Frontline: Flying Cheap

“It’s very challenging,” says pilot Chris Wiken. “A lot of short routes, a lot of takeoffs, a lot of the landings going in and out of bad weather, being down low. Especially at Colgan, flying the turbo props: you’re not flying above the weather, you’re flying in the weather.” From 2004-2008, Wiken flew for Colgan Air, the regional airline whose February 2009 crash in Buffalo triggered concern over how the industry does business.

This concern is the focus of Frontline: Flying Cheap, airing this week on PBS and online. As Wiken and others describe it, work at regional airlines is made hard not only by the long hours and flying conditions, but also by a general lack of training and mentoring, low pay, and inattention to detail.

Even when a regional airline is affiliated with a mainline carrier — as Colgan is affiliated with Continental — performance standards are not the same. This difference came as a surprise to Scott Maurer, whose girlfriend died in the Buffalo crash. Because her ticket had the mainline airline Continental’s name on it (specifically, Continental Connection Flight 3407), he says, “She assumed she had Continental pilots, Continental safety, and Continental service.” Instead, she and everyone else on board had Colgan, which meant an unprepared pilot, a first officer flying sick, and correctible human errors.

This problem is systemic, says Frontline‘s Mile O’Brien, beyond the small company’s faults. Introducing himself as a pilot, O’Brien observes, “Accidents most always involve a chain of events, a series of underlying causes.” As he reads through 3407’s cockpit voice recorder transcript, O’Brien is startled to see the “unprofessional” nature of that conversation, which includes frequent “sounds similar to yawns,” as well as evidence of the pilot’s bad decision-making (for instance, pulling back on the wheel when he was supposed to push forward). O’Brien sees the fact that the pilot had only 618 hours of flying time when he was hired in 2005 as a place to start the investigation (less than half the time required by majors), not to mention the five performance tests he failed.

Digging into how this accident happened, O’Brien discovers that the increased use of smaller air transport companies is a result of the hub and spoke operating model, itself a consequence of industry deregulation during the ’70s. Majors contracted out to regionals, using a new sort of flying contract called a “Code Share.” Though a major may have its name on tickets, it is not legally liable for the smaller company, for its safety record or its cost-cutting measures, such as underpaying workers, encouraging them to fly more often than might be safe, or even fly planes they haven’t been trained on. “Since 2002, the last six fatal commercial airline accidents have all involved regionals,” he notes. And in four of those, “the NTSB cited pilot error as a cause.”

Flying Cheap argues that such errors are preventable (resulting from “a series of underlying causes”) and that blame falls on the “chase for cheaper fares,” a chase motivated by greed. The program makes an effective case, at once persuasive and alarming.

On the one hand, it lets executives like Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, look unconvincing (“Our safety record is outstanding”). On the other hand, it features multiple interviews with frustrated pilots and frankly bothered experts, including Mary Schiavo, a pilot herself, as well as former Inspector General of the Transportation Department and tireless advocate of air transportation safety. Currently an attorney representing victims and their families, she notes here that when questions came up regarding ValuJet in the 1990s, the FAA “failed to heed warnings… Instead of hitting them with violations,” she says, “They were propping them up.”

After ValuJet’s Flight 592 crashed in the Everglades in 1996, Schiavo recalls, the Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena stood at the crash site and deemed ValuJet “safe”: “I have flown ValuJet,” he says in archival footage. “ValuJet is a safe airline, as is our entire aviation system.” The scene cuts to Schiavo, who says, “I was very angry because I knew they knew the airline was troubled.” The essential problem, she argues, is that the FAA sees the airlines, not their passengers, as its “customers.”

The questions animated by such language remain unresolved. Nick Sabatini, former Federal Aviation Administration associate administrator for aviation safety (2001 to 2008) and currently an aviation consultant, rejects the apparent contradiction in the FAA’s original charge (from the 1958 Federal Aviation Act that created the agency), that it both regulate and promote civil aviation. “I never did see there was a conflict,” he says, because “the promotion was promoting aviation safety.” O’Brien observes that under Sabatini, the FAA “forged a new regulatory approach,” relying on airlines to “self-report problems.”

Clay Foushee, a former Northwest Airlines executive, and now a senior professional on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s investigative team, says this approach, partly articulated in a 2003 Customer Service Initiative, “sent a very bad message to the industry.” Now allowed to challenge decisions of FAA inspectors’ decisions, a relationship that “some people characterized as becoming a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card,” the airlines developed a relationship with the agency that was too “cozy.”

While the program makes clear that the airlines’ general record of safety is surely good, the problems emerging with regionals constitute a pattern. “The absence of accidents doesn’t mean you’re safe,” asserts Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, clarifies” “What it means to really be safe is to focus on those little warning signs.” It appears that the FAA missed such signs of Colgan’s “safety problems.” Foushee says the Buffalo crash has “become the symbol of everything that’s wrong with the industry,” but it has not — even after Senate hearings and calls for reform — led to system-wide change. Schaivo says the airlines regularly “throw out terms of art designed to lull the public into believing that all carriers are equally safe.” To make that true, Flying Cheap argues, the major airlines must become legally accountable for their regional partners and take responsibility for running them.

RATING 8 / 10