Are Wholly-Owned Regionals Safer? (Ask Cranky)

The discussion about how safe regionals are has been top of mind since the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo last year. A recent Frontline report on regional pilot safety has fanned the flames, and we’ve even had a discussion about this in the comments over the last few days. I’ve received a lot of questions in different forms, but I thought I’d post this particular question as an Ask Cranky since it’s a slightly different take on things. I’m hoping that you pilots out there will hit the comments with your take.

As a loyal American Airlines flyer, I cannot think of another mainline airline whose parent company wholly owns the regional carrier, American Eagle . . . right? Am I correct with this, AMR wholly owns both? My assumption would be if the same folks own AA as American Eagle, surely they are going to act more responsibly in terms of caring for their pilots and keeping the brand comparable in terms of safety regulations? I was curious as to your thoughts on this . . . even United contracts out it’s regional flying.
L. Feldman, California

It’s a good question indeed, and it may be one that many people haven’t even Ask Crankythought about. This awful Colgan crash, congressional hearings, and the special on PBS have really convinced some people that regional flying is incredibly dangerous thanks to inexperienced pilots. So is your life potentially safer on a wholly-owned subsidiary airline as opposed to a contract regional? First, let’s dispel the notion that regional flying in general is unsafe.

Some like to point out that the accidents in the US since the end of 2001 have all been on regionals, but it’s important to note that there still haven’t been that many accidents. Let’s look at every commercial accident in the US since 2002 where someone on board was killed.

2/12/2009 – Colgan Air Q400 in Buffalo
8/27/2006 – Comair CRJ in Lexington
12/19/2005 – Chalk’s Grumman in Miami
10/19/2004 – Corporate Airlines Jetstream 32 in Kirksville, MO
1/8/2003 – Air Midwest Beech 1900 in Charlotte

The Chalk’s one and the Air Midwest (former Mesa subsidiary) one were due to maintenance issues, so of the thousands and thousands of regional flights that have operated in some of the worst weather imaginable during the last 8+ years, there have been three fatal accidents during scheduled service due to pilot error. Is that something we should be content with? Certainly not, but I think it’s important to put this in context. These TV specials always make it sound like you’re likely to die on your next flight.

Yes, regional pilots get paid less (sometimes a shockingly low amount), and they have less experience than their big jet counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t get you there safely. In fact, those pilots have gotten their passengers to their destination safely all but three times in the last 8 years.

Now, to the question about wholly-owned regional subsidiaries . . . I don’t think that makes a difference. US Airways, by the way, owns a couple of its regional subsidiaries while outsourcing the rest, so American isn’t the only one. Also, while American Eagle is wholly-owned, but there is also American Connection which is outsourced. Now, Colgan was the focus of this program because of their recent accident and other issues they’ve had, but that’s somehow been blown up into the entire regional airline world being unsafe.

Sure, Colgan has some serious issues they need to work out, but every other airline has its share of troubles along the way. Right now, in fact, it’s wholly-owned American Eagle that is on the hot seat. They’ve been hit with two major fines related to how they maintain their airplanes.

So for me, it’s not whether an airline is wholly-owned by its major carrier or not that matters. We simply have to put our faith in the feds and hope they’re regulating the industry properly. That’s a story for another day. In fact, tomorrow, I’ll talk about misguided attempts to change pilot commuting rules.

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