Extra Security Requirements Could Be Too Onerous for Regional Airlines

 - October 8, 2007, 10:33 AM

Regional airlines, long dependent on the efficiencies their comparatively low cost structures bring, have watched increased security burdens since September 11 erode the very advantages on which they’ve thrived for the past two decades. But in today’s risk-averse environment, the industry has found itself performing a balancing act of sorts.

So far the regionals appear to have struck a happy balance, as a whole performing far better financially since September 11 than the major airlines. Still, the potential for further cost burdens remains a real concern, as regulators weigh the merits of raising enplanement fees and consider new rules for cockpit door fortifications on non-transport-category airplanes.

In April the FAA issued a request for comments on a proposal that would call for the installation of a rigid cockpit door, equipped with a lock, on airplanes certified to carry between 10 and 19 passengers. The request followed an earlier FAA rule, published January 15, that requires the installation of reinforced doors on all transport-category airplanes (20 seats or more) operating in scheduled service by next April 9.

Although the FAA announced last month that it would distribute $97 million to help shoulder the cost burden, the maximum grant of $13,000 per airplane will not cover the full cost in many regional aircraft types. The rule mandates that, in the event one of the pilots becomes incapacitated, the other pilot must be able to open the door without leaving his or her seat to allow a replacement crewmember (flight attendant) into the cockpit. If the aircraft design prevents the pilot from reaching the door from a cockpit seat, the operator must equip the door with a remote unlocking device. Such a device could raise the cost of a single door to $40,000, according to RAA technical affairs specialist Dave Lotterer.

The RAA supported the January 15 rule, but it opposes a mandatory retrofit for non-transport-category airplanes. Lotterer told AIN that a number of airlines have already installed steel crossmembers, known as Katy bars, to reinforce cockpit doors in 19-seat airplanes. Beyond that measure, the association rejects any justification for door reinforcements given the relative unlikelihood that a terrorist would choose to hijack a commuter flight as opposed to renting a similarly sized airplane capable of producing just as much damage. Meanwhile, the cost of such a requirement could send already marginal 19-seat operations into financial ruin, as Lotterer expressed doubt that the government would authorize any further funding for door retrofits beyond the $97 million already allocated.

Other new requirements may include the installation of video equipment to alert cockpit crewmembers to disturbances in the cabin. The FAA plans to distribute $3 million to 11 airlines–including regional carriers Skyway, Chautauqua and Piedmont Airlines–as part of a pilot program to test the merits of such a system.

These most visible changes resulting from September 11 represent just a small part of a process that depends heavily on the efforts of people to attain its goals. Because federal law prohibits airline personnel or anyone privy to the new security measures from publicly discussing them, the media knows few of the details. The Association of Flight Attendants hinted at one aspect of the process when it complained publicly about regional airlines using flight attendants to conduct pre-boarding cabin searches for “suspicious materials or items.” The union complained that its members have felt pressure to end their searches and attest falsely on FAA documents in the interest of on-time performance. It also wants extra pay for training and the time it should take to properly complete the searches.