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'Hey, Lou, this propeller looks pretty sturdy to me.' (commuter airline safety)

Except for the slipshod inspections, the loose regulations, and the untrained pilots, commuter airlines are pretty safe

Not long ago on This Week with David Brinkley" the conversation turned to the latest wellpublicized airline disaster, the crash of Delta night 1141 en route from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Salt Lake City. After it was duly noted that things could have turned out much worse (94 of 107 people on board survived the crash), Sam Donaldson, ABC's star correspondent, launched into some mild criticism of aviation safety, for which he was promptly and predictably attacked by George Will, ABC's star conservative.

Will ticked off the standard defense of the airline industry, arguing it is still more dangerous to drive to the airport or cross the street than to fly, and he was supported by Hodding Carter, the liberal ABC commentator, who held that those in the news business like to focus attention on airline safety because they jet around so often and fear for their own lives. Outnumbered, Donaldson backed off a bit, but not before noting how there was nothing quite like an air disaster to get people crowding around television sets.

Poor Sam. There he was falling back on hype when he had the chance to put forward the facts and at the same time get Will with the kind of zinger that gives people reason to wake up on Sunday mornings. Instead of citing the shock value of an aviation disaster, Donaldson might have asked Will when he was last forced to fly in a ten-seat, twin-engine turbo-prop from, say, Raleigh to Richmond, or in a Beechcraft 1900 from Homer, Alaska to Kodiak. Not lately, George? Well, then it's no surprise you think air travel is so much safer than car travel. For the places you've probably been jetting off to, you've got it right (although the 31 accidents involving scheduled major airlines in 1987 was the highest number since 1974). Try spending a few hours aboard a small commuter airline and then tell us about airline safety.

The residents of small and some not-so-small towns routinely do just that (minus the television pulpit). For them, air travel means the piston- or turbine-engine airplane, not the airline jet, from which the usual it's-safer-than-driving statistics are culled. This has been the case especially since deregulation in 1978, when the major airlines were allowed to leave the less profitable routes to the minors, known as commuters, or as those in the industry prefer, "regional airlines '" And, though it may surprise Will, the latest information from the research director of the congressionally created Aviation Safety Commission indicates that for those who fly with the bottom two-thirds (by size) of the commuter airlines, it's too close to say whether driving a car is riskier than flying. For every one million passengers who board one of these small airlines, slightly more than four will die. And this represents an improvement from the period before 1978, when, after six years of wrangling, there was a moderate tightening of the safety regulations governing most small airlines. Between 1970 and 1978, more than 13 people died for every one million passengers who boarded the smallest two-thirds of the commuter airlines.

And people are increasingly flying the commuters. Since deregulation dozens of newcomers opened up shop to take advantage of the void left by the majors . In 1978 there were 228 commuters operating, flying a total of some 1.13 million hours. By 1981 some 246 commuters were operating, flying 1.99 million hours. As the 1980s progressed, many of the smallest operators found it difficult to stay in business, despite the rapid increase in industry-wide volume. As of 1987, the average number of passengers each minor airline served had quadrupled from ten years ago, to nearly 190,000, although the number of carriers was down to 169. Analysts predict the number of airlines will continue to slowly drop, while the number of passengers, largely unaware of the commuters second-rate safety record, will continue to rise rapidly.

So while the chances of catastrophe might be less than one in a million for the jet-weary, the risk is much greater for the traveling seed salesman going from one small town to another, or for the family using a commuter airline as a "spoke" to get to a major airline "hub," which has become the prevailing industry practice for linking small towns to big towns and beyond. Or to compare the commuters in terms of the major airlines, as the Aviation Safety Commission did this April: "Despite improvements since deregulation, regional air travel remains more risky than jet travel, by more than a factor of three in terms of fatalities and more than a factor of ten in terms of serious injuries."

Pooped pilots, pooped planes

Part of the problem is that the govermnent requires much less stringent safety procedures from the small airlines than from the big ones. The Regional Airline Association (RAA), representing the owners of the small airlines, has long argued that because of the cost, requiring the same safety from commuter airlines as from the major airlines would force many of them out of business, leaving some communities without any air service. Professional aviationwatchdogs say, for example, the RAA currently is lobbying against commuters having to carry onboard automatic technical data recorders, which are important for analysis in the event of a crash. A decade ago the association lobbied against requiring on-board cockpit voice recorders, but failed.

