Cover Story: US airlines safety

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Concern over the safety of airlines in the U.S., regional airlines in particular.  These regional airlines go by names most of us have never heard of before.  But they operate under the big names like U-S Airways and United.  In our Cover Story, PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson reports on who they are and why you should be concerned.

Once was a time people were beating down the door to become an airline pilot.  Airlines could pick from the cream of the crop.. men and women with thousands of hours of flying time.

That's not happening as much anymore.. pilots with far less flying time are in the cockpit.

And that has many people concerned.

The revelations came after this deadly airline crash in upstate New York last February.. that killed 50.

The flight flying under the flag of Continental Airlines.. but operated by a regional carrier named Colgan Air.

The investigation into the crash exposed an Achilles Heel in the nation's regional airlines, several in fact.. but the main one-- that pilots for the regional carriers are not nearly as experienced as their counterparts who work at the mainline network carriers.

Co-pilot of US Airways' Miracle on the Hudson.. Jeff Skiles.

"We're having to hire down to the FAA minimums.. which most pilots have always considered to be very substandard," he says.

A career that once was glamorous.. not so much anymore.  Airlines that have gone through bankruptcy have cut pilots pay and benefits.. attracting fewer qualified candidates.

"We need to set some standards here," says Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon.  "We've got to stop the race to the bottom. We have an industry that's in economic distress and we have a race to the bottom. We've been talking about this for a very long time and it's time for action."

Why the concern now?

Your chances of flying on a regional carrier are greater than it used to be.

In an effort to cut costs.. major airlines have reduced their schedules and outsourced many flights to smaller, lower-cost regional airlines.

And those carriers now operate half the nation's domestic flights.

Regional carriers used to require new pilot hires to have at least 1-thousand-500 flying hours under their belt.

Now some pilots can get hired with as little as 300 hours.

"How much experience can you have with 250 hours?" asks Capt. James Ray, a pilot with US Airways.  "Maybe you had the greatest training in the world but there's no.. no substitute for experience in our world."

Continental Express Flight 3407 which crashed near Buffalo uncovered a problem with the nation's regional airlines that Congress and others say needs fixing.

Regional airlines have been involved in the last six fatal airline accidents in the U.S. and pilot performance has been a factor in three of those crashes.

Federal aviation officials called together Monday's summit to assure the flying public those in the cockpit are qualified.

They're demanding the regional airlines take immediate steps to improve pilot training and safety.

How is it the regional carriers are attracting candidates with so little flying time?

Money, the bottom line.  They are low-cost carriers, operate with a low-cost structure.  Starting salary on average for the regional carriers is $20,000.  And very experienced pilots aren't willing to work for such low pay.