RAA 2011 Commentary: Industry to be commended for turnaround

It was clear from this year’s remarkable Regional Airline Association meeting in Nashville, that regional airlines have come into their own and been given the due they have always deserved, writes Kathryn Creedy in this special commentary.

Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the organization it has a seat at the table and National Transportation Safety Board Member Mark Rosekind, said what the industry has long known. They are doing a great job with safety.

Even as Rosekind urged the industry to keep improving because the safety mission is never complete, he was preaching to the choir because the industry was clearly ahead of him.

Its impressive accomplishments over the last two years are more impressive still because they have come during a major industry restructuring as mainline partners consolidated while putting increasing pressure of their regional counterparts to lower their costs. Thankfully, some regionals are finding such initiatives as Safety Management Systems are helping them save money and improve safety at the same time, as SkyWest president Chip Childs told me a few years ago.

The LaHood and Rosekind accolades are a far cry from NTSB chair Deborah Hersman at last year’s meeting telling members they are in the big leagues now and need to improve their safety. All of this, of course, rose out of the 2009 Colgan accident which tarred the industry with an unwanted brush and once again reminded the press, Congress and regulators just how important it is when it comes to connecting people to the world.

Past is prologue when it comes to safety
Regional airline CEOs have always been serious about safety. Witness the 1980s when it was condemned for its rookie pilots and poor training, something that sounds bitterly familiar to those who have observed the criticisms of the last two years. In the mid-80s, training devices were only coming on line and simulators were either too expensive or unheard of.

That can’t be said today when training is as sophisticated as it is for anyone in commercial air transport. Reeling from five years of withering criticism from the NTSB, the industry came together in the mid-80s and decided to do something about their miserable – but understandable given the far more hostile operating environment – safety record.

Airline CEOs set a goal of equaling the safety record of the major airlines as fast as possible. To its credit it did just that, despite admonitions to passengers from insurance hacks that one was four times more likely to be in a regional accident than if they were flying with a major carrier. While that may have been true if one included Alaska’s stats, that is an environment unto itself and it was and is unfair to include them when comparing the performance of the regional industry to the major industry.

By the time the fatal year of 1994 rolled around, regional safety was as good as the majors and, perhaps, better, when considering the operating environment of regional carriers even in the lower 48 states. It must be remembered that in that year, while there were two spectacular regional accidents there were also two equally spectacular mainline accidents, one dealing with a design flaw of the 737 rudder and the other dealing with a design flaw in the landing procedures at an airport.

But the regional industry took the brunt of the safety criticism which was patently unfair given all the work it had put in between the mid-80s and the early 90s. Indeed, the 1994 ATR 72 accident had more to do with a previously unknown aviation icing issue on the aircraft than it did with the regional industry itself. Given the inability of the American Eagle pilots to handle the rudder problem and the ATR pilots to handle the roll upset that occurred in that unique icing environment, the NTSB recommended mandatory training to deal with such issues.

We have yet to get that into regulations, although it has finally been addressed in a recently published notice of proposed rulemaking on training. Before that all we got was an advisory circular which is faster to get published. NTSB points out, however, that while ACs may be faster, the FAA then has a tendency to treat the issue as mission accomplished and never pursues a rule making. The other big recommendation from the accidents in 1994 was better screening of pilot candidates. Finally, the crashes ushered in the single level of safety which raised costs and caused the abandonment of a host of otherwise profitable regional routes.

And just as it did in the mid-80s, the industry stepped up to the bar and did a masterful job of improving its practices.

Industry steps up to the bar again
Fast forward to 2009. NTSB had been warning of a pilot problem in the regional industry for many years with little action from the industry, it said. The NTSB rightly dumped on the industry after a series of six regional-pilot-caused accidents that culminated in Colgan 3407 in Buffalo. That revealed some loop holes in pilot standards including the fact that the captain had failed training both for the initial FAA ticket as well as at Colgan. Colgan did not have access to the FAA records, only those from previous employers, but now they do, thanks to the accident.

Sadly, the SNPRM did not address the oft-repeated recommendation made during the Colgan NTSB hearings that there should be a limit to how many times a pilot can fail before he or she is told they can’t be a commercial airline pilot. Given the growing pilot shortage, that is hard medicine to take but one the regional airline industry should pursue on its own just as it pursued so many other safety initiatives in the mid-80s to mid-90s period. There is nothing that will prevent the industry from establishing a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” policy which regional operations directors and pilots recommended again and again during the Colgan hearings.

Nor is there anything to prevent the industry from adopting en masse the Cape Air Gateway programme. Cape Air president Dave Bushy noted that pilots from accredited aviation universities such as the University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle are far more successful in gaining what it takes to become a commercial pilot. He would like to see the industry establish similar Gateway programmes that take students from their sophomore year and guides them right up to the right seat of a JetBlue aircraft.

A few years before Colgan, this reporter sat down with RAA president Roger Cohen when he stabbed at a USA Today headline declaring the previous year the safety year in US aviation history even as the industry knew of the growing trend with regional airline pilots. There was an air of complacency at the RAA if not in the industry itself. Ironically, it was Colgan owner, Pinnacle Airlines, as with many of its regional holding company peers, that was establishing new policies and joining voluntary safety programmes in an effort to live up to the promise of a single level of safety. It just ran out of time, but the changes made at Colgan before the accident had already made their mark on the company, if not the two accident pilots.

Pinnacle management, as with their counterparts at many other regionals are to be commended for the commitment and work since 1998 when the single-level-of-safety rule became effective. Still, the pilot problem was not being addressed prior to the Colgan accident just as it had not been addressed in the run up to the mid-1980s when the industry decided on a sea change in how it did business.

