Newsmakers 2009: Colgan Air crash ignites troubling questions for regionals

 - December 28, 2009, 9:30 AM

When a Colgan Air Q400 crashed on a winter’s night in February, killing all 49 people on board and one on the ground, airframe icing was an early subject of speculation. Reviving memories of Roselawn in 1994, when an American Airlines ATR fell abruptly from a wintry sky while preparing to land, the Q400 crashed into a house on the approach to Buffalo from an altitude of about 2,000 feet on a cold, damp night.

Long before the NTSB published its final report on the accident (it has yet to be released), however, the focus of the investigation broadened beyond icing to include the pilots’ professionalism–or, as revealed by the cockpit voice recorder transcript, their lack of it.

The cockpits of regional airliners have long been a training ground for those pursuing an airline-pilot career, and the accident record over the past few years suggests that, despite the FAA’s pronouncements about “one level of safety” for the entire airline industry, a passenger is safer riding on a major airline.

Since August 2003, regional airlines have accounted for five of the last six fatal accidents involving Part 121 passenger-carrying operations in the U.S. This disparity has become a larger issue now that regional airlines operate more than half of the flights in the U.S. airline system.

In an unusual move involving an accident still under investigation, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, speaking at a hearing late last summer in Washington, encouraged all pilots to read the Colgan CVR transcript ( DCA09MA027/423395.pdf) and heed its message about the need for professionalism.

Ironically, the Colgan pilots’ cockpit chat included the copilot’s statements about the scariness of the unknowns of icing–the very hazard that is suspected
of playing a role in their imminent demise. The fares in back surely deserved more expertise than this from a system their government had assured them offered “one level of safety.” As portrayed by the NTSB thus far, the captain’s handling of a stick-shaker warning further betrayed the trust of the passengers and sealed the fate of all aboard.

Revelations that the copilot felt under the weather and had commuted to her Q400’s right seat in Newark, N.J., from her parents’ home in the Pacific Northwest, where she lived because McDonald’s pays its workers more than regionals pay their first officers, did nothing to burnish the reputations of Colgan and the like and brought harsh criticism about the whole concept of “commuting pilots.”