Since I wrote the post about Colgan 3407 three months ago, more details about the events of that tragic flight have come to light. They have taken the investigation further along in the direction that it was starting to go when I wrote that post. Most of these details have not been made officially public, but have leaked out and have spread around the aviation community. I've resisted posting details here or commenting on them because the investigation was ongoing. On Tuesday, May 12, the results of that investigation will be made public and the NTSB will hold hearings into some of the issues that their investigation uncovered. While the final report on the accident will not be issued for some time, we will know most of the pertinent facts on Tuesday (you will be able to access the public docket here); I think at that point it is reasonable to discuss what is revealed.
Much of the discussion will likely center around three broad topics: Professionalism and Safety Culture at the Regional Airlines, Training at the Regional Airlines, and Fatigue & Working Conditions at all airlines but particularly the regionals. I have some pretty strong opinions on all of these topics, as anybody who has read my blog for a while knows, and I'll likely be writing more posts on these topics as they relate to Colgan 3407 in the coming weeks. I'd like to talk about them in general terms now, however.
In November of 2007 I wrote a post titled "Are the Regional Airlines Safe?." My conclusion was that yes, statistically speaking they still were, but there were some worrying trends in the industry that, left unaddressed, could cause safety problems down the road. When I wrote the post, one of the most worrying trends was a dramatic decrease in experience levels at the regionals. This trend has since reversed, not due to any management effort to address the root causes of the regionals' inability to attract experienced candidates, but due to the one-two punch of high fuel prices and crashing demand for air travel that has brought the airlines to their knees and sent pilots scrambling for jobs. There are few, if any, first officers with less than 800 hours at the regionals these days. However, the conditions they are working under are as miserable as ever, but now without growth and advancement to soften the blow. The schedules are as fatiguing as ever, and management still insists that there's not a problem, that the few cases of pilot fatigue out there are individual pilots' own fault. The trend towards cheap outsourced maintenance has continued apace. The FAA continues to be irrelevant at best and a hindrance at worse as they myopically nitpick paperwork snafus while doggedly ignoring the things that are actually killing people.
When I wrote that post about regional airline safety, I regarded Pinnacle 3701 as a "Canary in the Coal Mine." That accident was a quintessential regional airline accident. I don't think it could have happened at the today's major airlines. Once upon a time the majors suffered a string of similarly senseless accidents, but they ended up taking the lessons to heart, changed the way they did a lot of things, and ended up with a safety culture where reckless and careless behavior simply isn't tolerated. There were a lot of lessons the regional airlines could've taken from Pinnacle 3701. Nobody really changed anything of importance, though. Maybe two lives and a destroyed airplane and house weren't enough to grab their attention. Maybe it was too easy to write the pilots off as two loose cannons and miss the broader implications of their behavior.
If anything, Pinnacle got worse after 2004. They continued to hire lower and lower time pilots; their upgrade minimums were relaxed several times. Their management got more aggressive and abusive with things like sick call policy and junior manning. Continuous severe understaffing pushed their crewmembers' schedules right up to the legal limit. Pinnacle pilots have been working under an expired contract for four years, their pay frozen while management endlessly stonewalls the union negotiators. I'm not just picking on Pinnacle here, this is a disease that has rapidly spread through the regionals the last five years. The worst offenders are the ones that got all those new 70-90 seaters. The airlines that haven't followed suit in this behavior - the Horizons, ExpressJets, and American Eagles of the world - are shrinking into oblivion. ALPA in its current state is clueless and helpless on its good days, and a collaborator the rest. When I spoke with ALPA's MEC chairman for the world's largest airline, he unblinkingly told me that outsourced regional jets were good for his mainline pilots.
If the warnings of PCL3701 went unheeded, CJC3407 is a much bigger canary that's a lot harder to ignore. These hearings are going to shine a light into some hitherto rather murky corners of the industry. Some of my fellow regional pilots are pretty uncomfortable with that. Yes, I'm aware that all of us will likely come under public scrutiny along with our companies. Yes, this is a bad time to give people another reason not to fly. We really do need to change the way things are done at the regional airlines, though, both for the sake of public safety and for our own profession. This accident needs to be our Tenerife, our Eastern 401, the wakeup call that shows everyone that the way we are doing things is broken. As these hearings progress, I suspect that the industry groups are going to try to make them about the individuals who were involved in this accident. I think the NTSB recognizes, though, that there are industry-wide issues that must be addressed head-on if we don't want another repeat.