RAA’s Cohen Sees Opportunity In Challenges

 - April 26, 2011, 9:45 AM

Ever the optimist, Roger Cohen stayed true to form as he talked about his most pressing concerns for the Regional Airline Association and its membership for the next year during a pre-convention interview with AIN. The RAA president seems always to see opportunity in the challenges confronting the association and its 30 member airlines, perhaps most notably in the evolving regulatory environment they face.

“Our members have come through this period much stronger,” referring to two years of some of the most intense public scrutiny the regional airline industry has ever endured. “They’ve proved their resiliency in [spite] of everything. That they’re flying a greater percentage of the schedule, carrying a greater share of the passengers and a greater percentage of communities than ever before I think proves the point.” In fact, regional airlines account for 50.3 percent of all domestic flights in the U.S. and more than a quarter of all passengers, “and that seems to be a high-water mark,” said Cohen.

Still, the growth of the U.S. regional airline industry has plateaued to a degree since 2008 after a period in which regional airlines benefited tremendously from their mainline partners’ exercises in “rightsizing.” Today, as the major airline industry consolidates and regionals find themselves with fewer and fewer opportunities to form new code-share alliances, companies such as Republic Airways have found new ways to diversify–into the low-fare sector, for example, and make do with less handsome returns than what the majors might at one time have considered extravagant fee-per-departure contracts.

Now, as oil tops $100 per barrel and jet-fuel crack spreads widen to alarming levels largely due to the lack of refinery capacity, major airlines have begun to accelerate a trend toward targeting their least fuel efficient assets–namely, 50-seat regional jets–for removal from service. Of course, regional airlines that fly that equipment can do nothing but try to place them with other airlines. But now that few major airlines want to add anything smaller than a 70-seat jet, even to their regional fleets, it appears those airplanes will either head to desert storage or, if their owners get lucky, service in developing markets overseas.

Cohen preferred not to predict the eventual fallout of the fuel crisis, confessing to limited skills at prognostication and access to a cloudy “crystal ball.”

“When we went through this in the summer of 2008, there was a lot of initial concern that the regional sector was going to be more adversely affected by these capacity [reductions] or, in some cases, not a capacity reduction but a reduction in what the increase was going to be,” said Cohen. “And as it shook out, it probably wasn’t as bad as some of the initial perceptions.”

Asked to name some of his highest priorities for the coming year, Cohen didn’t so much express concerns, but opted to air confidence in his members’ ability to continue the progress they’ve made in the past. “Number one is to continue and even expand on the tremendous safety enhancements that have been going on literally for decades,” he said. “The number of leading industry practices that we’re currently involved in [ranges] from flight training to establishing a single database of pilot records, [to] our fatigue study, which is now entering its second phase, doing field testing and validation of multi-segment operations. So we’ve got a number of initiatives all geared at making the safe flying that we do even safer yet.”

Cohen noted that before the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 on Feb. 12, 2009, the U.S. airline industry had gone 28 months without a single passenger fatality–a new record, by his accounting–and that by some time this summer the industry will have broken that record again.

Cohen stressed that the programs known as FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) and ASAP (Aviation Safety Action Program) have now become universally accepted across the regional airline industry. “The other ones–LOSA (Line Operations Safety Audit), AQP (Advanced Qualification Program), IOSA (IATA Operational Safety Audits)–those are virtually universal and are being adopted, and these are voluntary programs.”

Notwithstanding the undeniable extra scrutiny the regional airlines have faced since the Colgan crash, Cohen would not agree with the premise that the regulatory environment has grown stricter over the past two years and, as a result, affected the airlines’ ability to grow. “I’m going to disagree on both counts,” he said. “Number one, the FAA has always been the world’s toughest regulator and it remains so today. And secondly, I think the numbers would prove that the industry has continued to play an even more prominent role, and the fact that we’re taking the lead on many of these initiatives would dispute the [premise] that it’s had any kind of negative impact at all.”

Cohen noted that the RAA has participated in each of the eight “rulemakings,” 11 studies and one database ARC over the past year-and-a-half, most of which stemmed from H.R. 5900, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.  

Meanwhile, the FAA indicated to the RAA that the 85 pages of comments the association filed on the proposed new rules for flight crew duty and rest “were incredibly useful and constructive,” reported Cohen, who said that the most important tenet of the RAA’s position centers on its insistence that the rules must reflect sound science and “real world realities” and that all stakeholders must share responsibility for managing fatigue.

Cohen refused to speculate about when the FAA might issue a final duty time and fatigue rule. “They don’t call me to tell me,” he joked. “The news media usually find out when we do, if not sooner.” 

Another new rule, the 1,500-hour/ATP hiring requirement for Part 121 first officers, also remains a so-called hot-button issue for the RAA, as the association awaits word on whether regulators will grant credit for attending a four-year aviation school or military service. After all, whether or not the FAA allows for such credit could make the difference between what some believe could become a serious pilot shortage and an inevitable tightening of supply by the time the rule takes effect in 2013. Although Cohen said the shortage of mechanics has become a bigger concern for the airlines, he didn’t deny the real possibility of an eventual shortage of pilots.  

“The volatility of this industry really hinges on factors beyond our control,” said Cohen. “And what we’re trying to do in that environment is [boost] the supply of qualified aviation professionals in the smartest way possible and that’s a partnership that all stakeholders are involved in–organized labor, the training community, universities. I don’t want to downplay the significance of the pilot shortage, because it is a real issue.” o