I wasn’t planning on revisiting regional airline safety again this quickly, but then I received an email in my inbox this weekend from Horizon Air CEO Jeff Pinneo. Horizon is a wholly-owned regional for Alaska Airlines. Jeff is a regular reader of the blog, and he felt compelled to weigh in on the topic of whether wholly-owned regionals are safer. I’m glad he did. Here’s what he had to say . . .
My name is Jeff Pinneo–I’m the CEO at Horizon Air and a pretty frequent reader of your blog. My compliments to you on the good work you do ‘drilling down’ on many aspects of our business that your readers are interested in and want to know more about.
The subject of regional airline safety has certainly been one of those topics in the year following the tragic accident at Colgan, and 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 the overriding importance of safety or of the need for the industry to do everything it can to further improve it’s already strong record. Regarding the question posed in the headline, I’m in general agreement with your conclusion–that being wholly owned by a major airline is not in itself a predictor of a higher level of safety. There are many independent regionals with excellent safety records and solid underlying programs. Having said that, I’ve observed our own evolution since the acquisition of Horizon by Alaska Air Group [AAG] in 1986 (I was at Alaska from 1981-1990 and have been at Horizon ever since), and I can attest to many positive influences and outcomes that have stemmed from our being wholly owned by AAG and a sister company to Alaska Airlines. It all starts with having one board of directors and one chairman (Bill Ayer) who are responsible for the whole enterprise and their obligations for ensuring a consistently safe and dependable experience across the brands. This structure, coupled with their strong personal conviction about the importance of safety, led both board and management to a ‘single standard of safety’ mindset and practices at Alaska and Horizon long before such things were legislated. As a result, both companies have moved virtually in parallel on safety programs from technology (e.g. introduction of heads-up-guidance system (HGS) low-vis technology in early ’90′s, Required Navigational Performance (RNP) and WAAS [Wide Area Augmentation System] program development, etc.) to audit and self-reporting programs such as ASAP [Aviation Safety Action Program), LOSA [Line Operations Safety Audit], FOQA [Flight Operational Quality Assurance] and IOSA [IATA Operational Safety Audit] certification. Our board formed a dedicated board safety committee a decade ago to focus on and reinforce the importance of all these safety improvements. It was the first committee of it’s kind and to this day one of the only, if not THE only, such committee of an airline board of directors.
As a further enhancement to safety oversight, the board in 2008 directed that an Alaska Air Group Vice President-Safety position–one that would be responsible for safety programs at both airlines and report directly to the AAG Chairman and the board safety committee–be established. Tom Nunn, most recently the CEO at Frontier’s Lynx subsidiary, was selected to fill that role late in 2008. Prior to that time, each company had individual safety programs and processes.
So while I agree that the ownership structure of a regional airline is not directly correlated to safety, I can say from our experience that we’ve been distinctly advantaged by our structure and relationship with Alaska Airlines over many years with respect to safety and many other matters. The fact is that many of the structural changes and investments in safety noted above emanated from having a common board and a single chairman who’ve been consistently committed to ensuring nothing less than the highest levels of safety at both operating companies, and to supporting their management teams efforts to that end.
I thought you’d be interested in this background as it relates to what is likely to be a matter of continued public interest in the months ahead. I’ve also attached a fact sheet on Horizon’s flight operations and safety programs that illustrates how our story differs substantially from the many broad-brush characterizations that have been applied–often inaccurately–to the regional airline sector. I’d be happy to discuss all of this in further detail if you wish–I can be reached at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Thanks for your time and interest in these matters.
President and CEO
Now, I agree with what Jeff says here, but of course, it could go both ways. Sure, if Alaska has a strong safety culture, that will certainly benefit the wholly-owned regional. But that doesn’t mean that an independent regional can’t have a strong safety culture, as Jeff notes. It also means, however, that a regional that is wholly owned by an airline with a poor safety culture would be negatively impacted.
As I wrote back to Jeff, 10 years ago, Alaska Airlines was found to have serious maintenance issues after the accident of Alaska 261 shined a light on the airline’s practices. That likely negatively impacted Horizon back then, just as they are benefiting from their enhanced attention to safety now.
In short, I think Jeff offers a great perspective from inside a regional, and I thank him for sharing it with me and all of you.