Airline Passengers Fail to Realize Some Trips Flown by Partners

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. airline passengers buy tickets from carriers such as Continental Airlines without realizing their flight may be aboard regional partners that are being scrutinized for safety practices, a safety board was told.

A document confirming a flight for Elly Kausner, who died when a regional carrier’s plane crashed near Buffalo, New York, last year, thanked her for flying Continental, her father, John, said at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing today.

The document “says nothing about Colgan Air,” the unit of Pinnacle Airlines Corp. that flew the fatal fight on behalf of Continental, John Kausner said.

Kausner was among the witnesses as the NTSB examines the business relationships between airlines and their smaller partners, and what the airlines and federal regulators are doing to ensure all types of airlines are held to safety standards.

“This myriad of relationships can be confusing to the traveling public,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said on the first day of hearings. “We need to know more, and the public needs to know more.”

Passengers may check in at an airport ticket counter run by Delta Air Lines Inc. or United Continental Holdings Inc. and see those carriers’ names painted on planes, only to realize later the flights are made by Comair or Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp., Hersman said.

Safety practices at regional carriers, which account for about half of all scheduled U.S. passenger flights, have been under scrutiny by the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress and the NTSB following the Colgan crash that killed 50 people.

Six Fatal Crashes

The carriers have been involved in the last six commercial airline accidents with fatalities on board, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, Calvin Scovel, said in testimony in June 2009.

Regional carriers and their partners must meet identical safety regulations and there “absolutely” is one level of safety in the industry, Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, a Washington trade group for the small airlines, told the NTSB.

“Safety is the No. 1 concern,” Cohen said. It would be “crummy business” for any airline to do anything to compromise safety.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, presented survey results today showing two-thirds of corporate travel managers report fliers saying safety differences exist between large airlines and smaller partners.

About eight in 10 of those fliers avoid turboprop aircraft, according to Mitchell, whose group is based in Radnor, Pennsylvania. He said he surveyed 212 travel managers, agents and other professionals from Oct. 14 through Oct. 22.

‘Much Higher Airfares’

“A majority of corporations indicate that they would be willing to pay much higher airfares in return for higher safety standards at the regional airlines,” Mitchell said in his survey findings.

Airlines should be responsible for ensuring that pilots at their regional partners meet all the same experience and training requirements of the big carrier, Kausner told the board.

The two pilots who flew the Colgan plane to Buffalo “could not have flown for Continental, they weren’t qualified,” he said at a news conference with about 25 relatives of people who died in the crash.

The NTSB said in February that Captain Marvin Renslow of Colgan caused his plane to crash by incorrectly responding to a cockpit stall warning. Everyone aboard the plane died, along with one person on the ground.

In addition to the Colgan accident, a regional jet flown by Delta’s Comair unit crashed in 2006 in Lexington, Kentucky, killing 49. The pilots erred in choosing a runway too short for a safe takeoff, the NTSB concluded.

A Corporate Airlines flight, on behalf of AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, crashed in 2004 and killed 13 people in Kirksville, Missouri, after pilots didn’t follow procedures and flew too low into trees, according to the NTSB.

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