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Is There A Pilot On Board? Training Found Lacking At Many Regional Airlines

11 comments

A Buffalo News investigation found that many pilots at smaller regional airlines are dangerously undertrained… and in some cases, untrained completely.

The Buffalo News found that many regional airline pilots may not have experienced or even practiced critical items, such as mid-air icing on the wings, an emergency water landing, regaining aircraft control after an unexpected roll or spin.

Regional airlines — which operate commuter flights under the names of the big airlines — in particular employ a squadron of rookies hired with just a fraction of the training pilots received decades ago.

The result: During an era of unprecedented safety at the major airlines, when only one person died in an accident tied to pilot mistakes, 64 died in regional airline crashes tied to pilot error between 2004 and 2008.

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Moreover, regional pilots make far more mistakes than their colleagues at larger airlines. An analysis of five years of federal data found that nearly 28 percent of regional airline accidents and incidents were tied to aviator error — twice the rate of the major airlines.

These statistics may make you think twice before stepping onto that smaller regional aircraft on your way to a larger hub or destination. However, for much of the country, small regional aircraft and rookie pilots are often the only choice in this era of high fuel costs and decreased routes.

What should airline passengers think?

"They should be concerned," said Jeffrey Skiles, co-pilot of the US Airways plane that made an emergency landing on the Hudson River this year.

Many regional pilots "simply do not have the flying skills for the position," Skiles said. "So they have to develop them with paying passengers in the back."

Many passengers never even realize they are traveling on a small regional airline because of code-share agreements in which the small regional planes bear the logos and ticketing of their larger airline partners.

For example, Corporate Airlines ran the American Connection flight that claimed 13 lives in Missouri in 2004 in an accident investigators blamed in part on pilot fatigue and "unprofessional behavior."

And Comair, a Delta subsidiary, operated the plane that crashed in Kentucky in 2006 after the pilots took off from the wrong runway, killing 49.

Many of these rookie regional pilots are dangerously undertrained. One of the problems is that many pilots undergo initial training in the desert southwest and some have never even flown through a cloud before being assigned routes in the hazardous northeast or other severe-weather areas of the country.

Several pilots said they know pilots who did their pre-airline flying in the Southwest — without ever flying in a cloud — and then were hired by a regional carrier flying in the wintry Northeast.

"Wow, wow," a new first officer said to his pilot on a regional airline plane, according to Louis Smith, a veteran pilot who runs FltOps.com, an Alabama-based professional pilot career advisory firm.

"What’s wrong?" the pilot asked.

"Clouds, man. I’ve never flown in actual weather."

Fortunately, changes may be in the works, but are unlikely to actually take effect for some time. The Air Line Pilots Association recently released a white paper concluding that "A complete overhaul of pilot selection and training methods is needed."

While the safety board has been citing training issues for years, the Colgan crash put the issue on the front burner in the aviation industry and in Congress.

Seven months after the February crash, the Air Line Pilots Association, the pilots’ union, released a white paper on the state of airline hiring and training. Its conclusion: "A complete overhaul of pilot selection and training methods is needed."

Meanwhile, the families of the Flight 3407 victims pressed Congress for a new requirement that all co-pilots have 1,500 hours of flying experience.

While it’s unclear whether Congress will adopt that standard, Flight 3407 is sure to influence the revised training rules the FAA is set to unveil in February.

I am fortunate to know several pilots who have flown everything from Cessna 152s to citation corporate jets to large airliners. Every pilot wants to be safe, but if they are not properly trained there is little they can do.

Airlines need to do more to ensure their pilots are properly trained and properly compensated. I don’t know about you, but I want to make sure the man or woman in charge of taking me safely from 30,000 feet down to the ground has the very best training and actually makes more money than the very nice flight attendant serving me a Coke in the back.

True Story: A friend of mine was on a flight with a major regional airline. During the flight, he found out the flight attendant was also a pilot for the airline, but could earn more money serving drinks in the back than by flying the plane in the cockpit.

All airlines — regional, national, international — need to make sure that those charged with delivering hundreds of passengers from city to city receive the highest and best training possible. One little mistake can have disastrous consequences.

Learn more and become a fan of Langdon & Emison on Facebook.

11 Comments

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  1. mike says:
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    A professional minded person will do his or her best at their job. However “Who” you get, their “Experience” level, their “Training credentials” are not going to be identical for low pay vs high pay. If you want the cheapest pilot money can buy don’t expect an ex-military fighter pilot who had over 5 million dollars worth of training and 20+ years experience. This concept should not escape anyone as it applies to almost any vocation. You get what you pay for. You don’t get a “Sully” for a “Marvin” price. Marvin will do “his” best for you but when the chips are down if it isn’t good enough don’t complain. You got the cheap ticket. You got the cheap pilot.
    The only surprise about this accident is that it did not happen sooner. The only question remaining is what flight will be next? The explanation on why is clearly explained here:

    http://forums.jetcareers.com/general-topics/53768-expectations-how-save-5-airline-ticket.html

  2. john smith says:
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    keep the public scared with inaccurate articles like this….so far off base

  3. Eric Knight says:
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    Does anyone actually believe this ambulance chasing garbage? And Mike, thanks for the current article,,,,not….do you think pilots all start out with 20,000 hours? Think for yourself and do your research, America. No pilot can fly for any regional without sufficient training. Look to the government and the FAA if you want to change things. Knowledge is power, and fear-based sites like this only assist in the dumbing-down of an already overfed, brain-dead country.

