WASHINGTON – The investigation into the commuter plane crash in upstate New York that killed 50 people in February has exposed the long hours and low pay of some regional airline pilots. Lawmakers now are wondering if such working conditions are more widespread and pose safety risks.
Members of Congress said they were stunned by the salaries of the pilots of Continental Connection Flight 3407, employees of the smaller commuter airline Colgan Air Inc. The pilots may have tried to snatch sleep in an airport crew lounge, which is against company policy. The first officer lived with her parents near Seattle and commuted cross-country to work in New Jersey.
“All these things raise questions: Are they an aberration or are FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) standards sufficient? Or are the standards not enforced?” said Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on aviation.
Aviation industry experts said the conditions reflect the broad restructuring of the industry after Sept. 11, 2001, when air travel dropped sharply and major airlines began pairing with regional ones. It took the industry years to recover and led to major airline bankruptcies, mergers and management demands for dramatic wage and benefit concessions.
The role of regional airlines has grown. Once considered industry runts, they are now joined at the hip with the big airlines. People who buy a ticket on a major airline often find themselves on a regional carrier for some part of a domestic trip. Passengers often don’t even realize they’re traveling on two airlines.
Regional airlines account for half of all domestic departures and about one-quarter of the passengers. They are the only scheduled service to about 440 communities.
The twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall as it neared Buffalo Niagara International Airport before plunging into a house. All 49 people aboard, and a man in the house, were killed. Testimony and documents indicate the captain, Marvin Renslow, and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw made a series of critical errors.
NTSB investigators calculated Shaw was paid just over $16,000. Colgan officials testified that captains such as Renslow earn about $55,000 a year. The company later said Shaw’s salary was $23,900 and that captains earn about $67,000.
Pilot pay is usually based on the size of the aircraft and a pilot’s experience. But the workload and flight schedules at regional airlines are often more demanding than at a major airline, where the planes are larger and make longer but less frequent trips, said Scott Johns, a former Northwest Airlines pilot and air crash investigator.
Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said lower salaries are an industrywide problem. He predicted airlines generally will suffer a shortage of pilots once the economy improves. He denied, however, that safety has been affected.
“Compensation has nothing to do with safety,” Cohen said. “We’re going to defend the quality of our people.”
William Swelbar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s airline data project noted that until the Buffalo crash, major and regional U.S. air carriers hadn’t had a fatal crash in more than two years.
The vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Paul Rice, said salaries vary among companies, but major airline captains typically earn about $120,000 to $125,000. He said senior captains who fly internationally can earn about $180,000.