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.

(Visited 88 times, 1 visits today)

Get Posts via Email When They Go Live or in a Weekly Digest

Leave a Reply

38 Comments on "Are Wholly-Owned Regionals Safer? (Ask Cranky)"

avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
dan
Member

DL owns a few as well. (Comair, Mesaba, Compass)

AG
Guest

Horizon Air is wholly owned by Alaska Air Group. Exceptional saftey record, as well…

David SF eastbay
Member
One thing I remember the media saying was that regional pilots some times ‘commute’ hundreds or thousands of miles to work which adds to fatique. Well so do pilots in the majors. Do people really think that all 747 pilots live in New York, Los Angeles, or what ever large city has 747 flights? No, they can live in the peaceful mountains of Tennesee and ‘commute’ to the west coast for their 16 hour transpacific flight. Is that good or bad, well hard to say since it’s been done for decades. Just because an accident is pilot error it doesn’t… Read more »
dan powers
Guest

statisticaly they may be the same…but airline owned regionals usually have more resources, access to their big training centers, maintenance shops, their planes tend to be newer, their hiring standards higher because they may have or plan to have flow up arrangements, may have better benefits=theoreticaly atracting higher qualified people.

Ed Casper
Guest
With all of the talk about airline consolidation there’s little mention of its impact on the regional industry – except on Swelblog yesterday. It seems to me that today’s airline industry isn’t unlike the 1970’s railroad industry – an enterprise grown far too big that has to find the right match of supply and demand. Whenever an industry is shrinking, there are labor issues – and for good reason. Losing jobs and scaling back pay and benefits is no fun for anyone. This all impacts safety. Look at the railroads who died. they often did so because they didn’t invest… Read more »
Carl
Guest
Two comments: The two maintenance errors are also disconcerting, and also speak to regional safety. But the biggest issue, to me, is that of pilot fatigue. There are all kinds of rules to make sure pilots don’t work too long in a day and get adequate rest overnight. These rules are totally ineffective if pilots are allowed to commute overnight before working, or do not sleep in a bed the night before flying. I think the whole practice of inexpensive or free long-distance commuting serves to undermine passenger safety – even for flight attendants who are supposed to there for… Read more »
Zach
Guest
Ed Casper wrote: With all of the talk about airline consolidation there’s little mention of its impact on the regional industry – except on Swelblog yesterday. It seems to me that today’s airline industry isn’t unlike the 1970’s railroad industry – an enterprise grown far too big that has to find the right match of supply and demand. Whenever an industry is shrinking, there are labor issues – and for good reason. Losing jobs and scaling back pay and benefits is no fun for anyone. This all impacts safety. Look at the railroads who died. they often did so because… Read more »
A
Guest
I watched that Frontline and one thing I tended to agree with was the complaints that the major airlines sell seats on regionals as-if they were their own airline, when they often are not. It’s very misleading with the “operated by” fine print on the boarding pass and even that aircraft opearting in the livery of the major. Paint the regionals with their own colors and print tickets with their names on top and I tend to think a lot of people will balk at flying with them. As for the argument of wages, to me that just says there’s… Read more »
Dan
Guest

A,

People may balk at flying with them, but they’ll still do it anyway. They have to get where they’re going, right?

And yes, I have to agree with you on the pay — if people wouldn’t work for those paltry wages, the airlines would be forced to raise them. In this case, it really does start at the bottom.

Ed Casper
Guest
@ Zach: I’m not referring to rail travel. I’m referring to the freight rail industry – where the action always was. Passenger services, especially post WWII were seen as drags on the industry. Amtrak was really enacted as a way to kill off rail passenger service by starving it to death. But this is getting way off the topic. My point is that the financial side of the airline business and safety are interrelated. As long as there’s an inadequate return on capital, there will be an urge to save money by cutting corners which can potentially lead to compromises… Read more »
Rich
Guest
Carl, I was on your side when you said that the biggest issue to you was pilot fatigue. But you lost my support when you wrote, “There are all kind of rules to make sure pilots don’t work too long in a day and get adequate rest at night.” That couldn’t be any further from the truth. The duty and rest rules for Part 121 operations are decades old and haven’t been modified ever. Every time pilots attempt to change these archaic rules, management fights them tooth and nail. You think working 16 hour days and then only have a… Read more »
enplaned
Guest

Rich wrote:

Should a pilot be required to move every time an airline shrinks their base and forces them to work out of another base? How about if their airline goes bankrupt and closes their doors? My friend who works for a major airline has been forced to change his base 4 times since 9/11 because of base closures and staffing changes. Should he be forced to sell and buy a house and uproot his family every time the airline makes these decisions?

Would that make things substantially safer by reducing fatigue? Then the answer is “yes”.