As a rule, however, the association has been unusually successful in representing its clients. Using the if-it's-safer-it-must-cost-more rationale, the government for decades has maintained two widely varying sets of rules for big and small airlines. Large airlines, operating jet aircraft, must adhere to a set of regulations known as part 121 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Little airlines, generally operating little aircraft that carry no more than 30 passengers, usually fall under the much less stringent part 135 of the regulations. The smallest commuters, those operating aircraft seating nine or fewer passengers (piston aircraft with fewer than nine scats made up about 37 percent of the commuters as of 1986), have even fewer safety requirements to which they must adhere.

A few of the more notable lapses in safety requirements pointed out by the Aviation Safety Commission include:

Only airplanes with 20 or more seats must have the capacity to clear obstacles at the end of a runway if an engine fails during takeoff.

Only airplanes with ten or more seats must have the capacity to stop by the end of the runway if an engine fails before takeoff speed is reached.

Only airplanes with ten or more seats must have the capacity to climb with landing gear extended in the event of engine failure.

Only airplanes with ten or more seats must officially gauge what impact weight, temperature, runway conditions, and wind will have on takeoff.

Since little airplanes suffer engine failure much more frequently than big airplanes, the Aviation Safety Commission recommends ridding the code of these exemptions. In particular, the commission recommends that all commuter aircraft meet tougher standards. Because equipment failure beats out both bad weather and mid-air collisions as the number one cause of commuter crashes, the recommendation makes sense. According to the author of one book on the commuter industry, certain twin-engine small planes used by several airlines, including the Beech 99, Piper Navajo, and Cessna 402, have dangerously limited capacities in the event of engine failures. When fully loaded with people and luggage, the planes cannot "take off on a relatively short runway on a warm day with any significant margin of safety in the event of engine loss," writes John Nance in Blind Trust.

The current regulations are also lax on airport safety. Neither control towers, electronic precision landing aids (glide-slopes), nor terminal radar service are required at the small airports that serve predominantly commuters. To be located near the towns they service, many of these airports were constructed on terrain rougher than that at most major airports,

In some cases, safety advocates argue, commuter procedures should be even stricter than those of the majors. Why, for instance, should the minimum rest period be the same for a commuter pilot as for a jet pilot, when commuter pilots are subject to much greater fatigue? Within a single day a commuter pilot might have to make five takeoffs and an equal number of landings. A jet pilot might make only one. And as any pilot can tell you, fatigue builds much more quickly during landing and takeoff than in Eight. A similar comparison can be made for the stress on the plane's equipment, which is much greater during takeoff and landing than in the air. The wear and tear on a commuter plane is extreme, and some safety experts argue that commuter airplanes need to be maintained more frequently and retired earlier than do the majors.

Small slips of paper

Consider a few more facts. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, more people died (58) patronizing small airlines in 1987 than in any other year this decade, and the overall accident rate, which had been gradually improving since the 1978 safety standards were tightened, shot back up to more than double what it was a year before.

Along with the 58 deaths in 1987, two fatal crashes early this year helped convince T. Allen McArtor, the FAA administrator, to launch a special investigation of commuter airlines. The first, a TransColorado flight, crashed on January 19 near Bayfield, Colorado, killing nine people and injuring eight others. One month later American Eagle flight 378 went down near Morrisville, North Carolina, killing all 12 people aboard. The crash occurred shortly after take-off.

Both of the planes, according to FAA data, were Fairchild Swearingen's 19-seat turboprops, model number SA227AC, also known as the Metro 3, which the annual report of the Regional Airline Association indicates is very popular. Some 283 Fairchilds are in use by regional airlines, the report says, making them second in popularity only to the Cessna, which has 324 planes in use. Both accidents are still under investigation, and no official results as to the cause have been released. It bears noting that the Metro 3, which costs about $3.5 million, is small enough that it does not have to meet the standard for engines recommended by the Aviation Safety Commission. These standards, having mainly to do with engine performance, can mean the margin of life or death in the event one engine fails. Fairchild is currently upgrading the Metro 3 fleet to meet a more stringent part 23 "commuter category" of the regulation, which becomes mandatory in 1991 but won't bring the plane up to the standards recommended by the Aviation Safety Commission unless the FAA requires it "That's something the FAA is going to have to decide and right now they don't seem to think it's necessary," said a Fairchild engineer.