What we all knew in 2009 was that this industry had come a long way and their dedication to safety had been overtaken by fast growth – as is often the case – in the post 9/11, post-bankruptcy period that made up the first decade of the new century. All that progress was lost on the media and public when the details of the accident unfolded.

RAA chalked the NTSB criticism of the industry to a lack of education of NTSB board members who were voicing the criticism. A dangerous assumption that flew in the face of the regional accidents, some of which were pretty shocking for the pilots’ lack of professionalism.

But that complacency caught up with the industry and ushered in a new era that is now reflected in Rosekind’s remarks. To its credit, in the wake of the accident, during the Colgan hearings, the NTSB symposium on professionalism and its subsequent symposium on codesharing, the industry showed what it is made of. Not only did regional operations executives describe robust and impressive training programmes but aired the little-understood and equally robust sharing between regional and mainline carriers when it comes to efficiency and safety.

Contrary to NTSB statements, it was clear during those hearings and symposia that the industry was already there when it came to safety. It had good programmes in place and many had joined, or were in the process of joining, various voluntary safety programmes. The messages were impressive and painted a picture of an industry dedicated to safety, despite its lapse into complacency in the first decade.

That made one of Rosekind’s statements to executives at RAA that much sweeter.  After recounting how impressed he is with the progress the industry has made, he told RAA members that they should make the sharing between regionals and majors a two-way street helping their mainline counterparts improve safety. No one, he suggested, has the corner on how to improve safety.

Beltway finally ‘gets’ regionals
What was interesting the 36th RAA convention was not only the changed attitudes of regionals from those within the beltway, but what the industry can accomplish when it throws its collective energy and expertise at a problem. As critical as this reporter was of the RAA in the immediate post-crash period when it did an extremely poor job of representing the industry, the organisation must now have its due after marshalling its members to deliver the realities of the industry during the hearings and symposia.

In 2009, it chose to throw Colgan under a bus in media interviews suggesting it was the exception rather than the rule. That may have been true but there is no denying the other five accidents and trying to foist the problem onto a single, so-called bad apple – which, by the way, was improving by leaps and bounds daily – was inexcusable in the extreme. It was an immature, knee-jerk response to a genuine safety issue.

RAA also was unable to defend the industry with basic statistics of what the average time was for regional pilots or how many airlines joined voluntary safety programmes. Instead, it noted the importance of the industry in transportation. The statistic of which it is so proud – 50% of all departures – was soon thrown back in its face as the industry took its worst beating since the ATR 72 accident in 1994. The media used that laudable statistic against the industry, literally warnings passengers that they are highly likely to get on one of these airlines.

Cohen’s then-vs-now convention recap of the industry achievements since 1980s should have been what the RAA had in hand the day Colgan happened. Even so, we still don’t know the average pilot experience in the industry. No matter what it is, it should be published in order to illustrate the professionalism of the 52,000 professionals that the CEOs and RAA keep talking about. It would also be interesting to see how many regionals were part of the voluntary programmes in 2009. It is my bet that the stats would not look that bad.

Several issues rising out of the ashes of that Colgan Q400, remain unaddressed, including commuting. The fatigue rule that is out there is said to be less than the science-based rulemaking the NTSB and industry have been seeking. Still, the best evidence that the RAA has taken its place in the professional pantheon of Washington representatives, as Rosekind so aptly pointed out, is its study on the impact of multiple daily legs on pilots due out next spring. That will not only help regionals, but will contribute to improving safety at low-fare carriers whose pilots have the same daily multi-leg trips.

As the convention closed, it was clear that the industry is not the only one that has come a long way. Clearly, so has RAA. Its team, coupled with the participation of regional executives, have shown what the industry is made of. The bottom line is the industry should be given its due. As Cohen pointed out the RAA has been scheduling intense industry safety programmes for more than a decade, not only during the convention but throughout the year. So much so, operators half complain they never saw the light of day as they traversed from one meeting to another.

While the regionals are to be commended for their safety work, RAA should also get its due. Together the RAA and the industry have made the promise of a single level of safety a reality just as it was in the 1990s. It is hoped that the complacency expressed by characterising the string of regional accidents as a one off is behind the organisation. Certainly, its ability to command the respect it is due is impressive.

The real test, however, will come with a newly launched study by the DOT inspector general. Tasked by the House Aviation Subcommittee, the OIG is following up on the post-accident Call to Action on airline safety and pilot training. The OIG noted that several safety initiatives had not been completed by the time it released its first study on the FAA action plan and noted they subsequently became requirements under the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010.  The new audit* OIG is launching will examine FAA and industry progress in implementing elements of the Act and expects to identify any challenges to completing these actions.

Judging from Rosekind’s remarks the study will produce good news, but it is also likely to produce valuable recommendations because, as he said, the safety mission is never done.

Kathryn Creedy, US correspondent, Low-Fare & Regional Airlines/LARAnews.net
Nashville, Tennessee, USA

*The Office of Inspector General plans to conduct a follow-up review of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry efforts to enhance safety in response to the 2009 fatal crash of Colgan Air flight 3407. It is conducting this review at the request of the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Aviation. Several safety initiatives were introduced following the Colgan Air crash through FAA’s Call to Action on Airline Safety and Pilot Training and subsequently became requirements under the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010. Effectively implementing these requirements in a timely manner is critical to enhancing safety for the travelling public. Accordingly, the audit objectives are to: (1) examine FAA and industry progress in implementing elements of the Act; and (2) identify any challenges to completing these actions.

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