  4. Brett Emison says:
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    @ Eric Knight — “Ambulance chasing garbage”? Really?

    I encourage spirited debate on this forum, but name calling is the retort of the weak minded and uninformed.

    This post and the article upon which it is based is current; published yesterday after an extensive investigation into the flight that crashed en route to Buffalo, NY.

    Fact: Rookie pilots are undermining themselves and their peers by selling out to low-ball contracts from regional airlines.

    Fact: Smaller regional airlines cut costs by skimping on pilot salaries and training, resulting in more and more flights being flown by lower-paid and inexperienced rookie pilots.

    Fact: As larger airlines reduce capicity, the void is filled (at least in part) by smaller regional airlines who pay far less than larger domestic carriers and whose pilots are undertrained and inexperienced.

    Fact: Regional airlines have a statistically significantly larger crash/accident/incident rate than larger airlines.

    Fact: Dozens of pilots, safety experts, air traffic controllers, mechanics, instructors, and others say inadequate training is a major problem at regional airlines.

    You say to “[l]ook to the government and the FAA if you want to change things.” You want the government to save us from inexperienced pilots?

    Why shouldn’t airlines who take money from passengers take it upon themselves to ensure that their pilots have a proper amount of training? Why shouldn’t airlines take it upon themselves to ensure that their pilots are paid a living wage.

    I don’t know about you, but I do not want to be flown from 30,000 to the ground by a disgruntled, low bid pilot.

    I want happy, well-paid pilots. I want the best.

  5. H. H. says:
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    This article is so one-sided. Let’s see – if someone is a pilot for a regional airlines they are dangerous and incompetent, but if they work for a major airline they are safe and perfect.

    Two months ago two Northwest Airline pilots flew past their destination because they were working on their laptops. And a couple of weeks before that a Delta flight landed on a taxiway (not a runway) in Atlanta. If it were not for pure luck, both of these flights could have resulted in major losses of life.

    You have to look at the hidden agenda for the author of the article (lawyer), and then there is Jeffrey Skiles. I have tremendous respect for Jeffrey and ‘Scully’ related to their flight skills, but they have both used their fame as an opportunity to advance the message of higher pay for their profession by taking pot shots at the regional airlines and the pay cuts many airlines have handed out these past few years.

    Everything in this article is about money, not safety. Don’t fall for the smoke and mirrors…

  6. Brett Emison says:
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    @ H.H. — Thank you for you comment, but your distrust of my “motives” is unwarranted.

    I have no financial stake in this issue. I make no money one way or the other. I know a number of pilots who have reported similar information to me first-hand and simply found the article upon which I based this post fascinating.

    Which leads me to this: I did not make this story up. I did not conjure these statistics or this study from mid-air. There are no “smoke and mirrors” here.

    The journalists at The Buffalo News performed an exhaustive study following the tragic Buffalo, New York regional airliner crash.

    I will not speculate as to your “hidden agenda,” although I fail to understand how anyone could lobby against additional training for pilots in order to save lives.

  7. I Fly Jets says:
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    As an aviation professional, I have to agree with the blog-poster’s premise. I have flown a variety of airplanes ranging from business turboprops (Beech King Airs for anyone familiar) to business jets (mainly Cessna Citation series jets) and Boeing airliners for a major airline.

    Notice the absence of regional jet experience because I have refused to subject myself to the horrible pay and quality of life that comes with working for a regional airline. I have twice been furloughed from excellent flying jobs and I now work outside of the aviation field because I have vowed that I will “hang up the headset” before I go to work for a regional airline.

    Mr. John Smith, I agree that the public should be scared, but I would ask you to clarify what is inaccurate about this article.

    Mr. Knight, you are correct that no pilots start
    with 20,000 hours of experience, however, historically most pilots have cut their teeth instructing, flying freight, flying charter, or doing any number of other things to gain a reasonable level of experience before they got into the front seat of a jet carrying 50-100+ paying passengers. I personally know a few individuals who have been hired at regional airlines with 250 hours and a brand new commercial pilot certificate and they got their multi-engine rating during their intiial training. While this isn’t the norm, I have known a great number of pilots hired with 500 total time and 50 hours of multi-engine – hardly enough to be considered a seasoned veteran!