McArtor has dispatched 15 special teams of seven FAA inspectors each to look into airline management, pilot training, record keeping, maintenance procedures, and equipment at about 20 percent of the existing commuter airlines. The FAA is also expected to look at the marketing arrangements the major airlines have with the commuters, some of which are strictly for promotional and financial purposes. American Eagle, for instance, is affiliated with American Airlines "What does a consumer think, if he sees a Northwest or United or American logo, on whether the reputation of the major airline is somehow involved?" McArtor said when he announced the investigation.

Preliminary results released by the FAA late in September show that there's plenty of investigatory work to be done. Already the FAA has found new instances of poor management and faked maintenance and operating records. Air New Orleans voluntarily turned over its operating certificate to the FAA just after its inspection. And before the special inspectors could even start their work, seven other commuters also turned in their certificates. These seven were Arctic Circle Air, AvAir (the parent company of the iii-fated American Eagle), Dade Helicopter Jet, Exec Express, Grand Canyon Airlines, South Pacific Island Airlines, and Texas National Air. But with the incredible economic instability in the commuter industry, it's hard to tell if fear of the FAA had anything to do with these latest industry casualties. At least three of the airlines were in Chapter XI when they surrendered their certificates, and AvAir claimed the FAA had nothing to do with its decision. Final results from the FAA are expected some time before the end of the year.

That the FAA already is required by law to keep tabs on the commuters didn't seem to do much good for safety in 1987. One reason: FAA policy always has been to give airlines plenty of notice before inspection teams show up. The FAA argues that three or four days isn't enough time to hide major deficiencies in an airline's operation. This might be true for the corporate-controlled majors, slowed down by sheer size and bureaucratic deci sion-making. And it's probably true for the top 50 or so commuters, most of which are affiliated with one of the major carriers, aping everything from corporate logos on the tails of the planes to ticket reservation systems. But for airlines in that bottom, most dangerous twothirds of the industry, that operate four or five planes in a small town and depend on nearly every flight to get off the ground in order to make a profit, the prospect of a quick fix of the books is real. One pilot for a regional airline urged the FAA to change the notification policy in a recent letter to Aviation Week and Space Technology: "Prior to a recent inspection, some of our instructors, whose identity was understandably withheld, wrote in the April 4 edition, 'When you are going to look for problems, don't give so much notice. None of our pilots were asked in private about lapses in safety procedures.' "

The pilot's farm club

Monkeying around with the books did play a role in contributing to at least one disaster. The 1983 crash of Air Illinois's flight 710 near rural Pincknesville, Illinois, took the lives of seven passengers and three crew members. Although a commuter airline, Air Illinois, like many of the rapidly growing regionals, was operating some of its aircraft under section 135 of the regulations, for small concerns, and some under section 121, for larger airplanes.

Under 121, Air Illinois was required to keep a logbook recording all maintenance problems, registering any problems after each flight. Instead, Air Illinois captains made a habit of either recording maintenance problems on small slips of paper, which were then given to maintenance crews, or just telling the mechanics about the problems. This procedure allowed the airline to get flights off that would have otherwise been grounded for safety checks. Not recorded in the Air Illinois logbooks were eight electrical generator malfunctions within a four-month period.

And it was an electrical generator malfunction that eventually precipitated the crash of flight 710, a disaster that the National Transportation Safety Board concluded could have been prevented if the flight crew had known that they could not rely on battery power to get them to the next airport after their electrical generators failed, If the crew had turned back instead of pushing on, in all likelihood they would have survived. Would an accurate logbook on board have helped? And would surprise inspections by the FAA have caught the faked logbooks?

While the most important factor in the accident was the captain's failure to recognize that battery power would keep the night aloft for only 30 minutes, not the 39 needed to get to the farther airport, the NTSB concluded that the false logbooks "endangered the operation of the plane '" The NTSB also concluded that the FAA inspection had been "inadequate" and that a closer look by the FAA at the airline's maintenance procedures would have revealed the deficient logbooks.

Which brings us to another serious problem with commuter safety: ill-trained or nonexistent FAA inspectors. Perhaps a more serious hindrance to the FAA than its refusal to perform surprise inspections is the ongoing, chronic shortage of inspectors, especially well-trained and experienced ones. The FAA officially recognizes a need for 3,000 inspectors to police the entire airline industry and hopes to reach that number by 1991. With only a few more than 2,000 on the job as of August of this year, the task is formidable. Training inspectors for the commuters is particularly difficult considering the wide variety of aircraft those airlines use. Commuter inspectors must have knowledge of piston, turboprop, and jet aircraft, while major airline inspectors usually only have to worry about jets.

