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 thought 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.
DL owns a few as well. (Comair, Mesaba, Compass)
Horizon Air is wholly owned by Alaska Air Group. Exceptional saftey record, as well…
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 mean it’s because they were a bad pilot every day. Top notch mainline pilots have caused a plane to crash after many 1000’s of hours in the air. As a people we have been led to believe that it’s only the majors that have good pilots and the regionals bad ones. Well if that was true then those small planes would be falling out of the sky everyday.
It all comes down to training and the individual person. Military pilots are some of the best trained pilots around, trained with just about unlimited taxpayer dollars, using hi-tech fighter jets. But they still manage to crash into each other during training missions, or into the side of a mountain. Seems to me if they didn’t know how to fly a plane they wouldn’t be there doing it, same goes for the regionals.
But we must remember that the media likes to make everything seem worse then it is, and tell only 10% (or less) of the whole story.
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.
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 enough in maintenance in their tracks – and trains derailed.
There’s a parallel here. Take care of safety first and have the courage to right size the industry. Then there will be enough stabilty and profitablity that a Warren Buffett might buy one. Mr. Buffett, a long-term investor, just bought a railroad – BNSF. He didn’t buy an airline. That speaks volumes about both industries.
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 our safety. It is one thing for them to commute an hour or two, but not acceptable for them to commute cross-country. How about – if pilots are going to commute, they have prove that they have a lodging available in the city where they report to work.
Ed Casper wrote:
Except the very example you cite, rail travel, was being depleted by consumers switching to air travel. There is not an alternative or new product drawing demand away from air travel.
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 a huge over supply of pilots out there. The regionals never seem to have trouble finding pilots willing to work for paltry pay. Employers pay what the market will bear and apparently that’s the peanuts those guys currently get.
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.
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 in safety.
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 total of 8 hours rest is adequate? It took a ruling just a few years back to limit a pilot’s duty day to 16 hours. Airline managers believe pilot’s should be able to work around the clock. Now, Congress wants to have hearings on pilot’s commuting yet once again are ignoring the real problem….flight and duty time limits. Incoming FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said that his first main objective is to change these rules by the end of 2010. Now this issue is on the back burner and may not happen at all. Now Congress is going to waste everyone’s time and focus on commuting. Unbelievable.
And you think all pilot’s commute because they want to live in the beautiful hills of Tennessee? Well, again you are lacking knowledge of the profession. 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?
You got it right that it is a fatigue issue. But it has very little to do with commuting!
Would that make things substantially safer by reducing fatigue? Then the answer is “yes”.
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 Countrywide is bought by Bank of America, you take what you are given. You don’t get free transportation across the country. And you don’t have responsibility for 100 souls when you report for duty fatigued. Pilots have a duty to report to work rested.
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 fee-for-departure arrangements, ergo ‘you dont fly the mission, you dont get paid’ and you have a witches brew for more Clarence Center, NYs.
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. I am not saying giving everyone an across the board 50% raise is realistic or would solve these issues…but i believe that the current carrot & stick approach today is eroding the margin of safety that the industry has built over the past generation.
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 could not hire any pilots in NY or SF. Their choices would be to expand bases in lower cost areas and schedule pilots so they would not be based in high cost aeras, or they would to have raise wages to attract pilots willing to live in high cost areas.
Whatever limits are put on duty time and mandatory rest periods are worthless if the pilot is fatigued at the start of a set of trips. Otherwise, make them report the day before they fly and make them sleep in a bed, however it is paid for.
“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.
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.
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 trimming service by turning routes over to regionals that historically were mainline while at the same time they advertise that their route network is bigger than ever. I’m fine with the big guys following the old Pan Am model of focuing on international flying. Just would like a little more truth in advertising about who’s really flying us around in fly-over country.
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.
Ed Casper wrote:
I doubt we’ll ever see Warren Buffett in airlines again. He lost a ton of money on USAir back in the day, and he absolutely hates this industry.
Ok. For domestic carriers, here’s what I know:
*American and American Eagle are both owned by AMR
*Delta owns Comair, Compass, and Mesaba
*Alaska and Horizon are both owned by Alaska Air Group
*US Airways owns Piedmont and PSA
*Frontier, Midwest, Lynx, Republic, Shuttle America, and Chautauqua are all owned by Republic
What am I missing?
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 with the Q400 at CO. That was shocking to me.
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, FBOs or jumping ship alltogether. 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.
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 of this thread – potentially impacts safety.
There was a time when railroads were just as toxic an “investment” as airlines are now. They went through a lot of pain but got themselves right sized – even somewhat undersized given the increases in traffic they’re beginning to see.
The airline industry will have to do the same – discipline itself – or there’s a very real danger of re-regulation – or worse – and no one knows what unintended consequences will come out of that.
This all goes to show that anyone can make mistakes investing, even Warren Buffett.
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.
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 was unable to fully deflect the elevator downward, but as any pilot can tell you, in that kind of tail-heavy, power-on stall scenario that close to the ground, it’s a very dangerous situation.
It’s also worth noting that with runway excursions in the news, it’s worth noting that the last three in the US with fatalities were Comair 5191 (owned by Delta), Southwest 1248 and American 1420.
It’s a fallacy to assume that carriers owned by a mainline are safer for several reasons. Look at the safety record of companies like SkyWest, Inc. (SkyWest Airlines and ASA), ExpressJet and Republic Airways (Chautauqua, Shuttle America, Republic, and recently Midwest and Frontier).
One of the misconceptions the public has is that by being owned by a major, a regional will automatically have access to the resources available to the major. Quite the opposite. In any major corporation, it’s often the “wholly-owned subsidiaries” that get squeezed in difficult times. When Delta declared bankruptcy in 2005, all Comair employees took an across-the-board paycut of almost 30%. No one at Delta mainline faced anything approaching that. Delta controls Comair’s purse strings, and Comair can’t make any investment in equipment or personnel without approval by Delta.
