Regional carriers fly under radar
On the evening of Dec. 10, 2007, pilot Kenny Edwards got the order to fly a Continental Airlines Inc. commuter flight from Tampa to West Palm Beach, Fla. He told his dispatch supervisor he wouldn't do it.
The plane's collision avoidance system was broken, and a worn seal around the main cabin door made it difficult to maintain air pressurization above 10,000 feet, he told his bosses.
Gulfstream International Airlines Inc., which operated the Continental flight, ordered Edwards to fly the 19-passenger Beechcraft 1900D turboprop plane anyway, Edwards says. He refused. As a result, he was fired.
Edwards filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration, bringing into focus the hidden dangers of flying on regional airlines, which account for half of all scheduled domestic passenger flights, Bloomberg Markets magazine reported.
Millions of people fly regional airlines every year for business and pleasure. Companies like Gulfstream run the fleets that Delta Air Lines Inc., UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, Continental and most other majors use for commuter flights.
The last five fatal crashes of commercial passenger carriers in the United States involved planes operated by regional airlines, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
In May, the FAA found that Gulfstream had violated multiple regulations; it proposed a $1.3 million fine. Gulfstream is appealing the penalty, which would be the largest ever for a regional, says FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
FAA inspectors found that Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream put planes in the air even after the company's staff repeatedly reported malfunctions in the aircraft.
Gulfstream crews documented seven times in a month that one turboprop had faulty landing gear; eventually that plane touched down without wheels under its nose, on its belly. Gulfstream also scheduled crew members to work more hours than allowed, according to the FAA.
And the airline installed automotive parts not certified by the FAA for use in airplanes. Edwards, 44, has sued Gulfstream (which isn't related to business jet manufacturer Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.) under a Florida whistle-blower law, alleging the company retaliated against him by firing him.
"They were trying to force pilots to fly airplanes that weren't in any condition to fly,'" Edwards says. "They did everything to cut costs, and they seemed to be crossing a line to where it was not safe."
Continental Flight 3407, operated by regional carrier Colgan Air Inc., crashed in icy weather on Feb. 12 outside of Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground.
The plane's captain had been trained by Gulfstream, which has an aviation school known as Gulfstream Academy. The pilot and his first officer may have erred in responding to a stall warning by pulling up the nose of the plane rather than pointing it down to increase speed, the NTSB found.
Gulfstream trained the co-pilot on the last fatal commercial airline flight before the Continental crash. That involved a Delta commuter plane, operated by Comair Inc., which used the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky., in August 2006, killing 49 people.
Gulfstream also previously employed the two pilots who crashed a Pinnacle Airlines Inc. plane with no passengers aboard, after deciding to fly at their jet's maximum altitude to have fun, the NTSB found. They crashed and died in Jefferson City, Mo., in October 2004. The first officer attended Gulfstream Academy, according to the NTSB.
Gulfstream Chief Executive Officer David Hackett says it's just a coincidence that the crashes were piloted by graduates from the company's academy. Gulfstream has never had a fatal accident.
Pilots for regionals are often less experienced than those who fly for the majors and are forced to work more grueling schedules, says Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska who sits on the Aviation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Regional companies handled more than 158 million passengers in 2008, according to the Washington-based Regional Airline Association.
Regional flights usually bear the names of their major airline partners. That leaves many passengers unaware that the planes they fly on -- and the pilots who command them -- may not match the safety standards of the airline whose name they see on their tickets, Begich says.
Major airlines contract out to regionals to lower their expenses by getting around union agreements, says Capt. Paul Rice, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union, with about 53,000 members.
"The way the industry is structured is that management will go out and find a new airline and start siphoning off the business to whoever will fly for cheaper," says Rice, 52, a pilot at United for 23 years.