Colgan crash renews scrutiny on regionals

 - March 30, 2009, 6:52 AM

The crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 that killed 50 people outside Buffalo in February once again has the industry group that represents U.S. regional airlines fielding some familiar questions about the level of safety its members guarantee to the traveling public.

Since August 2003, regional airlines have accounted for five of the last six fatal accidents involving FAR Part 121 passenger-carrying operations in the U.S., according to the accident database maintained by the NTSB. The only fatal Part 121 accident during that time that didn’t involve a regional airline–the Dec. 8, 2005 runway overrun by a Southwest Airlines 737 at Chicago Midway Airport–resulted in the death of a single automobile passenger when the airplane rolled through the perimeter fence and on to a nearby road. Two other fatal accidents during that span involving regional airlines resulted in the death of four pilots performing Part 91 repositioning flights.

Regional airlines have operated under the identical Federal Aviation Regulations as their mainline counterparts since 1995, when the FAA introduced the so-called One Level of Safety Rule. Why, then, have they accounted for the majority of fatal accidents over the past six years? “For five years before [this] string started, it had been nothing but mainline airline deaths,” noted Regional Airline Association president Roger Cohen. Today, though, regional airlines account for half of all departures in the U.S., exposing them at least as often as their mainline counterparts to the phase of flight during which most accidents occur. “Because the stage lengths are shorter, as a percentage of the flight, we’re significantly higher in terms of takeoffs and departures [compared with the majors],” said Cohen.

Of course, the regional airline industry has fought a battle against the perception that the safety of its airplanes–turboprops in particular– does not compare favorably with those flown by their mainline counterparts, and the fact that icing conditions did exist during the Q400’s approach into Buffalo has rekindled an old debate about whether wing de-icing boots do their job as well as the hot bleed air systems used in jets. Although the NTSB had yet to determine whether icing contributed to this latest crash, former Safety Board chairman Jim Hall has called for the grounding of all of Colgan’s remaining Q400s.

“The FAA cannot demonstrate the Dash 8-Q400 can be safely operated by Colgan Air within the airplane’s certification requirements,” said Hall in a statement released by the Nolan Law Group. “For the safety of the flying public, the Q400 turboprops operated by Colgan Air should be barred from operating in icing conditions. Declaring an operation to be safe, in the absence of conclusive proof, is not sufficient.”

Operated by airlines such as Horizon Air in the Northwest U.S., Lynx Airlines from Denver in and around the Rocky Mountains, Porter Airlines from Toronto and Wideroe in Scandinavia, however, the Q400 has safely done more than its share of flying in icing conditions, noted Cohen.

“Each accident is unique, and for the last two years the industry overall has had a perfect record [in terms of fatalities],” he said. “And as [regionals perform] half the flights, we’ve been one of the main contributors to that… so to characterize this as a trend is just wrong, because there’s no pattern.” In the six fatal accidents preceding the latest Colgan Air crash, probable causes ranged from pilot error and fatigue to poor maintenance oversight to flawed weight-and-balance practices.

One might view the wide variety of causes as damning in itself, however. In fact, last June the NTSB cited three accidents and an incident involving regional airlines as the basis for a pair of recommendations to the FAA related to pilot fatigue. The Board called on the FAA to develop guidance for operators to establish “fatigue management systems” and methodology to assess their effectiveness, including their ability to improve sleep and alertness, mitigate performance errors and prevent incidents and accidents.

One of the four cases cited by the NTSB–the Oct. 19, 2004 crash of a Corporate Airlines Jetstream 31 in Kirksville, Mo., that killed 11 passengers and both pilots–took place at the end of a 14.5-hour duty day for which crew reported early and during which they had conducted five previous landings in poor visibility. The NTSB cited as a probable cause the pilots’ failure to follow established procedures and properly conduct a non-precision approach at night during IMC, including their descent below the minimum descent altitude before the availability of required visual cues.

Other fatigue-related cases cited by the NTSB involved runway overruns of a Shuttle America Embraer E170 on Feb. 18, 2007, and a Pinnacle Airlines CRJ200 at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Mich., on April 12, 2007. But perhaps the most egregious case involved a Mesa Airlines Bombardier CRJ200 that flew past its destination airport, General Lyman Field, in Hilo, Hawaii, after its pilots fell asleep at the controls during a Feb. 18, 2008 revenue flight. The airplane flew 26 nm beyond its intended destination airport before the flight crew awakened and responded.

Now, as the NTSB continues its probe into the latest Colgan Air accident, charges that regional airlines employ less experienced and, therefore, less capable crews have begun circulating in the mass media. Ironically, as hiring at the major airlines has ended as a result of recession-driven capacity cuts, regional airlines haven’t employed such an experienced group of pilots in many years.

Cohen chalks up the string of regional airline fatalities to coincidence and bad luck. “Just look at the last two accidents,” said Cohen, referring to the US Airways A320 that successfully ditched into the Hudson River on January 15 and the Continental Airlines Boeing 737 that ran off a runway during an aborted takeoff at Denver International Airport, injuring 37 of the airplane’s occupants. “Even though they weren’t fatal, what if the Hudson River hadn’t been right there [for the US Airways crew]? In Denver, what if one small thing had happened differently?”