Sunday, May 17, 2009

How safe are regional airlines?

WASHINGTON — Last week was a bad one for Colgan Air and the late crew of Flight 3407 — but it might just be the first of many for the regional airline industry.

Flying turboprops and small jets, regional airlines now run nearly half of the nation’s commercial flights. But those airlines, whose names remain unknown to much of the flying public, have been responsible for all of the nation’s multiple-fatality commercial plane crashes since 2002.

A total of 164 people have died in those crashes as flagship airlines increasingly outsourced their less-profitable routes to smaller carriers that don the logos of the major airlines while paying their air crews far less.

At big airlines, for example, pilots usually earn in the six figures, while Colgan said its pay averages about $67,000 a year for pilots and $24,000 for co-pilots— nearly $20,000 less than received by bus drivers for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

But now the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 — the Colgan plane that plummeted into a house Feb. 12 in Clarence Center, killing 50 people — is sparking a debate in Washington over whether those huge savings come at the cost of safety.

Last week’s National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the crash prompted bipartisan outrage, and Congress plans to follow up with hearings on the regional airlines and how the Federal Aviation Administration regulates them.

“The disclosures about crew rest, compensation, training and many other issues demonstrate the urgent need for Congress and the FAA to take actions to make certain the same standards exist for both commuter airlines and the major carriers,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Senate Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., cited damning evidence from Flight 3407’s cockpit voice recorder, which revealed a distracted crew that didn’t know how to react once the plane started to stall.

“When you read the transcripts from the last minutes, it’s appalling,” he said. “I hope we dig deep there — training, the condition of the equipment. I just think there are a lot of questions. We owe it to these families who have been so profoundly affected.”

Of course, bipartisan outrage is nothing new on Capitol Hill, and the passion of lawmakers often fades as a story recedes from the front pages and as lobbyists from powerful interests come calling to say that, really, everything is just fine the way it is.

Families who lost loved ones on Flight 3407 say they won’t let that happen.

“When this investigation is over, we’d want to see a recommendation that the FAA needs [better oversight] over small commuter airlines,” said Kevin Kuwik, whose girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, was killed in the crash.

The timing might be right for getting the FAA to act.

The Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Tuesday for Randy Babbitt, President Obama’s nominee to head the agency that both regulates and promotes the commercial aviation industry.

Babbitt, who led the Air Line Pilots Association in the 1990s, is expected to be far less deferential than his predecessors to the airlines.

“Looking at this, obviously the FAA is asleep at the switch,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N. Y.

Study of training pushed

Obsessed with budgetary issues, the agency cut back on its oversight of regional airlines while they were growing. Schumer said he expects Babbitt to pay closer attention to how the regional airlines operate.

“It seems from these hearings, too many crew members are overworked and underpaid without any regard for their consequences,” Schumer added.

While senators grill Babbitt, the House this week will put the final touches on its version of a bill reauthorizing the FAA for the next four years. It likely will include an amendment mandating a Government Accountability Act study of all commercial airline pilot training and certification programs.

“The disparity in training between the small regional carriers and the larger carriers definitely needs to be reexamined,” said Rep. Chris Lee, RClarence, who introduced the amendment with Democratic Reps. Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport and Brian Higgins of Buffalo.

If the crew of Flight 3407 had been trained in recovering from stalls, “this thing could have been avoided,” Lee added.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N. Y., said she hopes to get tougher safety regulations included when the Senate takes up the FAA reauthorization bill later this year.

“There were systematic risks and systematic failures” that led up to the Clarence crash, said Gillibrand, who wrote to the safety board’s acting chairman last week to urge the board “not to turn the pilots of Flight 3407 into scapegoats.”

Broader failures tied to the crash are likely to be spelled out this summer as the House and Senate aviation subcommittees hold hearings on the safety of regional airlines.

Those hearings are likely to explore the salary and training issues that the safety board examined—plus a host of other questions, such as what some see as the deception and greed at the very root of the relationship between the major carriers and the regionals.

Mike Loftus, a former Continental pilot whose daughter, Madeline, died on Flight 3407, left last week’s hearings enraged about that relationship.

“She didn’t buy a Colgan ticket,” Loftus noted. “She bought a Continental ticket.”

The tickets and the planes for many flights still say Continental, Delta or US Airways, even if the flights are operated by Colgan, Comair or Chautauqua Airlines, whose names are spelled out only in smaller print on planes and on travel Web sites such as Expedia.

Loftus said Continental outsourced its regional flights to save money and, therefore, bears responsibility for the crash.

“Continental’s greed is to blame,” Loftus said.

Safety board members, meanwhile, fretted that safety standards on the cheap-labor regional airlines might not match those of the major carriers.

“This is the central issue in this case: Do we have one level of safety?” said Kitty Higgins, a board member.

After the accident, Colgan made several changes in its operations, including improvements in pilot training, and a representative for Continental said the airline feels confident that Colgan and its other subcontractors meet its safety standards.

“We expect our partners to adhere to the highest level of operational safety,” said Julie King, a spokeswoman for Continental.

That’s just what regional carriers do, said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association.

Asked about the fact that all recent major airline disasters have involved regional airlines, Cohen noted that two of the last seven years had no crashes at all.

“And if you go back 10 years, the numbers get reversed,” with the major airlines recording far more accidents, Cohen said.

But that was before the regional industry grew.

Cohen also defended the lower salaries of regional carriers, citing highly paid Wall Street executives as proof that quantity of pay does not necessarily buy quality of performance.

While defending the industry, Cohen also said, after the Clarence crash, “I think we are going to work with the FAA and Congress to be sure air travel is as safe as it can be.”

Such promises alone are not likely to placate lawmakers like Rep. John A. Boccieri, an Ohio Democrat who last week wrote a letter to George A. “Buddy” Casey, Colgan’s president, saying, “It is becoming clear that the 50 deaths that occurred that night in February were not only tragic, but likely avoidable.”

Hearings stun congressman

Boccieri, an Air Force Reserve pilot with 13 years of experience, was aghast at what the safety board hearings revealed.

“I think it’s time that we put our foot down for minimum training requirements” for regional airline pilots, said Boccieri, a St. Bonaventure University graduate. “This airline was not requiring pilots to learn how to recover from a stall — and that’s one of the basic flight maneuvers.”

Boccieri, who remains in the Air Force Reserve, said several of his colleagues endure low pay and tough schedules in their regular jobs as regional airline pilots.

“The committee I serve on has to seriously address what’s happening to commercial aviation in this country,” Boccieri said of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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