Thursday, March 3, 2011

Crashing in Queens

By David Harvey

With their proximity and easy access to John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia Airport, Ozone Park and Kew Gardens have become home to several crash pads—apartments where commuting pilots and aviation personnel rest between flights. With the federal government debating the FAA Reauthorization Bill and the second anniversary of a Buffalo plane crash, these crash pads have garnered some heated attention.

While the Federal Administration of Aviation Reauthorization Bill was under debate in the Senate at the beginning or February, ABC News ran series of reports on pilot fatigue. The reports included footage of pilots sleeping in a JFK lounge, of an apartment filled with bunks and of one pilot who said he has fallen asleep in the cockpit.

The ABC reports aired on the days before and after the second anniversary of the crash of Flight 3407 in Buffalo, which killed all 49 people onboard and one person on the ground when it crashed on February 12, 2009.

Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot in another famous New York crash told ABC that he would have never been able to safely—and famously—land on the Hudson River if he had been under-rested.

The ABC report linked the necessity of crash pads to low wages and long hours for pilots stationed at airports far from their homes, but not everyone thinks crash pads are dangerous, or contribute to fatigue.

Flight attendant Denise Grant has slept in crash pads near JFK for the last 16 years and managed one in Kew Gardens for the past three. She said “hot beds”—shared bunks—are a way of life for many in the airline industry, and that most attendants and pilots have lived in bad crash pads—loud, crowded and dirty apartments.

The home Grant runs is clean and quiet and everyone has his or her own bed, she said. “When the owner decided they didn’t want to maintain the house anymore I knew that I didn’t want to give it up, so I offered to run it,” she said.

She said that crash pads—even those with up to 12 tenants—are important for pilots and flight attendants who commute—living in one state and stationed in another.

“We’re here maybe six or seven days a month, sometimes the house is almost empty,” Grant said. “If we had to pay for a hotel—you can’t get a hotel near the airport for less than $250 a night in New York, and even then they’re probably all full.”

Her apartment is listed on a website hosting crash pads listings: It’s a three bedroom with six or more roommates; there is cable, Internet and a full kitchen. According to the listing, all a flight crewmember would need is twin sheets and a towel. The monthly rent is $240.

When asked about the possibility of new regulations restricting the use of crash pads near JFK, Grant hesitated before saying, “I’m not sure I understand; why would anyone want to do that?”
The legislation passed by Congress this month calls on the FAA to issue new regulations dealing with pilot fatigue. While the bill calls on measures that limit flight and duty time, the recent ABC News reports reflect similar stories in the past, which have led city officials to shut down crash pads.

In 2007, a Chicago Tribune reporter followed an anonymous tip from a resident and broke the story of several crash pads near Midway Airport. In response, city officials inspected more than 40 apartments, and issued 31 fines—some as high as $1,000 a day. The online response from pilots and flight attendants was indignant, rather than relieved.

According to a New York City Building Department spokesperson, any residential building must have 80-square feet of space per person and is allowed to house three non-related residents and an owner.

City Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) spokesperson Eric Bederman said he was not aware of any complaints about crash pads, but added that the complaint would likely have to come from a tenant to reach the HPD.

According to a report released on February 23 by the International Air Transport Association, 2010 was the safest year on record for aviation. The rate of airline accidents is at an all time low.

Meanwhile, data released by the FAA showed an 81 percent increase in air-traffic control errors reported in 2010 than in 2007—up to 1,887, from 1,040. The data included an increase in errors most likely to cause an accident, though only 43 of those incidents were reported.

According to the FAA, which has been creating a more efficient error-reporting system over the last three years, the high rates don’t mean more errors, but rather better accountability. The high percentage of reported errors reflects a higher degree of safety awareness, said an FAA spokesperson.

The reauthorization bill passed 87-8 in the Senate, and is awaiting a full vote in the House of Representatives. The Senate bill would provide $34.5 billion to the FAA over the next two years, including funding for a new air-traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport.

The Senate and the FAA had disagreed on provisions of the FAA Reauthorization Bill that called for drastically extending the hours pilots are required to fly on training flights. A lack of training was blamed for the crash of Flight 3407. The bill also hopes to tackle work hours, increasing the minimum hours of required rest between flights from eight to nine hours. But the attention on crash pads has been called counterproductive.

“Bringing [crash pads] to the attention of the flying public will not make the airlines pay higher salaries,” said one pilot who asked to remain anonymous. “Crash pads are a result of many pilots’ choice to commute. I'm really not concerned as much about people bunking two deep, my concern is people coming to work unfit to fly, and then blaming airlines for ‘making’ them commute because of low pay. Fact is, many would commute regardless of pay.”

While the FAA Reauthorization Bill covered safety improvements, accountability and consumer rights, there were also several quality-of-life additions.

United States Senator Charles Schumer’s amendment to the bill called on new regulations to measure helicopter noise in New York State, particularly over residential areas where, presumably, people might be trying to rest.

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