Carl
Guest
Rich wrote: Carl, I was on your side when you said that the biggest issue to you was pilot fatigue. Should a pilot be required to move every time an airline shrinks their base and forces them to work out of another base? How about if their airline goes bankrupt and closes their doors? You got it right that it is a fatigue issue. But it has very little to do with commuting! If you work for IBM and they downsize your division, your choices are to look for a new job or move. If GM closes your plant or… Read more »
Eric
Guest
IMHO the ‘Frontline’ segment was a interesting attempt to introduce Joe/Joann Q. Public what the industry has morphed into over the past 20 years. I do not think anyone out there who works in the industry, or follows it closely, was shocked any of the talking points. The elephant in the living room at the majors, wholly owned regionals and especially 3rd party contractors, is not pay or training….it is fatigue. The industry (and even ALPA) have lobbied the FAA to set duty standards that push the envelope of human performance. Add extended duty periods with the pressures of a… Read more »
Carl
Guest
Eric wrote: To ban crew commuting to base is a knee jerk reaction to a component that is part of the problem, but does nothing to address the larger issues. Crew members do not commute because they crave extra drama in their lives…the commute because their compensation of 18 to 35K a year in NYC,DC,SFO,PHL,etc. precludes them from affording basics, like food and shelter. You know what? The free commuting is what is enabling the industry to pay people so poorly and exepct them to report to work in such high cost areas. If the commuting were not free, they… Read more »
Joe
Guest

“I’m not referring to rail travel. I’m referring to the freight rail industry – where the action always was.”

I dispute that freight was where the rail “action” always was. Passenger rail was a bigger deal than freight for many decades. But this is way off topic, I know.

Ed Casper
Guest

@ Joe:

True, but hauling frieght has always been the backbone of the rail industry. James J. Hill (the founder of the Great Northern Railway which became Burlington Northern and now BNSF) hated passenger trains; once calling them as useful as a male teet. But again we’re drifting far off topic.

It will be very interesting to watch the regional airline industry in the next few years. That may very well be where the action is. If past is prologue, industries that are in turmoil oftyen make poor decisions regarding long term issues like safety.

A
Guest
Dan wrote: People may balk at flying with them, but they’ll still do it anyway. They have to get where they’re going, right? On some routes a regional is your only choice so you have a point. I’m referring to the average air traveler that price shops the major websites and sees a range of options all showing up as major airlines. Now if the options showed up as a regional with direct service or a major with connecting service I tend to think many people will be more open to that layover. What angers me is that majors are… Read more »
Erik
Guest

Not Fair Cranky, I love the Blog and you usually do a much better job of explaining.

Wish you would of shown a list of wholly owned express carriers.

Kevin
Guest
Some of the new regionals grew out of mainline. Like Expressjet once being owned by CO. I think a key part of the Frontline report that struck me was the growth of some of these regionals that are not part of a mainline. For example they have managed growth which means they won’t be looking to hire 100’s of pilots, etc all at once to meet a start of a new contract. That is what I saw as concerning. Look at the time it took Frontier to build up and launch Lynx vs the timeline that was depicted about Colgan… Read more »
Eric
Guest
@ Carl: I totally agree with you Carl…this is a problem of industry’s own making. The question is how do you enforce something like that without building cost into already anemic margins. It would be nice for ALPA to take the lead on this, but there would be major push back (or outright revolt) from the senior members. I know this is anecdotal, but I have several friends (and one family member)…some in the left seat, who are in school and preparing to leave flying. These are people with ten plus years in who are migrating to ATC, the FAA,… Read more »
Carl
Guest

Eric wrote:

I am afraid that if the light at the end of the tunnel continues to dim, the next shoe to drop wll be a serious ‘brain drain’ at the lower end of the chain.

That is a scary thought. But if you read about both the educational background and recorded conversation of the Colgan pilots in the Buffalo crash, it would appear that this is already happening. It is up to the regional airline industry to maintain sufficient standards in their hiring decisions.

Ed Casper
Guest
@ CF: You reinforced my point. Mr. Buffett invests for the long term. Once (or if) the airline industry gets its capacity act together and starts consistently producing real returns on invested capital he might invest in the industry. It’s also quite telling that Robert Crandall, the former CEO of American Airlines, repeatedly says he wouldn’t invest in airlines. Jim Cramer won’t touch airline stocks either. I could go on and on, but this uniform lack of confidence in the overall financial strength of the airline industry is very very interesting to say the least – and to the point… Read more »
Eric C
Guest

Wholly-owned regionals have a disadvantage. Independent regionals have multi year contracts, so a Major looking for cost savings can’t beat them up for lower costs till RFP time. If they own their own regional, however, they can go to them today to lower costs. There’s a bit more pressure there.

