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Pay, work conditions at commuter airlines pose safety questions

Liam Broderick worked at his “dream job,” earning about $40,000 a year as a pilot. He is now a flight instructor in Daytona Beach. Many of his classmates, who fly for smaller carriers, earn about half that much, which makes paying their $200,000 student loans difficult.

Photo courtesy of Liam Broderick (2008)

Liam Broderick worked at his “dream job,” earning about $40,000 a year as a pilot. He is now a flight instructor in Daytona Beach. Many of his classmates, who fly for smaller carriers, earn about half that much, which makes paying their $200,000 student loans difficult.

They start with a paycheck smaller than a fast-food manager's and often share living quarters away from home with people from work. Their career goal: a job in the big leagues with a six-figure salary.

Sounds like the job description for a minor-league ballplayer. But it also fits many pilots of the commuter planes that carry nearly one out of every four U.S. airline passengers each day.

The unseemly side of life for commuter airline pilots came into full view last week as federal safety investigators held a three-day hearing into the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12 outside Buffalo, N.Y. All 49 people on board were killed, along with a man in a house that the twin-engine turboprop hit. Testimony and documents indicate the captain and co-pilot made a series of critical errors.

Members of the National Transportation Safety Board heard that Capt. Marvin Renslow, 47, of Lutz and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, 24, commuted to their base in Newark, N.J. Neither pilot had a place to stay outside Newark Liberty International Airport, and evidence suggested they slept in a pilot crew room the night before the crash. Their employer, Colgan Air, said two-thirds of its Newark-based pilots commute from elsewhere.

Shaw's commute from her home near Seattle took all night, and she arrived in the early morning hours of Feb. 12. Renslow arrived late Feb. 9 from Tampa and flew an eight-hour schedule the next day.

The commutes and long work schedules might have fatigued the pilots, NTSB investigators said. The pilots may not have been able to afford to live in the New York metropolitan area. Shaw earned $23,900, the company said Thursday, a higher figure than it had provided the day before; Renslow's salary would have been in the mid $50,000s, according to, a pilot career advisory service. Their pay was consistent with other commuter airlines, Colgan Air said.

The pilots engaged in idle chit-chat through much of the flight, even when flying below 10,000 feet — a violation of the Federal Aviation Authority's "sterile cockpit" rules.

The NTSB's acting chairman, Mark Rosenker, accused Colgan Air of being lax in following its policies and federal safety rules. He suggested the problems exist at other commuter airlines.

"I believe there are industry issues we must examine at the same time,'' said Rosenker, a retired Air Force Reserve major general. "If it's violations of sterile cockpit or cutting the salami too thinly to get to work (when) you're not fit to fly.''

Colgan blamed the pilots if they were fatigued. Renslow had 22 straight hours off before the Buffalo flight, the company said in a statement, and Shaw "did not reserve adequate time to travel from her home to base in order to ensure she was properly rested and fit for duty."

• • •

Pilots Chris Malo and Kenny Edwards know all about the long commutes and low pay.

Malo caught the flying bug as a kid, watching jets fly in and out of nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International from his yard. Edwards didn't catch it until his early 20s. He couldn't help noticing how happy all the pilots looked while he worked an airline desk job at the Phoenix airport.

They both landed at commuter carriers.

Edwards borrowed $30,000 to get certified on the 19-seat Beech 1900 for Gulfstream Training Institute in Fort Lauderdale, then fly as a co-pilot in the turboprop on short hops around Florida. His first full-time job in 2000 paid $13,000, plus $1 an hour of duty time for meals and tips.

At Gulfstream and two later employers, Edwards commuted to work from his home in Phoenix. Between the low pay and mounting debt, he couldn't afford a place of his own. In Charlotte, N.C., he paid $400 a month to share a "crash pad," a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house with eight people.

"It was like a youth hostel," Edwards says. "People going in and out all the time, snoring. Just noise."

The life on duty wasn't much better. Sometimes the schedule left nine hours between the last landing and the next day's first flight out. He was lucky to get five hours of sleep.

Pilots greeted each other with a standard line: You livin' the dream?

Malo had more luck. He started at $17,000 flying turboprops but quickly moved to a higher-paying 50-seat jet. That meant flying out of a base at Newark International, the last choice among pilots because of the area's astronomical housing costs.

The closest place he could afford was two hours away in Pennsylvania. Instead, he bought a $78,000 townhouse back in Minnesota, rented space in a crash pad near the airport and commuted. Now, he's a 30-year-old jet captain making $90,000 with no plans to leave the company. His situation, Malo says, is atypical of regional pilots.

Edwards was fired by Gulfstream in 2007 over his refusal to fly a plane he thought was unsafe. Now, the 43-year-old is unemployed in Phoenix. "I'm livin' the nightmare," he chuckled.

• • •

The Buffalo crash reignited a debate over whether commuter airlines, also called regional or feeder carriers, are as safe as big-name major airlines.

Prior to that crash, commuter airlines had four crashes that killed 85 people in the past five years. Only one person died in a major airline crash during the same time. Half of all airline flights last year were made by commuters. They fly more short trips, and take off and land — the parts of flights when most crashes occur — more often.

Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, says his members fly as safely as the big airlines. They've operated under the same federal regulations for more than a decade, he says. Commuters contract with the majors, typically flying their passengers on connections to smaller cities under names such as Delta Connection, American Eagle and US Airways Express.

"Why would a major airline ever risk their reputation on anything that's not of the same (safety) level?" he asked.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt chided Colgan last week for not having a ''threat management" program used by its partner, Continental.

"People are buying these tickets from Continental (as Continental Express)," he said. "If it's good enough for the major, why isn't the regional using it?''

Few commuter airlines use a safety program that is standard among major airlines. The program collects and analyzes flight data to look for problems.

Commuter pilots hired in recent years also have less flying experience than before, aviation professionals say.

Demand for pilots surged starting in 2005 as major carriers shifted more flying to their commuter partners to cut costs. The commuters lowered their minimum flying requirements for new hires to as low as 500 hours to fill vacancies. Colgan hired Renslow in 2005 with 618 hours of total flight time.

"They began hiring people with very minimal experience, little time in the air — to the agony of a lot of captains who had to babysit the new co-pilots," says Liam Broderick, a furloughed Spirit Airlines pilot now working as a flight instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

"So you've got a lot more pilots with a lot less experience up there. And the pay is so low with some of these carriers that … a lot of the more experienced guys just didn't want to do it."

Staff writer Lane DeGregory contributed to this report, which includes information from USA Today. Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.

Pay, work conditions at commuter airlines pose safety questions 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 12:32pm]
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