Pilots’ Working Conditions at Regional Airlines Raise Safety Questions

May 18, 2009

Revelations last week about pilot pay and working conditions at the regional airline involved in an air crash that killed 50 in upstate New York have raised broader concerns that long-term structural changes in the aviation industry may be undermining safety.

Members of Congress said they were stunned to learn how little the pilots of Continental Connection Flight 3407 were paid, that they may have tried to get some sleep in an airport crew lounge against company policy, and that the first officer was living with her parents near Seattle and commuting cross country to work in New Jersey.

“All these things raise questions: Are they an aberration, or are FAA standards sufficient? Or are the standards not enforced?” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, chairman of the Senate’s aviation subcommittee. House and Senate hearings are planned.

Aviation industry experts said conditions at regional carriers reflect a broad restructuring of the industry that took place post-Sept. 11, when air travel dropped sharply. It took the industry years to recover and triggered a wave of major airline bankruptcies, mergers and management demands for dramatic wage and benefit concessions.

The role of regional airlines has also been transformed. Once considered industry runts alongside the powerful and glamorous major carriers, they are now joined at the hip with their big brothers so that passengers who buy a ticket on a major airline often find themselves on a regional carrier for some leg of a domestic trip. The transition is so seamless that passengers often don’t even realize they’re traveling on two airlines, rather than one.

Regional carriers account for half of all domestic departures and about a quarter of the passengers. They are also the only scheduled service to about 440 communities.

Witnesses at National Transportation Safety Board hearings this week said it’s possible that many passengers flying on Flight 3407 the night of Feb. 12 didn’t know the plane and its flight crew belonged not to Continental, but to Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Virginia.

The twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall as it neared Buffalo Niagara International Airport, plunging into a house below in a fiery crash. All 49 people aboard and a man in the house were killed. Testimony and documents indicate Captain Marvin Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw made a series of critical errors.

NTSB investigators calculated Shaw was paid just over $16,000. Colgan officials testified that captains like Renslow earn about $55,000 a year. The company later said Shaw’s salary was $23,900 and that captains earn about $67,000.

While pilot pay is usually based on the size of the aircraft, the workload and flight schedules at regional airlines are often more demanding than at a major airline, where the planes are larger, said Scott Johns, a former Northwest Airlines pilot and air crash investigator.

“Regional airline pilots do the bulk of the hard work of the airlines, feeding passengers to the more traditional routes, like the nonstops between Los Angeles and Boston or the overseas routes,” Johns said. “I’m not sure how you fix this pay system discrepancy.”

Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said lower salaries are an industrywide problem. He predicted airlines generally will suffer a shortage of pilots once the economy improves. He denied, however, that safety has been affected.

“Compensation has nothing to do with safety,” Cohen said. “We’re going to defend the quality of our people.”

William Swelbar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s airline data project noted that until the Buffalo crash, major and regional U.S. air carriers hadn’t experienced a fatal crash in more than two years.

The vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Paul Rice, said salaries vary between companies, but major airline captains typically earn about $120,000 to $125,000. He said senior captains who fly internationally can earn about $180,000.

US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who was widely credited with averting a catastrophe on Jan. 15 after a collision with a flock of Canada geese knocked out thrust in both of Flight 1549’s engines, told a House panel in February that airlines today are less able to attract “the best and the brightest.” He said his pay had been cut 40 percent.

Jeffrey Skiles, Flight 1549’s first officer, said some US Airways affiliates hire pilots with as few as 300 hours flying time.

“When I was hired, it required 3,000 hours even to be considered for an interview,” Skiles, a 30-year veteran, testified.

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