Officers of Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream International Airlines are preparing their response to a $1.3 million fine by federal overseers, who claim the company improperly scheduled flight crews and violated other aviation rules.
The regional air carrier, operating flights within Florida and to the Bahamas, was hit with the fine last month by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA investigation into Gulfstream’s records began last summer, after a fired pilot complained about flight scheduling and aircraft maintenance.
In response to the FAA findings, Gulfstream President and CEO David Hackett said that in a couple of “extremely isolated instances,” records show scheduling discrepancies that were the result of “human error.”
“In no case, did anyone here do anything wrong on purpose,” Hackett said. Occasionally, “scheduling [pilots] may extend out because of a storm or something.”
In the agency’s review of Gulfstream records, inspectors found discrepancies between company’s electronic record-keeping system and aircraft logbooks for hours worked by crew from October 2007 to June 2008.
In some cases, the electronic record-keeping and aircraft logbooks did not agree, but the FAA maintains that both showed First Officer Nicholas Paria was to work more than 35 hours between Dec. 4 and Dec. 10, 2007.
In another case, First Officer Steve Buck was scheduled to fly 11 days without a day’s rest between June 4 and June 14, 2008, the FAA said.
FAA regulations prohibit pilots from flying more than 34 hours in any seven consecutive days. Pilots also must have at least 24 consecutive hours of rest between a scheduled block of seven consecutive work days.
Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said the agency has no evidence the airline deliberately made record-keeping errors. But the errors make it impossible to prove Gulfstream pilots followed FAA work rules, she said. In its May investigation report, the agency noted a total of six pilots whose rest times had been violated, and hundreds of discrepancies in flight-time records from a June 2008 inspection.
Regional airlines have to balance the cost of fueling and maintaining aircraft but with fewer seats filled by paying passengers than major airlines, said Robert Gandt, a former Delta and Pan Am pilot and the author of several books on aviation.
Gulfstream’s Hackett acknowledged that regional airlines, including his own, look for ways to trim costs. But those tough business decisions do not compromise safety, he said.
“The company is better and safer than it has been in the history of the airline,” Hackett said.
Gulfstream has more than 150 scheduled nonstop flights daily, most in Florida. The airline also partners with Continental Airlines to offer routes between Cleveland and six neighboring airports.
Hackett said most of Gulfstream’s 150 pilots live near their work, so the airline doesn’t face the fatigue-related problems of regional carriers with a work force of commuters.
Former Gulfstream pilot Kenny Edwards says he was fired in December 2007 for refusing to fly a Gulfstream aircraft he considered unsafe. He filed a whistleblower complaint that prompted the FAA’s review of the airline’s flight records and maintenance procedures.
Edwards said he and his colleagues were often “ordered” to work beyond FAA rules so the company could complete scheduled flights.
“They ordered me to go over 16 hours of duty time because they had no one else to fly to Key West,” Edwards said. He said he refused the flight.
The FAA requires pilots to have at least eight continuous hours of rest in a 24-hour period. Other pilots have felt pressured to make similar flights even though the pilots would exceed their hours, he said.
“Some of those guys flying are young, and they’re scared and intimidated,” he said.
Aviation experts say commuter airlines often hire young, inexperienced pilots who go deeply into debt to become pilots and are willing to work for low hourly wages in hopes of gaining enough experience to be hired by large commercial carriers.
Pilots beginning their careers at some regional airlines make as little as $21 per hour, while their counterparts at major carriers earn more than double that rate, according to airlinepilotcentral.com, which tracks the industry’s pilot pay scales.
Poor pay, coupled with aspirations to work for major carriers, can compel inexperienced pilots to fly as much as they can, said Robert Breiling, a Boca Raton-based airline accident analyst. In many cases, commuter pilots will become flight instructors to get more experience, even though they often have little more flight time than their students, he said.
Breiling said he considers regional airlines less safe than major air carriers.
He offers passengers of commuter lines the same advice he gives his children about flying on them: “If the weather is bad or if it’s a little dark out, go get a hotel room, because it’s not worth it.”