Crash inquiry turns to skills, pay of pilots


A federal investigation into the deadly crash of a Colgan Air twin-engine turboprop near Buffalo, N.Y., this year is raising broad questions about the flight training and working conditions for pilots at regional airlines across the country.

A National Transportation Safety Board hearing Wednesday in Washington revealed that the pilot and co-pilot of the ill-fated plane were low-paid, had to commute hundreds of miles to work and probably were fatigued as they made the evening flight Feb. 12 from Newark, N.J.

On approaching Buffalo, the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 went into a stall that the pilots were unable to correct. Fifty people died in the worst transportation accident in the United States in seven years.


The three days of hearings, which began Tuesday, are focusing on the practices of Colgan Air, which operated Continental Connection Flight 3407. NTSB officials said Tuesday that the captain, Marvin Renslow, had failed flight checks in the aircraft five times before he passed, and that he was unfamiliar with emergency procedures to prevent the aircraft from stalling.

Under questioning from the board Wednesday, Mary Finnigan, Colgan’s vice president for administration, said the airline paid Rebecca Shaw, the co-pilot, $16,200 a year. The board disclosed that Shaw once supplemented her salary by with a second job in a coffee shop.

“The things from the hearing are so troubling -- the lack of training, the laissez-faire attitude in the cockpit and the airline officials screwing up,” said Barry Sweedler, a former senior manager for the NTSB who is now a safety consultant based in Northern California. “I would think that the NTSB would come out with some recommendations before they are finished with the investigation.”

Including the Buffalo accident, 135 people have been killed in five crashes involving regional airlines since 2002. NTSB officials looking into the crashes found pilot fatigue, high turnover rates among pilots and a pattern of sloppiness at the airlines.

Roger Cohen, executive director of the Regional Airline Assn., a national organization, said airlines were addressing the many safety, training and fatigue issues raised by the Buffalo crash. He added that the issues were important to major airlines as well.

Three-quarters of the nation’s 640 airports are served only by regional airlines, of which there are 70 in the United States. About a quarter of the flights at Los Angeles International Airport are operated by commuter carriers, which typically fly turboprop planes or regional jets with 20 to 80 seats.

The regional airlines are considered an entry-level job or stepping stone for pilots interested in working at major carriers, where captains of large aircraft are paid $125,000 a year on average. Captains at Colgan earn $50,000 to $53,000 a year.

Other testimony by airline officials Wednesday indicated that the company did not pay cost-of-living adjustments to pilots who lived in expensive areas such as New York, though they paid such adjustments to managers.

When asked by the board whether Colgan expected Shaw to live in the New York area, near her base in Newark, Finnigan said, “Pilots are told what the pay scales are. Our pay scales are within the industry standard.”

The hearing revealed that regional airline pilots often had long commutes to reach their assignments. The NTSB said 93 of Colgan’s 137 Newark-based pilots considered themselves commuters, including 49 who traveled more than 400 miles and 29 who lived more than 1,000 miles away.

The two pilots were based at Colgan’s Newark office, but Shaw lived near Seattle and Renslow lived in Florida. They commuted to work by using flight privileges given to them by other airlines at little or no cost.

On the day before the crash, Shaw left Seattle on an overnight FedEx flight, the NTSB said. She arrived in Newark at 6:30 a.m. after changing planes in Memphis, Tenn.

The NTSB said Shaw sent text messages throughout the day, an indication that she wasn’t sleeping.

Renslow, who arrived in Newark from Tampa, Fla., three days before the flight, was seen sleeping in the crew lounge, which is prohibited by the airline, officials said.

Board member Kitty Higgins said fatigue had been a factor in other crashes and was a major concern for the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that the crew rooms aren’t supposed to be used [for sleeping] but are being used -- I think it’s a recipe for an accident, and that’s what we have here,” Higgins said.

Barry Schiff, a Camarillo-based aviation safety consultant and a former airline pilot, said the revelations about the working conditions for the pilots in the Buffalo crash were “shocking but not surprising.”

Schiff said long hours, little rest and low salaries were endemic for pilots who worked for regional carriers. And despite new attention given to the “appalling” working conditions, he thinks little will be done.

“This has happened before and it will happen again,” said Schiff, whose two sons were pilots for regional carriers. “I pray that it doesn’t happen again, but I don’t believe the FAA will do much about it.”

Schiff said one of his sons was able to move to a larger carrier, but his other son gave up his pilot career after working in what the son called horrific conditions.

“These guys don’t even have time to eat,” he said. “They grab a candy bar when they can.”