DECEMBER 1, 2009
Commuter Airlines: Questions of Safety
By ANDY PASZTOR and SUSAN CAREY
Wall St. Journal
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.
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.
While some newer pilots attended long-established flight schools such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, many came from 1,700 lightly regulated flight academies. Most aren't accredited by academic organizations and many choose not to have their curricula vetted by the FAA.
Flight schools sometimes boast of how quickly their graduates move into airline cockpits. Airline Transport Professionals, which says its curriculum is FAA-approved, lists some recent graduates and their employers on its Web site. Until recently, it also showed their flight hours when hired. For instance, it named one graduate with 310 hours and two with 250 apiece whom it said Pinnacle hired in September 2008. Pinnacle says it never employed the latter two; ATP says it relies on what graduates tell it.
A school called Gulfstream Training Academy provided some training to at least one of the two pilots in each of the past three fatal U.S. airliner crashes, including Buffalo, which all involved pilot error. Gulfstream isn't related to airplane maker Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.
Gulfstream academy, which has an FAA-approved curriculum, gives some graduates a chance to accumulate over 250 flight hours as "probationary" first officers on an affiliated regional carrier, Gulfstream International Airlines. This can give them a permanent co-pilot job at Gulfstream or a leg up on the hiring ladder elsewhere. But passengers aren't told that, in effect, a trainee is behind the cockpit door. A spokesman for Gulfstream said that the probationary pilots meet all federal requirements and that the FAA, over the years, endorsed the concept and consistently gave high marks to Gulfstream's training programs.
An FAA inspector in 2008 alleged repeated instances of falsified pilot-scheduling records and other violations at the airline, according to people familiar with the matter, and unsuccessfully sought to revoke its operating certificate. This spring another FAA inspector said Gulfstream's system of examiners who evaluate pilot proficiency didn't meet "the minimum level of competency," according to a summary of her interview released by the NTSB. The FAA in May proposed a $1.3 million civil penalty, in part because of the scheduling issues. Parent Gulfstream International Group Inc. is appealing.
Gulfstream said the penalty and all of the FAA's allegations were based on mistaken information. "Upon detailed review the FAA should agree with us on these issues," said its president and chief executive, David Hackett. A spokesman said other inspectors didn't complain about its system of evaluating pilots. The FAA hasn't accused Gulfstream of deliberately falsifying records. Overall, the spokesman said, the carrier garnered high ratings from the FAA in past years and has taken steps to resolve any outstanding issues.
Novice pilots often train mainly on slow propeller planes but, once hired, slide into the cockpits of high-performance turboprops or jets. Some flight schools try to fill the gap with bridge programs that give classroom and simulator preparation for regional jets. But once the pilots are hired, the onus is on their employers to provide sufficient ground school and simulator sessions to hone airmanship skills.
"When you chop off the experience, the training becomes more important," says Kit Darby, a retired pilot at UAL Corp.'s United Airlines who until recently ran a pilot-placement business.
The plane that crashed in Buffalo, flown by Colgan under the Continental Connection logo, was a Bombardier Q400 turboprop, a sophisticated aircraft Colgan had just begun acquiring in 2008. As it began to fly too slowly on its airport approach, an automatic system known as a "stick pusher" pointed the nose down to gain air speed. But according to investigators' preliminary findings, the captain tried to override this and point the nose back up, leading to a stall.
After the crash, investigators were surprised to learn that Colgan's Q400 flight-simulator training didn't give pilots an opportunity to experience a stick pusher. Since then, Colgan and sister carrier Pinnacle Airlines have begun teaching more-realistic stall-recovery techniques in simulators.
Some Colgan pilots also fault the way the airline prepared them to handle the Q400. They say the plane's operations manual -- a bible for pilots, typically prepared painstakingly by in-house experts -- just consisted of Bombardier's manual put together with some of Colgan's material, and went through a number of versions. Without a single, detailed manual, pilots say, it is harder to understand and remember exactly what they are supposed to do in various emergency situations.
Parent Pinnacle Airlines Corp. says Colgan used the Bombardier manual with a supplement describing airline-specific policies and procedures, and then hired a respected firm to work with it to produce Colgan's own manuals.
Some commuter airlines have begun tailoring training to the backgrounds of new employees, and have stepped up measures such as voluntary reporting systems aimed at catching mistakes before they lead to accidents. The FAA is prodding large airlines to share safety data and accident-prevention techniques with their regional-airline partners. Major airlines say they do regular safety audits but add that regional carriers bear ultimate responsibility for safety compliance.
Mr. Babbitt, who took over as FAA administrator three months after the Buffalo crash, dispatched a bevy of inspectors to shake up commuter airlines' training programs, to make sure the least-experienced pilots and any who repeatedly fail flight tests are tracked more closely. Eventually, he would like to create a separate license for first-time co-pilots that would require substantially more experience.
Going further, the House of Representatives passed a bill in October requiring all new airline pilots to have beefed-up academic instruction, more experience flying at high altitudes and in bad weather, and a minimum of 1,500 flight hours.
Some commuter airlines are tightening standards on their own. Mesa Air Group Inc. was accepting applications early this year from pilots with as few as 500 flying hours, but will require 1,500 hours when it starts hiring again.
Colgan, whose plane crashed in Buffalo, is moving to check co-pilots' proficiency every six months in simulators, versus the current annual check, and evaluate them once a year on an actual trip. That will be the same as captains get. "Our first officers," a spokesman said, "will be the most checked pilots in the industry."
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com and Susan Carey at firstname.lastname@example.org
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A1