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May 14, 2009

The Commuter Pilot Life: Recipe for an Accident?

All 49 passengers and one person on the ground were killed when Continental Connection flight 3407 crashed minutes before its scheduled landing at Buffalo International Airport on Feb. 12, 2009.
Photo: Dave Sherman / AP

by Barbara S. Peterson

Thousands of commuter-airline pilots are increasingly carrying a greater percentage of the two million or so passengers who fly every day in the U.S. But at a safety board hearing in Washington this week, I heard some pretty shocking testimonies about the conditions they endure. Take the case of one Rebecca Shaw, 24 years old, a first officer (or copilot) for tiny Colgan Air. She lived with her parents in Seattle, earned less than $17,000 a year, and "commuted" to work thousands of miles away in Newark by taking red-eye flights to save on hotels or apartment rentals. For a time she held a second job at a coffee shop in Norfolk, Virginia; that's where she started out flying for the puddle jumper. 

Hearing Shaw's story was one of the more disturbing moments during this unusual three-day hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The session was held to examine the circumstances that led to the crash of Continental Connection flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York, on February 12--a flight contracted out to Colgan, of which Shaw was the copilot. Shaw, along with 48 people aboard died--one person on the ground was killed, as well--and it was the worst transportation accident in the country in seven years.

It will take many months before the NTSB comes out with a firm conclusion on the cause of the accident. Crashes rarely have a single cause, anyway; they're usually the result of a series of cascading mistakes. But it was hard to avoid the impression that the crew was far from "ready and rested," as required by airline policies. Those of us in attendance got to hear a lot about the life of an airline grunt: Wal-Mart level wages; catnapping instead of getting a real night's sleep; 16-hour days. All of this prompted Kathryn Higgins, one member of the safety board, to say, "This is a recipe for an accident, and that's what we have here."  

And the tape of the cockpit voice recorder--now available online for anyone to read--revealed a disturbing laxness. The pilot, Captain Marvin Renslow, and Shaw were chatting and laughing when they should have been paying attention to their instruments, which would have given them the first sign of the trouble that ultimately doomed the plane.

Colgan executive Mary Finnigan, called to testify about the airline's hiring practices, defended their personnel policies and pay scales as standard for the regional airline industry. Oddly, these low salaries don't mean that the airlines offer low fares--far from it. Under contracts with the big lines, they mainly operate as feeders on routes where larger planes might not make sense, and often the fares are higher than what you expect on a short hop--in part because there's less competition. But when Finnigan said to the audience, "My personal standard is I would not sign off on any applicant that I personally would not want flying with my family in the back of an airplane," some family members of the 50 who died were heard shouting "come on!" prompting a rebuke from Mark Rosenker, acting chair of the NTSB.

The hearing must have been tough for those families to sit through as more details came out: Some relatives of the crash victims left the room on the first day when the board aired an animated re-creation of how the plane, a Q-400 Bombardier turboprop, pitched and rolled and then plummeted 2,000 feet to the earth in less than a minute. That's because the pilot, Marvin Renslow, reacted to a warning that the plane was about to stall in icing conditions by pulling back on the stick used to control the craft--exactly the opposite of what he was supposed to do. Why the pilot did that is still unclear. Much has been made of the fact that he had failed several "check rides" (sort of like road tests) but didn't disclose that on his application to Colgan, which hired him three years ago. But Renslow, too, had been commuting to work from Florida, and there's evidence he spent his last night sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark Airport, which is prohibited by company policy precisely because it's not "quality sleep," as one witness put it.

The regionals say that their safety practices are all approved by the FAA. They also point out, rightly, that their safety--along with the rest of the industry--has improved dramatically over the years. In fact, there were no fatalities aboard any U.S. airline during all of 2007 and 2008. These smaller airlines are now handling something like 40% of all departures in the U.S., and they have stayed out of the public eye in part because they fly under the banner of a big line. (Colgan also contracts out to United and US Airways.) Pilots typically start their careers at these outfits to get experience that will ultimately lead them to better-paying jobs at the major airlines. That process has stalled now; major airlines aren't hiring any new pilots. 

But if you, the passenger, are buying a ticket that reads Continental or Delta, don't you have every right to expect that the airline carrying you has the same safety standards as those larger companies? Are you concerned about flying on a commuter airline after what has come out about the Buffalo crash?


Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.

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