Commuter Airline Practices Cause Wrongful Deaths
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Commuter Airline Practices Cause Wrongful Deaths

Thursday, October 15, 2009By Richard Alexander

I have been a licensed pilot for 25 years.  I will not fly on commuter lines.  The following headlines sounds like a report from a Third World country.

The investigation of a recent crash of a commuter airliner that caused 50 deaths reveals pilot had failed flight test five times co-pilot was inexperienced, under-trained, and dangerously fatigued both missed clear signals of imminent disaster.Actually that is what really happened to Colgan Flight 3407, which flew under contract with Continental Airlines and under the name Continental Connection.

Flight 3407 crashed on approach to Buffalo on February 12, 2009.  The commuter, or regional plane was flying in bad winter weather, which is hardly an unexpected condition in New York in February, and the pilots made mistakes that cost 50 lives.

The investigation found serious problems with the training and the performance of Pilot Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw. Their deadly error that night was their failure to observe that the plane’s air speed had dropped drastically, going from 180 knots to 130 knots in just 20 seconds. The instruments showed what was happening, but the pilots failed to react properly.

Renslow and Shaw both had serious gaps in their training and in their ability to handle the conditions that arose that night. When the plane was in the air, Shaw said, “I've never seen icing conditions. I've never de-iced.”

Renslow, meanwhile, said that Colgan Air had hired him with only 625 hours of flying time, when 1500 is generally the absolute minimum that an airline will accept. Putting those two together in the cockpit meant that neither pilot was sufficiently experienced or trained to handle the situation that they faced.

Renslow and Shaw may have missed the warning signals because they were violating the Sterile Cockpit rule that prohibits talking about anything except the flight itself once the plane drops below 10,000 feet in altitude.

They may have been talking because they were trying to stay alert at the end of a dangerously long working day, which is common for pilots on regional airlines. The public perception is that pilots make good salaries and have reasonable schedules, but the truth is that working conditions and salaries on regional lines are so bad that it’s hard to understand why anyone would want the jobs, and it’s easy to see how fatigue can cause pilots to make errors.

Renslow had little experience, and he had actually failed his flight test five times. Shaw had begun her working day the night before in Seattle, where she lived. She took a red-eye across the country because her pay was so low that she lived with her parents and frequently flew thousands of miles as a passenger before getting behind the controls herself.

The pilot and the first officer made the mistakes that brought down the plane, but the real blame for this crash lies with airlines that put inexperienced and unskilled pilots behind the controls and with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has failed to enact rules that put passenger safety above all else.

For example, the FAA has an ”8 Hour Rest Rule” that is completely inadequate. The rule means that many pilots begin their workdays already exhausted and then put in days that can last 15 hours or more. The true absurdity of the 8-Hour Rest Rule is that it considers all time from “Release To Report” rest time. That means that a pilot who puts a plane at the terminal gate at 11 PM may have to report for duty at 7 AM the next morning. Those 8 hours hardly provide enough time for the sleep that a pilot needs, but it’s within FAA rules.

Training is also a vital issue, as First Officer Shaw’s admission that she had never de-iced clearly shows. One flight school advertises a training program that can turn someone who has never been in an airplane before into a pilot who meets the requirements for flying an airliner in just 5 months.

Continental easily could have prevented this crash and with regional aircraft accountin for almost half of all flights within the United States, their practices are inviting personal injuries and wrongful deaths.

The FAA, the regional airlines, and the major carriers that contract with the regionals can make flying safer for everyone, and the FAA must take the lead by putting passenger safety above all other considerations.   But it won’t. The FAA is at its best making rules after the crash as I have reported more than once.

The key to avoiding being killed in an air crash is to avoid commuter airlines, stay on major lines and big equipment and follow this pilot’s rule: if the birds are not flying, neither should you.  If your family needs a lawyer in a case involving an airline, you want a lawyer who is a pilot with trial experience and a track record of major recoveries.

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Richard Alexander

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