NTSB symposium endeavors to clear the air on code sharing

 - November 30, 2010, 7:33 AM

Not everyone agrees with the regional airlines’ assertion that they fly just as safely as their mainline counterparts. With this perception and several specific accidents in mind, the NTSB convened a symposium in late October to shed more light on airline code-sharing arrangements and their role in aviation safety.

Several recent NTSB investigations involved flights that were being operated under code-share agreements between smaller regional airlines and the larger, better-known major carriers. For example, the Feb. 12, 2009, accident near Buffalo, N.Y., involved Continental Connection Flight 3407, a flight actually operated by Colgan Air. Other investigations included the 2007 accident in Traverse City, Mich., in which a Northwest Airlink flight was operated by Pinnacle Airlines; the 2007 accident in Cleveland in which a Delta Connection flight was operated by Shuttle America; the 2006 accident in Lexington, Ky., in which a Delta Connection flight was operated by Comair; and the 2004 accident in Kirksville, Mo., in which an American Connection flight was operated by Corporate Airlines.

These accidents and others prodded the Board to convene the symposium, in the belief that such a session would benefit its work in the future. NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said at the outset of the two-day session in the agency’s boardroom in Washington that, unlike its board meetings–where accident investigation reports are adopted and safety recommendations are issued–the symposium would not end with the Board issuing any new recommendations.

In convening the symposium, the Safety Board set out three objectives: to provide background information on the structures, present practices and oversight of domestic and international code-sharing agreements; to provide insight into the operational and safety interactions between major airlines and their regional code-sharing partners; and to clarify the role that a major airline would have in the investigative and family disaster assistance responses to an accident involving a code-sharing partner.

Hersman said common code-sharing practices confuse the traveling public. “Your ticket might say Delta Air Lines or United Airlines, and the airplane at the gate might look like a Delta or United airplane,” she explained,  “but you might discover when you sit on the airplane and look at the safety pamphlet that that particular segment of your travel is being provided by Comair or Air Wisconsin, ‘operating as Delta Connection’ or ‘United Express.’”

The crash of the Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 near Buffalo, which killed all 49 on the airplane and one person on the ground, reignited questions about the safety of regional airlines. Since August 2003, regional airlines have accounted for five of the past six fatal accidents involving FAR Part 121 passenger-carrying operations in the U.S. Meanwhile, the only fatal Part 121 accident during that time that didn’t involve a regional was a runway overrun by a Southwest Airlines 737 that killed one person on the ground.

Despite this accident record, Regional Airline Association president Roger Cohen said during his presentation, “As passengers expect, regional airlines fly under the same gold standards as the majors: there is one level of safety.” But Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition (BTC), countered that 66.6 percent of travel managers indicated that business travelers who they support voice concerns about perceived safety differences between U.S. regional and U.S. major airline code share partners.

BTC said 64.4 percent of travel managers it surveyed indicated they view the painting of regional airplanes, operated by one company but with the logo of its code-share major airline partner, as amounting to deceptive marketing. Another 80.5 percent of travelers avoid turboprop aircraft and 62.5 percent of travel managers indicated their companies’ travel policies allow travelers to book out of policy if they are uncomfortable with flying on regional airlines.

While Air Line Pilots Association president John Prater told the forum that code-sharing itself is a business practice that is neither safe nor unsafe, he acknowledged that in the highly competitive airline industry, regionals operate with small margins and large economic pressures. The challenge is to prevent those pressures from adversely affecting safety, he said, adding that regional airlines are under pressure to recruit the least experienced pilots and to minimize training.