on the horizon) was an approaching plane, so he nose-dived the airliner to avoid what he thought was a potential collision.
Jon Lee, chief investigator, said the incident shows the problems airline crews face when dealing with being sleepy. He said: 'This occurrence underscores the challenge of managing fatigue on the flight deck.'
Pilots have even died from fatigue, even while piloting flights carrying hundreds of passengers.
Did pilot fatigue kill Continental pilot Craig Lenell?
"One of our own had a heart attack and died a few weeks ago, in-flight," the United-Continental pilots told me. The story checks out. The pilot's name was Craig Lenell. He was described as being in "perfect health" and was piloting a Boeing 777 from Brussels to Newark. As Fox News reports:
Lenell died of a suspected heart attack midway through Continental Airlines Flight 61 on Thursday. Two co-pilots took over the controls. Passengers didn't know anything was wrong until they landed and were met by fire trucks, emergency vehicles and dozens of clamoring reporters. (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,527465,0...)
"If something doesn't change soon, you're going to see more pilots dying in-flight," I was told. "Or worse, you're going to see a fatal mistake, and 150-plus customers could be falling out of the sky."
Pilot fatigue is even more critical when flying into difficult airports. Many airports served by United and Continental are surrounded by volcanoes and mountains. Localized weather patterns and storm cells make navigation very complex, even for experienced pilots. "The way we're being flown with these lapses in sleep, it's only a matter of time before we lose a flight," one of the pilots told me. "[United / Continental] is rolling the dice with the lives of its customers."
Pilot fatigue being pushed to its limits by airline company management
United-Continental is currently in a back-wages battle with its pilots. I was told that pilots have had their pensions stolen by the company. They're owed back-wages dating back several years, the pilots told me, and the company is refusing to pay. As a result, pilots are staging a "work slowdown" that has caused the airline's on-time flight record to plummet in recent months.
"Retired Continental Airline pilots alleged that Continental had breached the retirees' pension plan by improperly calculating their salaries when determining their pension benefits," reports Corporate Financial Weekly Digest (http://www.corporatefinancialweeklydigest.co...). "The retirees received an adverse ruling from the System Board, and, as they were expressly permitted to do both by the CBA and the System Board's decision, commenced an action in federal court under ERISA challenging the ruling. The federal district court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.."
The pilots got screwed, in other words. Their pensions have been raided, looted by the usual suspects. This, on top of the insane sleep schedules being forced upon the pilots, is a recipe for disaster.
Bottom line? Don't fly United / Continental until the pilots get paid and well-rested
Personally, I won't fly United-Continental until I get word that their pilots are having their pensions restored and sleep requirements honored. To get on an airplane piloted by a sleepy-headed, angry pilot being screwed over by the company he works for is not my idea of a safe flight experience.
Although pilots are among the most psychologically balanced people in any profession (they undergo routine psych evaluations and physical exams), even they have a breaking point. What the airline is doing to these pilots amounts to a type of work torture. Sleep deprivation, after all, is a commonly-practiced torture technique. While not all the pilots are sleep-deprived on all flights, getting on one of these airplanes right now is a bit of a "Russian roulette" game in that you have no idea which pilot is awake and alert versus which pilot is suffering from dangerous sleep deprivation.
Steer clear of United-Continental until further notice.
And to the management of United-Continental, remember this: The pilots make or break an airline. If you piss off the pilots, they will drive your company into the dirt. If you keep the pilots happy, they will deliver a remarkable record of on-time flights, efficient turnarounds and happy experiences for customers. And as a bonus, they won't accidentally fly your precious hardware into a mountain or scatter passengers across a field somewhere, which is always a messy scene with lots of TV news coverage.
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