JamesK
Guest
CF, the most obvious retort to your assumption that wholly-owned regionals are somehow safer than non-wholly owned ones is that COMAIR IS A WHOLLY OWNED SUBSIDIARY OF DELTA AIR LINES, INC., and was at the time of the tragic LEX accident. Also, it’s incorrect to say that the loss of US Airways Express/Air Midwest 5481 was due to “maintenance issues”. Just as critical was that the aircraft was loaded out of balance in CLT. With the exact same improperly rigged elevator cable, the plane left HTS safely. It wasn’t until it was loaded tail heavy in CLT that the crew… Read more »
JamesK
Guest
A: The DOT has strict disclosure requirements for the operating carrier of a flight, to the point where Delta reservations operators were required to say “there’s a flight at 3:20 pm, Delta flight 1234, operated by Mesaba Airlines as Northwest Airlink 5678 using their equipment; a flight at 5:30 pm, Delta flight 2345, operated by Pinnacle Airlines as Northwest Airlink flight 6789 using their equipment”, etc. Airlines can and do get fined by the DOT for failing to adequately inform consumers of who (mainline, regional, codeshare) is actually flying the aircraft. The major airline websites all indicate “OPERATED BY XXX… Read more »
JamesK
Guest
Since no one else will, here’s a brief summary PARENT CORPORATION AMR CORPORATION: American Airlines (AA) American Eagle (MQ) PARENT CORPORATION DELTA AIR LINES, INC.: Delta Air Lines (DL) Northwest Airlines (NW, RIP) Mesaba Airlines (XJ), since 2007 Compass Airlines (CP) Comair (OH), since 1999 PARENT CORPORATION US AIRWAYS GROUP: US Airways (US, though this gets complicated when it comes to which crews fly which metal) America West (HP, RIP) Piedmont Airlines (PDT), since 1983 PSA Airlines (JIA), since 1995 PARENT CORPORATION MESA AIR GROUP: Mesa Airlines (YV) and sub-brand go! Freedom Airlines (F8) Air Midwest (ZV, RIP) PARENT CORPORATION… Read more »
JamesK
Guest

And of course I forgot one of the more obvious:

PARENT COMPANY ALASKA AIR GROUP:
Alaska Airlines (AS)
Horizon Air (QX) since 1986

chris
Guest

who cares if wholly owned are cheaper? whats more important is that majors are safer than regionals.

JamesK
Guest

@chris But the problem is that’s not true “that majors are safer than regionals”. SkyWest and Republic Airways have better safety records than American or Alaska.

Rich
Guest
Would that make things substantially safer by reducing fatigue? Then the answer is “yes”. No, it wouldn’t make things substantially safer. When the FAA concentrates on changing flight time and duty rules, then that will make things safer. Carl, You seem to be concerned with the “free” travel that pilots get instead of the real issue of fatigue. I can assure you it is not that wonderful free travel that is causing low pay. For many pilots, that travel “benefit” is a negotiated item in their contract. That means to get than benefit, something else was given up. And if… Read more »
Carl
Guest
Rich wrote: Carl, You seem to be concerned with the “free” travel that pilots get instead of the real issue of fatigue. I can assure you it is not that wonderful free travel that is causing low pay. For many pilots, that travel “benefit” is a negotiated item in their contract. That means to get than benefit, something else was given up. And if you think that by pilots giving this up would force airlines to pay higher salaries and open bases in lower cost cities, then you have no grasp of this industry whatsoever. You make it sound like… Read more »
Carl
Guest

PS: I have no problem whatsoever with free travel benefits that are available to airline employees who use it on their own time and/or use it responsibly.

Rich
Guest
Carl, First of all, I am not an “embittered” airline employee, so don’t characterize me. My whole point is that you are so concerned with pilots being able to commute for “free” and that practice should be stopped to ensure pilots are reporting for duty rested. What I am trying to convey to you is that commuting pilots are NOT the problem. It is the archaic rest and duty rules that are the real issue. And now, as usual, congress wants to apply a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that does not exist. You site the Colgan crash. Those pilots… Read more »
jojo
Guest
Some Compaines schedule days so that pilots get min rest. Many times I have been given only 8 hours rest. After waiting 30 min to 60 to get to my hotel, iron my uniform, bush my teeth and call my family, my rest is down to about 6 hour. Then I have to show on time so we need to get up 45mins before I have to catch the shuttle that takes an average of 30 mins to get me to front door at tthe airport. All said and done many rest periods amount to less than 5 hours sleep.… Read more »
trackback

[…] I think you’ve done a really good job of helping folks take an objective look at the matter. Your post last week was a good example–in it you bring much needed perspective to the picture without minimizing […]

trackback

[…] I think you’ve done a really good job of helping folks take an objective look at the matter. Your post last week was a good example–in it you bring much needed perspective to the picture without minimizing […]