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.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York

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. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________


7 Responses to “Congress vs. Commuter Pilot Experience: Wrong Answer”

  1. Chris,

    It is interesting to hear the view point from a mainline carrier. I am curious to see what regional airline pilots would have to say about this. Or even a Continental pilot. I’m not sure I totally agree with the statement that we (the passengers) are buying tickets for the dodgers and are seeing the suns. I am very aware when I book my tickets whether it is a mainline carrier or a regional. I don’t know all of the financial reasons for the benefit of regional airlines, but they clearly exist. I think the best summary of the regional airlines safety performance would be shown in a weighted index (x accidents per 1000 flights). I wonder if this information exists already…


  2. You raise good points. I’d also wonder if the passengers who died in Colgan 3407 had been aware of what came out later regarding their flight crew (that their captain had failed multiple checkrides and that their first officer had minimal flight experience and had not slept the night before and was sick) if they’d have booked the flight with Colgan anyway. And I wonder how many assumed that the flight crew was the standard Continental flight crew given the logo on the plane.

    • I guess I should mention that I prefer mainline carriers. I don’t want to fly on jets with regional staff, but sometimes I don’t have a choice. i.e. I flew from IND to YQB recently. There are really only regional choices on that flight (with connections in either DTW, ORD or EWR).
      I guess flying out of IND I’ll only be able to avoid regional carriers and regional jets when they no longer exist. Until then I’m stuck with ExpressJet, Pinnacle and American Eagle.

  3. Zoomie 91 Says:

    It’s a good thing that the flying public doesn’t know that most airline pilots wouldn’t put their mother-in-law, much less their family, on a commuter flight, for all the reasons you mentioned. You’re bound to get flack from the commuter rabble, but who cares? The fact is, they’re as a group less qualified and less competent. That’s not safe, and they shouldn’t be dressed up by the airline as if they were the same as the mainline pilots.

    • Tell it like it is, brutha. I’m not too worried about protests from commuter pilots–they’re all either starving on their food stamp wages, or appearing on Dancing With The Stars. Thanks for commenting.

  4. I wouldn’t say they are less competent but they are definitely held to different standards by their employer. Most of these regional carriers have very small profit margins and just to stay in the black have to have quick turnarounds. Industrywide it’s an issue of crews getting enough rest and not being scared of being reprimanded when they KNOW they can’t fly. It’s very annoying that lawmakers are placing blame on other factors besides crew rest/fatigue.
    Also many people don’t seem to know that ValuJet is still flying today (granted with a MUCH younger fleet) as AirTran. A nice merger and name change helps change a customers POV of a company too.

    • You’ve hit on an issue that should be a discussion topic on its own: crew rest. The FAA will not consider regulating rest before a flight sequence, allowing crew members like the 3407 copilot to simply show up for a flight after commuting across the country all night. The airlines and their commuting pilots don’t seem too interested in requiring pre-flight rest either.

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