Congress vs. Commuter Pilot Experience: Wrong Answer
The image of Senator Chuck Schumer grinning over the signing of the senate bill that adds new restrictions on commuter pilots is as misguided as the the bill itself.
Here’s why. The crash of Continental Express flight 3407 last year–the driving force behind the bill–was only indirectly linked to co-pilot inexperience, which is the major focus of the bill.
In fact, the primary vulnerability of the flying public, which is ostensibly the reason for the new law, is written clearly on the burning wreckage of the plane:
It’s the airline logo that threatens the public’s safety: as with many commuter subsidiaries of major airlines, they’re marketed seamlessly as the same airline product–but they couldn’t be more different. The pilots of Continental Airlines, as with any major airline, have thousands of hours of experience over many years. The reason the commuter pilots are not flying for a major airline is largely because they don’t have that level of experience yet.
The place they get the experience? At the commuters–which are nonetheless branded and marketed, right down to the pilots’ uniforms–with the logos and schedules of a major airlines. As if it were the same product.
But contrary to the logo on the wreckage, this was not the crash of a Continental Airlines flight–rather, this was Colgan Airways flight 3407 painted as, marketed and booked as and flown by a commuter subsidiary with comparatively inexperienced pilots. It’s as disingenuous as the Los Angeles Dodgers selling you a ticket to a major league game–and then fielding their farm team, the Suns, for a few innings.
The ticketing process for air travel may involve connections with “partners” who are branded as the same product, with identical paint jobs, crew uniforms and zero distinction in the booking and scheduling. At least in baseball, you’d clearly know that the team was different because unlike the major airlines and their commuter affiliates–the baseball farm club doesn’t share the same uniforms, logos and branding of the major league team. Sure, many of the minor league players will eventually move up to the big leagues–when they’ve proven themselves. That’s the purpose of the farm system in both baseball and airline pilots: when they’re ready–if ever, and not everyone is–they may find a spot on a big league roster.
Can passengers determine whether or not their flight is operated by a commuter airline or a major carrier? Sure. In fact, a few clicks on this site (and it’s just one of many similar sites) will reveal what type of aircraft a booking is putting you on and as importantly, who’s flying the airplane. But will consumers check?
And do they really care?
After the Valujet crash in the Florida Everglades, airline experts warned that consumers would shun the airline. But economists predicted otherwise, and they were correct: $50 ticket discounts brought passenger level back to normal in a remarkably short time.
Meanwhile, cereal makers are required to disclose nutritional information on the box. Grocery stores can’t sell you powdered Tang and label it as Minute Made orange juice, and would consumers allow a rental car company to slap a Caddy logo on a KIA and rent it as a luxury sedan?
Last year, congress debated the “Truth in Labeling Act” which was designed to protect animals by making consumers aware of the actual contents of their food. Labels were required to be specific about nutritional value and specific food content.
Why in the world is there no truth in labeling act for the airline product? While higher standards for regional level co-pilots is a symbolic move toward greater competence, the point is until they have that experience, they’ll stay in the minor leagues which has always been the farm team system of the major airlines. Consumers should be aware of this fact, as well as the fact that although the uniform may be identical, the players are not.
Maybe as in the case of ValuJet, passengers don’t really care about experience or safety margins as much as price. But I suspect that many do and as importantly, it is the government’s responsibility to regulate exactly what product is being sold, and clearly specify what it is–or is not.
Because while minor league ball can be fun to watch, if your life depended on it, don’t you think you’ve paid for and should expect the first string?
The other side of the story?
Here’s a firsthand account of commuter pilot life from an ex-Air Force colleague and one of the most respected pilots to ever wear USAF wings. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________