If the mystery of the inspectors doesn't depress you, the shortage of experienced commuter pilots should. Almost half of the commuter pilots quit the regionals every year, lured away by the much higher salaries and bigger planes of the majors. This statistic comes from an organization that tracks this matter closely, the Future Aviation Pilots Association, dedicated to helping its members secure jobs in the big leagues of the airline industry. Most commuter pilots try to quit as soon as they log enough flying hours for a job in the major league, FAPA says. While a commuter pilot is lucky to make $30,000 a year, an experienced major airline pilot can earn more than $100,000 a year. Plus the major airlines offer substantial benefits and job security, not to mention better safety for pilots as well as passengers. The commuters serve as a sort of farm club for new talent. Whenever the need for jet pilots becomes acute, as it is now because of the reduced number of pilots leaving the military, the majors skim the cream of the minors for replacements. The price of stability in the major airlines is a vastly inexperienced contingent of commuter pilots. No definitive study has been done linking pilot experience or inexperience to accident rates. Still, there's a reason why the major airlines require thousands more hours of flying time than the government requires: experience almost always makes better pilots.

Driving school

To make matters worse, most commuter pilots, unlike their colleagues in the majors, are without the able representation of the pilots' union, the Airline Pilots Association. With the rapid turnover at the commuters, only about two dozen commuters have unionized. The same is true for flight attendants. As a result, although the unions have formulated many safety recommendations for the commuters, they don't have the clout to force their adoption. On the other hand, APA has succeeded in negotiating into contracts with the majors safetyrelated clauses covering factors such as pilot rest. APA, for instance, would like the commuters to have some sort of training simulator requirement for pilots, even if it entails a less sophisticated version than is used for the majors. "Something is better than nothing," says John Macor of APA, adding that practice for maneuvers like belly flops is only possible in simulators.

But instead of more training, some commuter airlines are considering turning cockpits into driving schools. Called Ab Initio training, the procedure takes complete novices and trains them at breakneck speed. While only three graduates of the program are currently working as commuter pilots, the concept already has some people wary "You don't want them stamping out pilots with a very limited amount of experience," warns Macor of APA. (For the record: the first three Ab Initio graduates went to Atlantic Southeast Airlines, based in Atlanta and affiliated with Delta. TWA recently signed a letter of intent to hire future graduates.)

While the industry continues experimenting, and the government continues studying, how can a passenger tell if the commuter he or she is flying with today is dangerous?

Ask what kind of engine is powering the plane you'll be flying. Most commuters fly with turboprops these days, which have a much better safety record than piston engines. Worse still are commuters that operate mixed fleets, not allowing the maintenance crews to specialize their skills to the degree necessary.

Ask how many planes the commuter operates. More is better. Commuter airlines with 30 or 40 planes tend to have better safety records than those operating only five or six. The larger commuters are also affiliated with majors, which in some cases means nothing but a shared logo, but in others it can involve shared pilot training and operating procedures. It's tough to find out which is which, but if your commuter says it uses part 121 operating procedures, it probably has higher standards.

Ask about FAA inspection results. When was the last time your commuter was fined by the FAA? Was it for something significant, such as operating in adverse weather conditions? If you do find your commuter has a recent history of violations, consider renting a car. You also can query the FAA directly.

Ask your pilot how much flight experience he has, Three hundred hours is bad. Three thousand hours is reasonable. Ten thousand or more is best.

Ask how much general aviation takes place at the airports you're taking off from and landing in. Private planes and air taxis are even more dangerous than commuters. Since those who fly in private planes are generally more aware of the risks involved than commuter passengers, this might not seem that big a problem. Except when they smash into commuters. Big airports, serving big airlines, usually bar general aviation. Little airports can't do that and stay in business. If you can, avoid airports with heavy general aviation traffic.

Ask how the weather is at the airport you're going to. The regulations are already fairly strict when it comes to operating in bad weather, but some commuters ignore the regulations. Author John Nance found that the crash of a Downeast Airlines plane was largely attributable to the airline's owner pushing pilots to fly in bad weather. When it comes to weather, trust your instincts. Most of the time you'll be wrong, but you only have to be right once to make it all worthwhile. Got all that George? See you in Homer.
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Author:Sussman, Ed
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1988
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