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NTSB examines regional airline labor conditions

Dan Weikel And Peter Pae Los Angeles Times

A federal investigation into the deadly crash of a Colgan Air turboprop near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year is raising broad questions about the flight training and working conditions for pilots at regional airlines across the United States.

Wednesday, a National Safety Transportation Board hearing in Washington revealed that the pilot and co-pilot of the ill-fated plane were low-paid, commuted hundreds of miles to work and probably were fatigued when they made the evening flight from Newark, N.J., on Feb. 12.

Approaching Buffalo, the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 went into a stall that the pilots were unable to correct. Fifty people died, making it the worst transportation accident in the United States in seven years.

The three days of NTSB hearings, which began Tuesday, are focusing on the practices of Colgan Air, which operated the Continental Connections flight. Tuesday, NTSB officials said the captain, Marvin Renslow, had failed flight checks five times in the aircraft before he passed and that he was unfamiliar with emergency procedures to prevent the aircraft from stalling.

Under questioning from the board Wednesday, Mary Finnigan, Colgan’s vice president for administration, said Rebecca Shaw, the co-pilot, made $16,200 a year at the airline. The board disclosed that Shaw once supplemented her salary by holding a second job in a coffee shop.

“The things from the hearing are so troubling – the lack of training, the laissez-faire attitude in the cockpit, and the airline officials screwing up,” said Barry Sweedler, a former senior manager for the NTSB, who is now a safety consultant based in Northern California. “I would think that the NTSB would come out with some recommendations before they are finished with the investigation.”

The hearing revealed that regional airline pilots often have long commutes to reach their assignments. According to the NTSB, 93 of Colgan’s 137 Newark-based pilots considered themselves commuters, including 29 who lived more than 1,000 miles away.

Shaw and Renslow were based at Colgan’s Newark office but lived in other cities and commuted to work by using flight privileges given to them by other airlines at little or no cost.

On the day before the accident, Shaw left Seattle on an overnight FedEx flight to the East Coast, according to the NTSB. She arrived in Newark at 6:30 a.m. after changing planes in Memphis, Tenn.

The NTSB has disclosed that Shaw sent text messages throughout the day, an indication that she wasn’t sleeping. Renslow, who arrived in Newark from Tampa, Fla., three days before the flight, was seen sleeping in the crew lounge, which is prohibited by the airline, NTSB officials said.

Board member Kitty Higgins said fatigue had been a factor in other crashes and was a major concern for the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration.

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