One might forgive Regional Airline Association (RAA) president Roger Cohen for expressing what he called a certain “righteous indignation” on Tuesday after a day of meetings, forums and glad-handing during the association's annual convention, which began Monday and ends today. In fact, given the legislative, regulatory and public relations battles the RAA has fought over the past year, one might expect a rather surly mood among the regional airline presidents and CEOs who gathered at the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee. But a scan of the bustling convention hall told a different story-one of optimism for a future that looks brighter each day as economic conditions improve and traffic rebounds faster than most had expected during last year's decidedly moribund get-together in Salt Lake City.
In fact, by the end of the show Cohen could afford to let go of any lingering negativity; this year's RAA Convention would prove the largest in the history of the organization. The RAA expected that more than 1,700 attendees would pass through the turnstiles by the end of the confab, perhaps reflecting a resilience for which few would have given the industry credit while it has fought its way through perhaps its worst image crisis since the 1994 crash of a Simmons Airlines ATR 72 in Roselawn, Ind.
“The response this year has been overwhelming,” Cohen said. “I think it's because of the recognition that regional airlines [account for] not just 50 percent of the flights in the United States; we're more than half the flights in the United States. We're 40 percent of the aircraft fleet. Now one in four passengers is on a regional, and the most notable thing, which has remained steady or has grown, is that three-quarters of the communities in the United States that have service-any service-have service exclusively from regional airlines.”
NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman, while serving as the convention's keynote speaker at Wednesday's general session, mentioned some of the same statistics Cohen cited as she reminded audience members that regional airlines can no longer serve as “farm teams” for the major airline business. “I think that is a really bad way to look at this,” Hersman told reporters after her speech. “When we see that the regional carriers have eclipsed the mainline carriers with respect to the number of enplanements, that says to me that they are the major leagues.”
Hersman noted that, while, generally, regional airlines have done an outstanding job at maintaining high safety standards, there remain some exceptions. “I know that many of you in this room are working tirelessly to continue to provide safe and reliable transportation,” said Hersman. “And that's not just anecdotal. The airline industry as a whole has never been safer.” In fact, she said, Part 121 carriers have cut in half the rate of fatal accidents over the past 10 years.
Still, she said, “despite the significant strides that we've all made in safety, I know everyone here can agree that we can do more. Despite the improvements we're still seeing system failures and some of those failures have tragic consequences.”
Hersman noted that high-profile accidents like the 2006 Comair crash in Lexington, Ky., in which the pilots tried to take off from the wrong runway, and last year's crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 on approach to Buffalo have raised questions about minimum standards, professionalism, training and qualifications, particularly of regional airline pilots.
“We can debate whether that's fair or not, but what's not debatable is that some of those recent accidents were clearly preventable,” Hersman said. “In some ways Colgan Air was a watershed crash in that it brought into the harsh spotlight a number of issues that have been quietly plaguing the industry for decades.”
Beyond the overarching tragedy of the lives lost in Lexington and Buffalo, Hersman noted that the entire industry rises or falls on its safety record. “This fact could not have been clearer after the [Buffalo] crash, when all regional airlines suffered in the court of public opinion.”