I think the FAA is taking the right approach in tackling problems at airlines that are rapidly expanding. This allows the focus to not be on all regionals regardless of safety record, but to include regionals scrambling to hire low-time pilots, low-cost carriers doing the same and also at regional-level wages, and mega-mergers and the subsequent closing and moving of crew bases that lead to the same kinds of commuting issues CF touched on.
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 AIRLINES” in the same size type as the flight number and times. US Airways even used to put the logo of the operating carrier (Mesa, Air Wisconsin, Piedmont, PSA, etc) next to the flight number instead of the US Airways logo.
Now when it comes to online travel agencies, that’s another story. Some are notorious for changing airlines midstream without the passenger realizing it until he/she arrives in LAX with 35 minutes to connect from Terminal 5 to Terminal 1. But hey, it was cheap! I’m all for disclosure of the operating carriers.
However, at some point, the consumer has some responsibility. When told “Operated by XYZ Airlines”, if he/she doesn’t know what that means, he/she should ask the agent on the phone or do a quick Google search. The information is available, but all too often the passenger doesn’t care until arriving at the airport.
When you buy a store brand of some kind of food, check out the label. Chances are, you will have no idea who actually manufactured the foodstuff aside from “PRODUCED FOR SAVE-U-MORE GROCERY STORES, PEORIA ILL”.
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 PINNACLE AIRLINES CORP:
Pinnacle Airlines (9E), since 2003? (formerly owned by NW)
Colgan Air (9L), since 2007
PARENT CORPORATION REPUBLIC AIRWAYS:
Chautauqua Airlines (RP)
Shuttle America (S5)
Republic Airlines (RW)
Midwest Airlines (YX)
Frontier Airlines (F9)
Lynx Aviation (L3)
PARENT CORPORATION SKYWEST, INC:
SkyWest Airlines (OO)
Atlantic Southeast Airlines (EV), since 2005
PARENT CORPORATION TRANS STATES HOLDINGS:
Trans States Airlines (AX)
GoJet Airlines (G7)
PARENT CORPORATION CAPE AIR:
Cape Air (9K)
Nantucket Airlines (ACK)
Air Wisconsin (ZK)
ExpressJet (XE), since 2002 (formerly owned by CO)
Gulfstream International (3M)
And of course I forgot one of the more obvious:
PARENT COMPANY ALASKA AIR GROUP:
Alaska Airlines (AS)
Horizon Air (QX) since 1986
who cares if wholly owned are cheaper? whats more important is that majors are safer than regionals.
@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.
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.
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 every pilot commutes. Keep in mind, most pilots live near the cities they are based in. So they report for duty well rested right? Why is that fatigue is still an issue then?
You are correct that pilots do have the responsibility and duty to report for work rested. And a majority of the time that happens. But you don’t seem too concerned with the issue of fatigue after starting that first duty period. Once they get to work well rested and ready to fly, it’s then okay for a pilot to work 16 hours with only 8 hours of rest before they are required to go back and fly the same amount of hours the very next day? I guess if you make pilots cease that “free” commuting then you just better cross your fingers that you are flying on the first day of a pilot’s trip. Because that may be the only day they are well rested.
You seem like an embittered airline employee. Don’t characterize my concerns for me.
I want a rested pilot in the cockpit of my commercial flight. I want the pilot to be rested on his first day of duty and I want him rested each day. Both commute rules and the on-duty/rest rules are needed to ensure this.
I think the evidence is that we cannot expect that the industry and labor groups are going to come up with voluntary rules, and outside intervention is going to be required.
If the rules covering duty time need to be amended, then let’s get to it.
As far as I can tell there are no rules whatsoever for commuting. Even if most pilots commute reponsibly, we obviously have some that do not, so we must put rules in place that prohibit the kind of commuting that occurred prior to the Colgan crash – by both pilots in that case. 50 souls might have been saved if the pilots had properly been rested.
I don’t disagree that many of these pilots are underpaid – and I don’t know how that gets addressed in the long run, but these commuting patterns are an enabler of these ultra-low wages. Some of the supply of pilots will disappear if they don’t have free communting, and that is a start in addressing wages.
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.
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 could have been the best rested pilots ever, and the result would have still been the same. They were inexperienced and poorly trained pilots. Yes, fatigue could definitely be considered a contributing factor, but not the causal factor. Do you know how long the Colgan pilot’s had been on duty the day of the crash?
If you ever take the time to read the transcripts of the that accident you will notice that the pilots reacted completely inaccurately to their situation. As Jeff Skiles (the First Officer on the USAirways Hudson flight) has eluded to, these pilots were victims along with the rest of the passengers. Their training was inadequate and their experience level lacking. Those pilots were put into a situation they were not prepared for. Rest or no rest, you don’t pull back on the yoke when your plane is going to stall, you certainly don’t override the stick pusher when it is trying to recover from a stall, and you definitely don’t retract the flaps when you are trying to regain lift.
And you are still way off base thinking that “commuting patterns are an enabler of these ultra-low wages.” The supply of pilots will not disappear if commuting is not allowed. There will always be a long line of pilots ready to jump at the chance to fly a large turboprop or jet. They are young and they can withstand the low wages because they feel it will ultimately lead to a job with a major airline with better wages. Why do you think the wages are still so low? It’s certainly not due to the fact that pilots get to commute for free.
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. Commuting has nothing to do with this. We need the FAA the write new rules that make rest start at hotel checkin and out. Companies are using faa limits as standard operating procedure. Also pilot flying time has nothing to do with safety. I have instructed 15 year olds that fly better than some airline captians. They probaly spell better than me too.