CHICAGO (Reuters) - Commuter airlines which operate just over half of all U.S. domestic flights are under pressure as business travelers weigh safety problems arising from a crash in February.
A federal investigation into the crash of a Colgan Air commuter plane that killed 50 people in New York state has put the focus on regional airlines at a particularly vulnerable time for a business travel industry coping with recession.
Colgan, a unit of Pinnacle Airlines Corp, operates under the names of Continental Connection for Continental Airlines, as United Express for UAL Corp, and as US Airways Express for US Airways Group.
Colgan was flying Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb 12 when it crashed near Buffalo. Hearings by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this month exposed issues of pilot fatigue, lack of experience and inadequate training.
The poorly paid flight crew of the late-night commuter flight had arrived at work early the day of the crash and had commuted long distances to reach Newark, NJ where the flight originated. The pilot flew in from Florida and may have napped in a crew lounge to save money on a hotel; the 24-year-old co-pilot who earned only $24,000 a year spent the previous two nights to get from her home in Seattle to Newark.
The two, their voices captured on inflight recorders, discussed their inexperience with aircraft icing as the flight descended in wintry conditions. The captain ignored a warning system and crew members broke cockpit rules by chatting about things not connected to the flight as the plane entered the crucial landing phase.
"This hearing ... has initiated an important discussion on new measures that could be taken industry-wide to improve safety for everyone," Colgan said in a statement on May 14. "We want to know what happened as much as anyone else does."
Congress also is looking into the safety of regional airlines that fly the 30- to 90-seat planes.
Some business travelers are not waiting.
"Since February, there's been drastic changes in the way the corporations are looking at their responsibility to their employees," said Jean Covelli, president of The Travel Team Inc., which books travel for companies around the world.
"They've done many independent studies into the situation and also are putting tremendous pressure on the government to permanently fix a very broken system," she said.
Covelli declined to identify any clients specifically concerned about air safety. But she said many were choosing to travel by car or train rather than regional airline.
"Many people are electing to drive when it used to be a four-hour radius. Now they'll drive up to a 10-hour radius without thinking twice about it," she said.
"People are getting creative. Trains are again a focus for a lot of corporate travelers," she said.
Even if safety probes do not frighten passengers away, regional airlines could face lawmakers' demands for costly operational changes -- especially as the last three commercial flights to crash were operated by commuter carriers.
"There will be some increased costs at regionals," said airline industry consultant Robert Mann. "It'll be associated with enhanced training requirements, maybe some different crew scheduling requirements."
In the United States, regional carriers operate just over half of all domestic flights. More than 160 million passengers flew on regional airlines in 2007, up 40 percent from 2003, according to data from the RAA.
Regional carriers -- Air Wisconsin, Mesa Air Group and Pinnacle Airlines Corp are examples -- typically lease small planes of 90 seats or less from major "mainline" airlines and fly connecting routes between less-traveled cites under the names of the larger partners.
Reduced service would have an impact on the towns served. About 75 percent of U.S. airports -- 240 cities -- are served exclusively by regional airlines.
Cities like Toledo, Ohio; Tupelo, Mississippi; and Aspen, Colorado, have airports served only by regional airlines, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA).
"Every one of those communities has come to depend on our service," said RAA president Roger Cohen.
Regional carriers have suffered as weak travel demand hurt their revenues. For the first quarter, for example, ExpressJet Holdings Inc, which provides regional flights for Continental, reported a loss. SkyWest Inc, which flies for Delta Air Lines and UAL Corp's United, said its quarterly profit dropped 68 percent. Earlier this month, Mesa Air Group Inc also posted a loss against a year-earlier profit for its most second quarter ended March 31.
But Cohen predicted publicity about the Colgan crash would not jeopardize the regional aviation business, telling Reuters: "This industry has a tremendous safety record ... It's absolutely the safest way to travel."
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said he doubted U.S. corporations would bar their employees from traveling on regional airlines.
"But I'd bet you they're going to make it a choice for the employee to make even if an alternative is higher priced," he said. "And that could have a sizable impact."
Additional reporting by John Crawley. Editing by Peter Bohan and Alan Elsner