Safety concerns put spotlight on U.S. commuter airlines

Sun May 24, 2009 7:05pm EDT
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By Kyle Peterson

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.   Continued...

<p>Firefighters are seen at the site of the wreckage of a plane, a Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air, which crashed in Clarence, near Buffalo, New York February 13, 2009. REUTERS/Gary Wiepert</p>