The 24-year-old old lived with her parents near Seattle, Wash., and worked at a coffee shop there on her days off. When the time came for her to fly, she commuted to work at Virginia-based Colgan Air.
As a copilot, she was paid $21 an hour, but only for flying time – not for layovers, typically in the New York area, or her cross-continent commute. She grossed $16,254 in her first year of work.
“I had gone back to visit with her, and she actually shared what she was making. ‘Well, it's … $1,000 a month, Mom,'” said her mother Lynn Morris, in an interview with a Washington news station Wednesday. She had visited her daughter during a layover.
“And I go, ‘Well, how can you [afford] a crash pad in New York?' And to answer that question, she had done her thinking. Her plan was to get a hotel room when she needed to get one.”
She could rarely afford one. To make ends meet, Ms. Shaw took naps in a staff lounge the company kept at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. She often joked that a couch in the room had her name on it, though the company insists it doesn't allow sleeping in the room.
Last February, Ms. Shaw reported for work once again. She flew red-eye from Seattle to New Jersey, stopping in Memphis, Tenn. She was tired and complaining of a cold when she boarded as the copilot of Continental Connection Flight 3407 operated by Colgan Air on Feb. 12. Hours later, the plane crashed into a Buffalo-area home, killing 50 people, including everyone aboard.
Wednesday, during the second of three days of hearings into the causes of the crash, National Transportation Safety Board officials explored the fatigue of pilot Marvin Renslow and his copilot, Ms. Shaw. They painted a worrying picture of the working conditions of pilots who commute cross-country and work around the clock for minimal pay.
“When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that the crew rooms aren't supposed to be used [for sleeping] but are being used – I think it's a recipe for an accident, and that's what we have here,” NTSB member Kitty Higgins said.
“People can't go live in these major cities, or even in the suburbs of these major cities, at $16,000 to $17,000 a year,” added Paul Rice, vice-president of America's Air Line Pilots Association.
Ms. Morris agreed the conditions were less than ideal, but said her daughter did the job to accumulate flight hours and work her way up to a coveted and highly paid job as a national airline captain.
“My original thought is it's a wonderful opportunity to progress your career,” Ms. Morris said Wednesday.
Ms. Morris said the hearings, which have questioned the conduct of her daughter and Mr. Renslow, are making “scapegoats” of the pair. Mr. Renslow commuted from his home in Florida to work. There were suggestions he hadn't slept before the night of Flight 3407, the worst air crash in the United States in seven years.
Mary Finnegan, Colgan's vice-president of administration, said the company permits pilots to live anywhere in the country. NTSB investigators said 93 of the 137 Colgan pilots who worked out of Newark at the time of the accident were commuting from far away.
“It is their responsibility to commute in and be fit for duty,” Ms. Finnegan said.
Daniel Morgan, Colgan's vice-president for flight safety, said the airline industry has a long history of flight crews commuting long distances to report for work.
“It's not an ideal way to work, but neither is working overnight in the post office.”
Among those attending the hearings was Captain Barry Wiszniowski of the Air Canada Pilots Association. He said Canadian pilots don't typically commute as far as American ones, but added that everyone can learn from the case.
“The lessons from this tragic event, from Colgan Air Flight 3407, they are lessons the entire aviation industry can learn from,” Mr. Wiszniowski said.
One Canadian industry veteran said small airlines pay their young pilots very little because they know the pilots need experience.
“They know they can afford to treat the people like crap, because if the people quit there are people standing in line to take their job,” said the source. “I feel sorry for her, and her parents. She couldn't afford to come a day early, stay somewhere and do the trip well-rested.”
Capt. Wiszniowski of the ACPA agreed that young pilots tend to be tasked with the least desirable of routes and aircraft.
“In Canada, the way it works is the least experienced pilot is probably put in some of the harshest environments with the least-equipped airplanes,” he said, adding the union is pushing for new rules limiting the number of hours pilots can be made to work consecutively. The limit is currently 14 hours.
“Ultimately the pilot has the final word on safety, and if we can learn from this event, it helps us do our job better.”
A cockpit voice recorder transcript shows Mr. Renslow and Ms. Shaw engaging in chitchat about careers and her lack of experience flying in icy conditions during the plane's final minutes, even after they had noticed a buildup of ice on the windshield and wings.
Colgan officials acknowledged in response to board members' questions Tuesday that Mr. Renslow and Ms. Shaw weren't paying close attention to the plane's instruments and were surprised by a stall warning. Nor did they follow the airline's procedures for responding to a stall.
Thursday is the hearing's final day.
With a report from The Associated Press