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WSJ article on Airline safety

Old 12-04-2009, 07:43 AM
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Commuter Airlines: Questions of Safety - WSJ.com


Pilots who apply for cockpit jobs at United and other major airlines typically must have 5,000 to 7,000 hours of flying time. Smaller JetBlue Airways requires at least 4,000.
Charlie Preusser had 383. Nonetheless, he got a job as a co-pilot two years ago, "and I was not the low-time pilot in my new-hire class," he says. His employer was a commuter airline, one of the workhorse carriers that ferry passengers to and from smaller cities for bigger partners.
A string of commuter-airline accidents in recent years has put these carriers and their pilots in the spotlight. A February crash near Buffalo, N.Y., took 50 lives after a pilot evidently tried to override an automatic safety feature. In 2006, another commuter-airline plane crashed on takeoff from Lexington, Ky., when the pilots chose the wrong runway, costing 49 lives. In all, seven of the last eight U.S. airliner crashes that resulted in passenger fatalities involved these smaller carriers.

The government mandated a single level of safety across the aviation industry in 1997. Yet lapses, from running low on fuel to letting planes go nearly into a stall, continue to occur significantly more often with the turboprops and small jets of commuter airlines than with the major carriers flying big jetliners.
The commuter airlines, their regulators and even Congress are working on a range of initiatives to turn this around. A key part of the task is figuring out what led to the dismal record. One thing that stands out: Some of the most difficult routes and grueling schedules are flown by pilots with the least experience and training.
Behind that, in turn, are economic pressures, especially a move by major airlines to outsource more flying to carriers with smaller planes and lower costs. Last year, commuter airlines -- also called regional airlines -- handled 159 million U.S. passengers, up from 82 million in 2001. They flew half of domestic airline flights, carrying one in four U.S. passengers.
But as they strained to meet demand, some lowered requirements for new pilots and widened recruiting nets to lesser-known, often unaccredited flight schools. Cost pressures have kept the commuter lines, whose planes often bear the names of their major-airline partners, from fully matching those carriers' fancy in-house training centers, filled with state-of-the-art flight simulators and large staffs. The result often is a two-tier training system -- a situation regulators and some in Congress now are determined to change.
"All [the passengers] see on the fuselage is the brand name of the carrier," and they want to be assured "the same competence and judgment exists in the cockpit regardless of the size of the plane," says Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.), chairman of a Senate aviation subcommittee.
The Regional Airline Association says its members comply with all federal rules, maintain high safety standards, have been improving safety for 35 years and are expanding their safety efforts this year. Among other initiatives, the trade group says it is undertaking a study of pilot fatigue and reviewing all National Transportation Safety Board safety recommendations to airlines. Commuter airlines employ many veteran pilots who benefited from top-of-the-line training, in addition to those with less training and experience.

At Colgan Air, the commuter airline that hired Mr. Preusser with just 383 hours, officials say flight hours aren't the best measure of skill. Colgan's parent, Pinnacle Airlines Corp., says Colgan and another airline the company owns look at the quality of hours and whether aviators have specialized training for sophisticated aircraft. The minimum for a commercial license is 190 to 250, depending on the school attended.
Once hired, they receive an "intense training program that is certified and continually evaluated by our own flight-standards department and the FAA," Pinnacle adds. It was a Colgan plane that crashed in Buffalo; Mr. Preusser by then had long since left for another regional airline.
Major airlines aren't immune to serious lapses, as shown in October when a Northwest Airlines plane overshot its Minneapolis destination by 100-plus miles and went radio-silent for 78 minutes. No one was hurt. Yet since 2003 commuter airlines have had a serious-accident rate per 100,000 departures 10 times that of major airlines, according to government and industry data, not to mention scores of unpublicized close calls.
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In one of those, an ExpressJet Airlines plane flying over Louisiana in November 2006 ran low on fuel and its right engine quit. Because electronic fuel gauges weren't working, the pilots, following procedure, had manually checked fuel levels at the start of the Houston-Baton Rouge round trip. But their calculations were off, and they didn't allow for extra fuel burned to maneuver around storms, according to fellow pilots who analyzed the incident in an internal safety review.
The plane made an emergency landing and nobody was hurt. ExpressJet Holdings Inc. says the crew was adequately trained. It said it has used the incident to alert pilots about proper manual fuel-check procedures.
Pilot skills aside, the smaller airlines face some flying challenges big ones don't. With relatively short hops, they have more-frequent takeoffs and landings, the least-safe parts of flying. Lower altitudes make it harder to dodge bad weather.
Their crews often face late-night and early-morning trips that can make fatigue a problem. Compounding that issue, low pay -- starting commuter pilots earn under $25,000 a year -- means many live far from their duty bases and must commute long distances before starting their flights.
Though commuter airlines are doing scant hiring amid the economic slump, they were on a hiring tear a few years ago as big airlines looked to them to take over routes. In some cases, standards changed. At the start of the decade, Pinnacle Airlines required new pilots to have at least 1,500 hours. Around 2006, amid a growth spurt, it began to cut this.
"We saw other airlines offering jobs" to pilots with 500 hours, says Michael Garvin Jr., vice president of flight operations. "I'm sure we had some 250-hour pilots."
The industry's newest pilot crop "has such low experience levels they never would have been eligible to be hired a decade ago," says Dennis Townsend, a veteran captain at American Eagle. His own airline, a unit of American Airlines' parent, AMR Corp., says it uses only Federal Aviation Administration-qualified instructors and has never lowered any standards.
FAA chief Randy Babbitt has expressed concern about how untested some entire cockpit crews are. "There was a time when senior captains were the guys with the gray hair. Now we're seeing senior captains with less than three years of experience," he said in September. He wants to see more voluntary efforts in which "seasoned safety folks" at larger carriers mentor younger pilots at commuter affiliates
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Old 12-04-2009, 08:04 AM
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There's a whole thread in the regional section:

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