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June 11, 2009

The Commuter Plane Switcheroo

Colgan Air flying as Continental Connection

Photo: Caribb on

by Barbara S. Peterson

It hasn't been a good week for that breed of airline known variously as regionals, commuters, or, less affectionately, puddle jumpers. (It's a safe bet that if you've flown anything whose name includes  "connection" or "express," you've been on one.)

First, the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation jointly stated that they would start scrutinizing how these little-noticed lines train their pilots. That's a response to revelations that the pilot at the controls of Continental Connection flight 3407, which crashed in Buffalo on February 12, had flunked numerous "check rides," the ultimate test of a pilot's skills. Other pilots involved in commuter accidents had had a similar failure rate.  

Then Congress got into the act, with hearings on both sides of the aisle. Why aren't airlines legally required to check the records of pilot applicants for their pass rates?

Some senators suggested that the FAA might adopt a "three strikes, you're out" rule on pilots who repeatedly tank the tests. Randy Babbitt, the new FAA chief (and former head of the pilots' union) responded that some low-performing pilots might simply "be having a bad day." Lawmakers didn't seem too pleased with that, on top of the already damning details we've learned about low wages and long hours that lead to potentially dangerous levels of fatigue in the cockpit.

It's clear that we'll be hearing a lot more about the world of regional airlines in the coming months; let's just hope that we get more than the usual soundbites on this issue. Because apparently while we weren't looking, this motley assortment of feeder airlines has morphed into a huge chunk of the commercial airline business. The number of passengers flying regional aircraft in the U.S. has soared 40% since 2003.  

Their low profile is intentional. These airlines don't fly under their own names (don't try to book a Colgan Air flight online) but under the colors--and two-letter code--of a far better known major airline. In fact, one airline can be, depending on the airport and the route, operating as three different entities: Colgan flies as Continental Connection at some airports, and as United Express and US Airways Express at others. Passengers are supposed to be informed they're flying on a partner airline at the time of booking, but there's still plenty of potential for confusion.

So readers, have you ever booked a flight on one airline and then found out you were really flying another? Did you assume you were flying a jet when you were really booked on a prop plane? How do you feel about flying a commuter line in general?


The military spends over 1 million training a new pilot in the first year alone. They document and track every flight. The military pilot then goes on to advanced training. Compare that to the commercial side where they openly boast about putting pilots on airline flight decks with the absolute minimum hours and cost. The commuter airlines do not track or check history because it would reduce the number of applicants thus putting pressure to raise pay.

A "Sully" vs a "Marvin" No comparison at all.

A professional minded person will do his or her best at their job. However "Who" you get, their "Experience" level, their "Training credentials" are not going to be identical for low pay vs high pay. If you want the cheapest pilot money can buy don't expect an ex-military fighter pilot who had over 5 million dollars worth of training and 20+ years experience. This concept should not escape anyone as it applies to almost any vocation. You get what you pay for. You don't get a "Sully" for a "Marvin" price. Marvin will do "his" best for you but when the chips are down if it isn't good enough don't complain. You got the cheap ticket. You got the cheap pilot.

The only surprise about this accident is that it did not happen sooner.

The explanation on why is clearly explained here:

The only question remaining is what flight will be next?

I fly the puddle jumpers at least once a month between Denver or Phoenix to Durango, CO. First of all.....the tickets are NOT cheap and usually so expensive I plan my trips on price not dates. I have always been very happy with the services and the pilots competence...and hope that it continues to be safe. These flights are usually very full....

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