For the first time in the history of the Regional Airline Association (RAA), a sitting Department of Transportation Secretary attended the group’s annual convention this year. And not only did Ray LaHood take the time to travel to Nashville this month to deliver the keynote address at the convention’s general session, he promised the executives in the audience “a seat at the table” when the Administration debates transportation policy.
Now, that might not seem so unreasonable. After all, regional airlines account for more than half of all scheduled flights in the U.S. Perhaps they deserve more influence in policy making.
But whatever happened to the strident tones we heard from public officials when they scolded regional airlines for a lax safety culture following the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, in which, according to the NTSB, 50 people died as a result of blatant human failings? Apparently, judging by the praise heaped upon the regional airlines by LaHood, they have either done a miraculous job of overhauling the way they go about their business or the tone of the rhetoric has drastically changed.
The RAA likes to cite statistics that show we’ve entered one of the safest periods in the history of the business. Indeed, no one has died on a scheduled flight in the U.S. since that tragic February night outside Buffalo in 2009.
But can anyone in good conscience attribute the lack of a death toll over the past two-plus years to the RAA’s Strategic Safety Initiative, or its fatigue study, or the regionals’ sudden commitment to voluntary safety initiatives, such as ASAP (Aviation Safety Action Program)? Even the regional airlines themselves refuse to concede that, as a group, their priorities have changed. Safety has always stood at the top of their list of concerns, they insist.
Still, as players in the air transport industry’s “big leagues,” as declared by NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman during last year’s convention in Milwaukee, the regionals cannot afford an image problem. As such, an industry that once exhibited a “tin ear” to public perception now shows a keen sensitivity to it, as reflected in the many safety-related programs instituted by the RAA and its members over the past two years.
Perhaps therein lies the biggest difference between the regional airline business before the Colgan accident and the one that Ray LaHood addressed last week. Hopefully that–along with new rules governing crew rest time and training–will prove sufficient.