By Allan Chernoff – CNN Sr. Correspondent
– Regional airline challenging FAA proposed fines
– FAA to monitor training programs
Gulfstream International Airlines' chief executive is denying allegations from current and former employees that the regional carrier has repeatedly violated safety rules in an effort to save money.
"Safety is our top priority," said David Hackett, President and Chief Executive Officer of Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream, which operates Continental Connection flights in Florida and the Bahamas.
Former and current Gulfstream employees have alleged to CNN that the airline has allowed maintenance issues to fester rather than properly repairing aircraft, and that pilots have been pressured to fly beyond Federal Aviation Administration limits designed to prevent pilot fatigue.
"There's nothing that would be acceptable about pressuring a pilot to fly an airplane he felt unsafe about," Hackett told CNN.
The FAA has proposed a $1.3 million fine against Gulfstream for alleged maintenance and scheduling violations, a move that Gulfstream is challenging. The FAA cited Gulfstream for repeatedly scheduling pilots and flight dispatchers to work past mandated limits. Gulfstream concedes there were discrepancies between pilot logbooks and the company's computer system that tracks hours, but only one actual duty time violation of a pilot accidentally being scheduled to work eight days in a row.
Former Gulfstream schedulers and pilots, however claimed to CNN, that dispatchers were pressured to 'shave pilot hours' from prior flights so pilot flight schedules would not exceed FAA limits, such as 8-hours within a 24-hour period.
"We absolutely deny there was pilot hour shaving," said Hackett. "When this issue first came up we pulled hundreds and hundreds of records to see if this was possible and we found no, absolutely no discrepancies other than a few clerical errors which had nothing to do with making a pilot legal when he otherwise would have been illegal."
Gulfstream says flight dispatchers did sometimes work longer than 10-hour days, for instance to deal with flight delays, but they were not scheduled for such hours, which the company says would not violate FAA rules.
FAA spokesperson Laura Brown said, "This will be resolved by their attorneys and our attorneys as part of a government enforcement case."
Gulfstream's Training Academy, which trains First Officers (co-pilots), has come under scrutiny as well because the pilot of the Colgan Air plane that crashed near Buffalo in February killing 50 people attended the Academy and flew for Gulfstream International Airline.
Students who have earned an FAA multi-engine commercial certificate enroll in the three-month, $30,000 program. Immediately afterwards, with as little as 250-hours of flight time experience, they serve as First Officers on Gulfstream International Airlines commercial flights to earn another 250-hours of flight time. Veteran pilots say major airlines typically require new First Officers to have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours.
"I just don't know how they justify it. When I get on an airplane I expect a fully qualified crew," said Captain Pat Moore, a long-time commercial pilot.
"It's not the quantity of time, it's the quality of training," counters James Bystrom, Gulfstream Academy Director. "What we provide is a first-quality training."
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Tuesday they are ordering FAA inspectors to ensure regional airline training programs are complying with federal regulations.
"I have no greater obligation than to ensure the safety of airline travelers in this country," said Secretary LaHood.
In announcing heightened oversight of airline training programs, the Department of Transportation and FAA did not refer to any specific airline, other than citing the Buffalo tragedy.
Newly graduated Gulfstream Academy students earn $8 an hour as probationary First Officers, 79-cents above Florida's minimum wage. If they are hired on as permanent pilots their pay jumps to $20 an hour, which comes out to annual earnings of about $20,000.
"It's a career path and this is the first step on their career," said Hackett.