THE COMMUTER CONUNDRUM
By Joe Brancatelli
February 24, 2009 -- Within minutes of Continental Connection Flight 3407's fatal crash on the night of February 12, frequent fliers were emailing each other, cursing commuter airlines, and vowing never to board smaller commercial aircraft again.
"I HATE THOSE TINY OLD RJS," one otherwise rational business traveler I know shouted in his email. "NOBODY SHOULD FLY THEM. THEY'RE NOT SAFE."
No matter that the aircraft involved in Flight 3407's fiery end six miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport was not an "RJ," industry shorthand for regional jet. (It was a Q400, a twin-engine turboprop plane manufactured by Bombardier of Canada.) No matter that the 74-seat Q400 isn't particularly tiny. (At 107 feet long with a 93-foot wingspan, it is about the size of several early versions of Boeing's workhorse B737 jet and 20 feet longer than Bombardier's 50-seat regional jet.) And no matter that the Q400 isn't old. (The Q400 series didn't enter service until 2000 and the plane that crashed in Buffalo was less than a year old.)
Safe? That is most definitely in the eye of the beholder—and most business travelers eye commuter airlines with extreme trepidation. They don't like flying them. They don't like that the commuter lines wrap themselves in the colors and livery of the major airlines. And they are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that commuter carriers simply aren't as safe as the major airlines they mimic.
From a statistical point of view, flying in the United States is astonishingly safe. Between 2002 and November, 2008, the last month for which government numbers are available, about 4.4 billion people have traveled on aircraft that have flown 50 billion domestic miles. In that time, there have been just three fatal crashes. Unfortunately, all three involved commuter airliners: 19 died in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2003; 49 passengers died in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2006; and 50 people (including one on the ground) perished in Buffalo early this month. The circumstances and the aircraft were different in each case, but the fact that all three involved commuter airlines has spooked business travelers and even pilots.
Smaller Isn't Better
In fact, it is the aircraft that are at the heart of most travelers' antipathy toward commuter airlines. Many commuter lines still fly what frequent travelers despise the most—small prop planes like the 19-seat Beechcraft 1900 that crashed in Charlotte. They are cramped and noisy, more susceptible to turbulence and fly at lower altitudes than jets, which means they are more often buffeted by inclement weather. Even the Q400, one of the most sophisticated aircraft in the skies, cruises at 25,000 feet, far below the 35,000- to 40,000-foot range used by traditional jets.
The workhorse of the commuter airlines—37- and 50-seat regional jets manufactured by Bombardier and Embraer of Brazil—are no match for Boeing and Airbus planes, either. Their smaller fuselages—the maximum cabin height of a 50-seat Bombardier CRJ is just 73 inches—make travelers feel crowded and uncomfortable. Because they are smaller, regional jets have some of the same "weight and balance" issues as earlier generations of commuter aircraft. And nothing makes a business traveler queasier—and feel less than "safe"—than being asked to change seats to help the pilot balance the aircraft.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
All these essentially minor issues wouldn't bother business travelers as much if they weren't forced to fly commuter aircraft so frequently. Planes like the Q400 and the regional jets have a 1,300-mile range, so they pop up on many medium- and longer-haul routes that were once served by mainline carriers flying Boeing and Airbus jets. Although the numbers are in flux since the massive industry cutbacks after last Labor Day, about half of the flights operating from Chicago's O'Hare and Dulles Airport near Washington lately have been regional jets or turboprops. More than a third of the flights at Atlanta Hartsfield are operated by commuter lines. And an astonishing 80 percent of the service in Cincinnati, a hub for Delta Air Lines, is flown by its commuter partners.
What's in a Name?
Commuter airlines and smaller aircraft wouldn't be so omnipresent if it wasn't for the parlous financial state of the major airlines, which have farmed out huge chunks of their domestic flying because the commuters pay crews less and operate flights at a much lower cost per mile. Some of that cost savings comes from the hidebound nature of airline-labor relations. Pilot pay scales are based on aircraft size—the bigger the plane, the higher the pay. A top-line pilot flying a widebody jet for a major carrier can earn around $150,000 a year. By contrast, commuter airlines pay new co-pilots as little as $25,000 a year.
The relationship between major airlines and their commuter carriers is much more complicated then it appears. Although most are independent airlines with separate licenses issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, the commuter airlines sign code-share and "capacity purchase" agreements with the big airlines. They paint their planes to look like the major carriers' fleets, adopt variations on the big airlines' names and logos, and operate with flight numbers and schedules assigned by the larger carrier. The commuters rely on the big airlines to sell the tickets and market the flights too.
Continental Connection Flight 3407, for example, was not operated by Continental Airlines at all. It was flown by an airline called Colgan, which itself is owned by Pinnacle Airlines. Colgan and Pinnacle also fly under the colors of US Airways Express (the commuter operation of US Airways) and United Express (the commuter carrier for United Airlines). It also runs commuter flights under the Northwest Airlink and Delta Connection names for Delta Air Lines, which recently merged with Northwest Airlines.
Financial relations between the independent commuter airlines and major airline partners don't always go smoothly, of course. (A large, financially troubled commuter called Mesa is currently embroiled in a convoluted lawsuit with Delta and a negative court decision could drive Mesa into bankruptcy.) From a business traveler's standpoint, however, it is the commuter's relationships with its own crews that leads to the safety fears.
As big airlines shifted routes to commuters, the commuter carriers were desperate for cockpit crews. Pilots with as little as 500 hours of flight experience were being recruited. ("When I got out of the Navy, I had 1,800 hours of experience before I even got into commercial aviation," one recently retired pilot for a major carrier told me last weekend.) Although all commercial pilots are trained to the same federal standards regardless of the airline that employs them, experience does matter on the flight deck—a reality celebrated last month when 58-year-old Chesley Sullenberger, an Air Force vet with 29 years of commercial flying experience, guided US Airways Flight 1549 to a safe landing on the Hudson River. By contrast, the first officer of Continental Connection Flight 3407 was just 24 years old. The 47-year-old captain had more than 3,400 hours of flying experience, but he'd only been in command of a Q400 since last December.
"It's the combination of things that worry me," a business traveler based in Santa Barbara, California, told me last week. "I see children going into the cockpit of small planes run by airlines I've never heard of and I say to myself, 'Do I really want to be on this flight?'"
Her answer, at least for the moment, is no. She stopped booking regional jets operated by Skywest Airlines under the United Express banner for the 262-mile flight to San Francisco. Now she pilots her 2007 Honda SUV up the freeway to meet with her Bay Area clients.
The Fine Print…
US Airways last year became the first large U.S. airline to charge for soft drinks, coffee, and water in coach on domestic flights. But since no other carrier matched its move, the airline has dropped the unpopular charge. Effective March 1, non-alcoholic beverages will once again be free on all US Airways flights.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2009 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.