Regional Airlines: The FAA Calls a Summit

Spurred by troubling revelations from the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, N.Y., federal regulators are planning a "call to action" meeting to discuss reforms aimed at fixing safety gaps in the industry's training and operations. The so-called summit on June 15, coordinated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Transportation Dept., is the first significant public response from Washington to address the shortcomings exposed by the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Express (CAL) Flight 3407 from Newark, which killed 50 people, including one man on the ground.

On June 8, the newly confirmed FAA administrator, Randy Babbitt, a former consultant and Eastern Airlines pilot, called for immediate inspections of pilot-training programs at smaller airlines.

Among the Colgan flaws cited by crash investigators—and seized on by some in Congress as evidence of safety laxity: The captain, Marvin Renslow, had failed multiple check flights before the crash, while First Officer Rebecca Shaw—who was paid less than $24,000 a year—had spent the night before the crash commuting to Newark from her home in Seattle on a red-eye flight. Shaw also told the captain she had not encountered icing conditions in her flight experience, according to the cockpit voice recorder, as the plane flew through icing conditions.

Since the crash, Virginia-based Colgan says it has reviewed its safety procedures, boosted the amount of flight experience its pilots must have, and is working to track crew fatigue. Colgan has not lost any of its contract work from airlines as a result of the crash, said Joe Williams, a spokesman for Colgan's parent, Pinnacle Airlines (PNCL). "After an accident, you look at yourself inside and out," Colgan President Buddy Casey said on June 12.

a database of pilot work records

In response to the concerns, the Regional Airline Assn.— whose members now fly roughly half of domestic passenger traffic—is advocating for an integrated database of pilot work records, extending the period of background checks on flight crews from five to 10 years, and randomly auditing cockpit voice recorders as a way to ensure that crews are observing federal rules for "sterile" cockpit environments at non-cruise altitudes. In the Colgan incident, many people were surprised to hear the crew's mundane chatter with each other as they flew through poor weather on approach.

There is also likely to be renewed discussion about the effects commuting has on flight crews, some of whom travel cross-country between their homes and airports where they are based. Commuting is particularly common at smaller airlines because pay is far lower relative to the major carriers, and flight crews often can't afford the higher living costs in metro areas where they may be based, such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It wasn't clear in the Colgan case, for example, that either Renslow or Shaw had lodging near their base. Shaw, for example, told the crew on her overnight FedEx flight that she had "a couch with my name on it" for catching a nap at the Newark airport before her scheduled flight.

Pilots, who wield sizeable influence in the industry, oppose having their cockpit conversations monitored, says Captain Paul Rice, first vice-president of the Air Line Pilots Assn., the nation's largest pilots' union. He cites pilots' privacy concerns about "having every moment of your working day recorded" and reviewed by employers or the government. "There are other, better ways to ensure that the cockpit is being run in a professional manner," Rice says.

There is also worry among pilots about new rules overseeing their work commutes, since many pilots choose where to live based on quality-of-life issues and personal interests and consider their ability to commute one of the few remaining perks in a profession where those have eroded in recent years. The US Airways (LCC) captain who ditched his plane safely in the Hudson River, Chesley Sullenberger, for example, lives 35 miles east of San Francisco but is based in Charlotte.

four fatal crashes in five years

The regional airline group plans to start its own fatigue-awareness management program, commission an independent study on fatigue, and form its own safety board. "This has been a difficult time for the industry, because the story of our safety culture has not gotten out, and that has been frustrating for our members and for me personally," says President Roger Cohen.

Although both the major carriers and regional airlines have been held to the same safety standards since 1997, regional airlines have had four fatal plane crashes in the past five years, giving smaller carriers a higher accident rate than the majors, according to a recent The Wall Street Journal article. That has prompted the FAA to question what accounts for the higher rate. "We have to ask: Are the standards adequate? Is there a disparity between the resources major airlines can devote, vs. the regional airlines, that go above and beyond those standards?" FAA spokesman Les Dorr asks.

Still, with airlines facing a severe global recession that has weakened travel demand—and the specter of high fuel prices returning this year—it's fair to wonder how deep any new regulations will be for an industry operating on such shaky economic footing. Since new regulations have not been formally proposed, it's unclear how much they might cost the airlines. The industry now spends about $1 billion a year on safety compliance, according to Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Jesup & Lamont Securities (JLI). "They're working with very slim margins," Becker says. "The industry doesn't make a lot of money, and they're worried about what they might have to do to comply."

Cohen believes expense is not a big concern for the airlines when it comes to safety and says the idea that cost and safety are at odds is a misconception. "I've been sitting in airline meetings since 1972, and I've seen cost decisions come into the equation on everything from whether to put an extra olive in the salad to what time to serve the salad," Cohen said. "But never once in 37 years have I seen a safety decision based on cost."

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