As a pilot, I often get the question "are the airlines safe?" I don't know whether the people asking it think I'm privy to some horribly damning information that's been hidden from the public, but I think the airlines' record this decade speaks for itself: terrorism aside, airline travel has become very safe. That's the answer I usually give, and the people I'm talking to are satisfied. It's a good unequivocal answer.
When people ask whether the regional airlines are safe, as a commenter in one of my training posts did, my answer tends to be more nuanced. Nobody likes a nuanced answer to that question. Well, it depends on what you think the question is really asking. If the question is, are the regional airlines safe compared to, say, driving or skiing or lawn darts- why, yes they are. If the question is, are the regionals safe compared to the major airlines - that's where my answer gets a little wavy. The accident record for the last ten years is not worse for the regionals than it is for the majors. However, I do believe that certain trends at the regionals right now do lead to a decrease in safety margins, and we could be sowing the seeds of future accidents.
My primary concern is the plummeting experience levels in regional airliner cockpits. After 9/11, the regional airlines exploded as major airlines sought to slash costs by outsourcing more small jet flying to the lowest bidder. The regional airlines have been very aggressive in controlling costs so they can competitively bid, resulting in poor pay and working conditions at many regionals. This, along with fewer opportunities at major airlines and the erosion of wages and benefits at that level, has contributed to a sharp decrease in the number of pilots training for an airline career. The end result: a severe pilot shortage in the lower echelons of U.S. aviation, where several airlines have dropped the pretense of minimum experience levels altogether and are hiring at the lowest legal qualification (commercial multi-engine land certificate, 190-250 hours) and still can't get enough pilots to properly staff their airlines for all the contracts they've been awarded.
This isn't the first time that airlines have hired low-time candidates. In the boom days of the late 1990's, massive hiring at the major airlines meant that some regional airlines were hiring pilots with less than 1000 hours to fly 19 seat turboprops. These days pilots with even less experience are flying 50-90 seat jets. Fortunately, these new planes are relatively idiot-proof; this and the training I've been describing is, I think, largely responsible for preventing a rash of experience-related accidents.
The good news is that inexperience has a way of taking care of itself; pilots hired with 250 hours don't stay at 250 hours for long. However, some of the most abusive regionals have massive attrition in their FO ranks as low-time pilots leave as soon as they have enough experience to get hired at a better airline. At Pinnacle, for example, 30% of the entire pilot group has been with the company for less than a year and meager new-hire classes can't even keep up with the attrition. There is a lot of attrition in the Captains' ranks as well as the major airlines ramp up their hiring, and several airlines (including Pinnacle) have started to hire "street captains" because none of their FOs have enough flight time to qualify for the upgrade (typically around 2000-2500 hours)! This is the real challenge, in my opinion. With a seasoned Captain, an inexperienced FO is more of an annoyance than a hinderance to safety. When you put a Captain with little time in type together with an FO with little time in any type, though, I think you will see a real degradation to safety margins whenever abnormal situations arise. And thanks to the seniority system, that's exactly what will happen: the street Captains, perpetually junior, will always get paired with new, junior FOs. Incidentally, I just described my own near future.
Maintenance is another major concern at some regionals. Horizon had a very good maintenance department. They hired qualified mechanics, paid them decently, had a lot of oversight, and did the vast majority of maintenance work with our own mechanics. Whatever maintenance was outsourced (mostly line maintenance at smaller outstations) was done so with rather strict oversight. This is becoming the exception to the rule at many regional airlines (and even a number of major airlines). The new M.O. is to outsource at least all heavy maintenance and often line maintenance as well to contractors. NewCo does not employ a single mechanic, only supervisors and maintenance controllers. This is more than a passing concern: shoddy, under-supervised outsourced work has caused two crashes already, Valujet 592 and Air Midwest 5481. In the latter case, Air Midwest (part of Mesa Air Group) had contracted their maintenance out to the lowest bidder, where an unlicensed mechanic improperly rigged the elevator using an unapproved procedure. The licensed mechanic he was working under signed off the work without inspecting it. All five of the mechanics working on the aircraft that night had almost zero experience on the B1900. Mesa's penny-pinching killed 21 people. After the accident Mesa decided to stop outsourcing maintenance work. "After an accident like that, you reassess," said Jonathan Ornstein, Mesa's CEO. "Bringing the maintenance back in-house is a cost-effective way to facilitate more direct control of the work."
Few in the industry have listened to him, because the trend is definitely toward more outsourcing, not less. The Air Midwest crash impacted Mesa Air Group's bottom line only, and other airlines will not change until an accident cuts into their profits. The regionals are obsessed with keeping their costs low because their survival depends on it. The major airlines share a major part of the blame because of how they play regionals off each other to secure the lowest cost feed possible. Nobody wants to change because doing so puts them at a competitive disadvantage. The obvious solution would be for the FAA to change the regulations, keeping an even playing field for everyone while increasing safety, but the FAA has proven time and time again that they will not do anything to cut into the airlines' bottom line until public outrage forces them to.
One very good example of this is the area of pilot fatigue. There is ample evidence to suggest that the current regulations are inadequate. NASA has stacks of ASRS forms where pilots reported fatigue as being a major factor in deviations and other incidents. The NTSB has excoriated the FAA on numerous occasions for not changing the regulations to conform to modern knowledge about fatigue's effect on human performance. It's actually been on their "Most Wanted" list of safety improvements since 1990. In two recent fatal airline accidents (American 1420 and Corporate 5966), the NTSB found fatigue to be a significant contributing factor. This issue affects the majors almost as much as the regionals, especially since their contracts were gutted in bankruptcy. In an effort to keep costs low, airlines are flying their pilots as much as they legally can. For a major airline that may mean 8 hours of flying in three legs and 12 hours on duty; for a regional that may mean 8 hours of flying in six legs and 14 hours on duty.
The basic thead that connects all of this is airline management being cheap. They won't pay the pilots, they won't pay for quality maintenance, they wring every bit of productivity they can out of their employees, and they'll continue doing so until inexperience, shoddy maintenance, and tired pilots cut into their bottom line. Profits in aviation being underwritten by others' blood has a long and pedigreed history. Google "American 191" and consider that the man who approved the forklift procedure against McDonnell-Douglas' recommendations is now in the top echelons of AirTran management. Read the NTSB report on Alaska 261 and think about what it means that, after everything they said about Alaska's maintenance program, the FAA found Alaska MD80s with unlubed jackscrews coming out of (outsourced) heavy maintenance last year. Consider that as cheap as the majors have become, they outsource a portion of their flying to regionals because the regionals are cheaper!
I suppose this post would have a rather frightening effect on non-pilots. You should understand that despite my concerns, accident rates at the regionals are at the same amazingly low rates of the major airlines. I just think that if airline management continues along the path they're on, that won't continue to be the case forever.