Cohen, RAA stand resolute under fire

 - May 5, 2010, 6:44 AM

Given all the scrutiny the regional airline industry has absorbed over the past year, one might forgive RAA president Roger Cohen for succumbing to some cynicism. But through the countless hours he has spent giving Congressional testimony, making television appearances, submitting to press interviews and answering to his association’s board of directors, Cohen never veered “off message.” In fact, he exudes perhaps more optimism now than at any other time during his near three-and-a-half-year tenure as head of the RAA. 

“I’m encouraged by a couple of things,” said Cohen. “These challenges over the last year–primarily on the safety and public policy front and even the economic challenges–I think have reaffirmed everybody’s commitment to the airlines, to operating safely, and to doing it even better. I think everybody’s encouraged that we’ve come through this challenging period bigger and stronger than really ever before.”

Cohen characterized Republic Airways’ firm order for 40 Bombardier C Series narrow-bodies in late February and the letter of intent signed last October by Trans States Airlines covering as many as 100 Mitsubishi regional jets as “very significant,” given both airlines felt confident enough in the economic climate to become the U.S. launch customers for those respective programs. “There are several carriers that have started to recruit and hire new pilots, so our people are feeling much more positive,” said Cohen. “It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you can feel it.”

Despite major airline efforts over the past few years to render their fee-per-departure contracts less lucrative for their partners, regionals continue to increase their share of the country’s flying. Regional airlines now account for more than 53 percent of all scheduled flights in the U.S., and more than a quarter of all domestic passengers fly on them. Meanwhile, over the past year, the frosty relationships between some regional airlines and their mainline partners have begun to thaw, notwithstanding the experience of Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, which went bankrupt due in large part to its inability to shed airplanes fast enough to keep pace with the loss of business it suffered. 

“Tough times, particularly tough economic times, going back to the fuel crisis two years ago, have a way of fraying those partnerships around the edges,” noted Cohen. “But everybody recognizes that…it’s one industry, they’re flying on one brand, and to be safe and efficient stewards of that brand, [the regionals and majors] are reliant on one another. So I sense, if anything, a much greater strengthening of understanding of the needs of the parties on both sides of the partnership.”

Of course, regionals that consistently meet their on-time performance and flight-completion guarantees usually enjoy better relationships with their mainline partners than those that don’t. So when, as a whole, the industry performs better–as it has of late–tensions subside. 

“I think the numbers bear it out,” said Cohen. In fact, last year the nation’s 19 largest airlines posted their best on-time performance rate since 2003, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report released in February by the DOT. And while regional airlines Comair and Atlantic Southeast finished as the two worst performers due largely to their significant presence at some of the country’s most delay-prone airports, as a group the other regionals on the list showed as much or more improvement over the past year as the majors did. 

ATC Progress

Although Cohen attributed some of the improvement to less congestion in general due to lower demand, he also praised the FAA for “solid progress” in its efforts to modernize the ATC system. “I think the resolution of the controller agreement has had a positive impact; I think the deployment and testing of Next-Gen equipment is bearing fruit; I think more and more carriers of every size are doing things to address it,” said Cohen. “It certainly hasn’t gotten any worse.”

What has taken a turn for the worse–fears that regionals employ less experienced flight crews and, therefore, fly less safely than their mainline counterparts–has more to do with perception than reality, said Cohen. Unfortunately for the RAA, Congress has placed it in a rather delicate position as Cohen and his staff ponder how to address what Cohen described as “arbitrary” flight-hour requirements for first officers. 

Last October the House of Representatives passed the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, which requires Part 121 first officers to carry ATP licenses, effectively raising the minimum hiring requirements from 250 to 1,500 hours. The bill, which passed by a vote of 409 to 11, did contain a caveat allowing 

the FAA to consider certain academic training hours as practical flying hours, however. 

Compromise language in the Senate FAA Reauthorization bill passed in March sets an 800-hour requirement for copilots by the end of next year. The measure also prescribes the type of experience–in multi-pilot environments and icing conditions, for example–some of those hours must include. The bill states that if the FAA does not publish rulemaking that includes those provisions by the end of next year, then first officers would have to obtain an ATP license before they may occupy the right seat of an airplane carrying revenue-generating passengers. 

“The FAA is clear about this and supports this 100 percent, that, number one, arbitrary numbers of hours of experience do not equate to safety, that quality is not quantity,” said Cohen. 

“The FAA has an ANPRM out there to determine if there need to be some additional levels, some additional endorsement, some additional training between the commercial license and the ATP…and we fully endorse that kind of review.”

Although the language in the Senate bill that refers to specific flying conditions attempts to address the quantity-versus-quality argument, the flight-time minimums seemed sure to make for spirited discussion in the RAA boardroom. 

The RAA has argued that an ATP requirement, in particular, would discourage pilots from entering high-quality university-based programs from where they typically graduate with between 250 and 350 hours of flying time–far short of the number needed for an ATP–in favor of the shortest route to 1,500 hours, which detractors say often means repeating the same flying hour in a single-engine piston airplane a thousand times over. However, it appears that the RAA has come to accept the inevitability of some sort of reform. 

“There’s a growing consensus in the industry,” said Cohen. “In fact, I’ve yet to hear anybody say that there shouldn’t be some revisions to that whole process. By the same token, there is near unanimous opposition to an arbitrary 1,500 hours.”

Convention attendees will get the chance to hear one particularly influential voice for reform– that of NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman–in Milwaukee. Hersman, who has agreed to give the convention’s keynote speech, will, in turn, get the chance to hear from some of the RAA’s leading figures during meetings with airline CEOs and safety committees “to see first hand just how robust the safety culture is in the regional airline industry,” said Cohen.

“I think that every pilot who is flying out there today, in the left seat or the right seat, is trained, qualified, has the needed experience and demonstrated the needed kind of qualifications to be doing the job,” he stressed. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be there, and they shouldn’t be there.”