    And H.H., I don’t think anyone would say that EVERYONE that works for a regional is unsafe and incompetent, nor EVERYONE at the legacy airlines perfect. However, I would bet that most people would agree that pilots at legacy and major airlines are much more experienced, and with experience comes better judgement and decision making.

    We are fortunate that right now, with the limited hiring occuring and with the thousands of highly-experienced pilots out of work, current pilots are daily receiving on the job training and new pilot hires will be experienced aviators. Additionally, the FAA and the Airline Pilots Association are both interested in working together to ensure a higher level of experience and training for new airline pilots.

    I, for one, believe that everyone that’s flying for a Part 121, scheduled airline should have an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. That would create enough of a pilot shortage that pilots could command the salary they deserve and passengers could be assured that the pilots sitting in the front of their airplane are qualified to be there.

    Ask yourself, would you prefer to go to a Dr. right out of medical school, or one with some experience practicing medicine? What’s the difference with pilots?

  8. Facebook User says:
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    Garbage? Maybe not. Irresponsible to paint all regional pilots with the same brush. Absolutely! In a week I celebrate my 20th year with Piedmont Airlines. No accidents or incidents. It seems from the article that you have to kill people to be counted in the undertrained and dangerous category. Nobody seems to care that American recently broke a 737 into 3 pieces trying to land when they shouldn’t have. But they are major airline pilots. Couldn’t be their bad judgment? No! They were major airline pilots. All cynicism intended.

    By the way, who gave Jeff Skiles an opinion? Sitting in the right seat during a water landing where nobody died does not qualify him as an expert. Was he “concerned” in the early 90′s whe. USAIrways had five crashes in five years. For him to comment on my abilities for his gain is irresponsible. If the author wanted an unbiased view of the regional industry, how about talking to a regional pilot. Better yet, come along for my next reccurent training and see for yourself how undertrained we are. For my part, I am tired of fear mongering reporting. Every airline has pilots that shouldn’t be pilots.

  9. I Fly Jets says:
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    Mr. Kernan,

    Congratulations on achieving 20 yrs at Piedmont. At my previous airline job I flew with a former Piedmont guy and he seemed to really enjoy it, I think he had close to 15 years in before he left.

    Nowhere in the blog did the author indicate that ALL regional pilots are incompetent or undertrained. However, I would hope that you’d be willing to admit that there are an awful lot of pilots hired in 2005-2008 that were completely unqualified to sit in the pointy-end of a jet (or large turboprop). Furthermore, I personally know two RJ captains – one on the CRJ700, another on the ERJ145, who upgraded to captain on their 23rd birthdays, as soon as they were qualified to hold ATP certificates. I’m not saying that age is an important factor in flying ability, but I know how much EXPERIENCE those two guys had and I wouldn’t put my family in a jet with one of them and a low-time copilot.

    With the lack of hiring and upgrading occuring right now, it’s not much of an issue, however, it’s only a matter of time until hiring picks up again and the only pilots willing to work for pitiful 1st year regional airline pay are folks with 500TT and 50ME.

    I’ve ridden on regional jets where I have more experience than the two pilots in the front seats have combined. That makes me nervous considering I’m hardly a high-time pilot. I think that’s the major safety concern, paring low-time captains with low-time F/O’s is a recipe for disaster, (the Colgan accident for example).

    As was stated earlier, no pilot is born with experience flying around convective weather, dealing with icing and deicing, and taxiing around large and complex airports. I just hope that there’s someone as experienced as yourself sitting up front to show the new guys the ropes.

  10. Brett Emison says:
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    Business Week, published by Bloomberg News, has recently reported on the poor safety record at small regional airlines, specifically, Gulfstream International Airlines.

    The Business Week article outlined deficiencies in pilot training, pilot pay, pilot fatigue, maintenance and other areas that negatively impacted safety.

    You can read more at http://kansascity.injuryboard.com/mass-transit-accidents/safety-lacking-at-regional-airlines-poor-training-maintenance-and-oversight.aspx?googleid=276412

  11. Jane Akre says:
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    While Business Week is a fine news source – are you aware that Injuryboard News Desk has also generated many articles on pilot safety, compensation, and rest rules that has generated a response from the pilot community?

    Please check them out at:

    Low Pay for Regional Jet Pilots- May 2009

    http://www.injuryboard.com/national-news/low-pay-for-regional-jet-pilots-.aspx?googleid=262938

    Amid Pilot Accolades – Do You Know How Much Your Pilot Makes? – February 2009

    http://www.injuryboard.com/national-news/amid-pilot-accolades-%E2%80%93-do-you-know-how-much-your-pilot-makes.aspx?googleid=256948

    Rest Time for Pilots at Center for Lawsuit – January 2009

    http://www.injuryboard.com/national-news/rest-time-for-pilots-at-center-of-lawsuit.aspx?googleid=254680

    Distracted Pilots Lose License to Fly – October 2009

    http://www.injuryboard.com/national-news/distracted-pilots-lose-license.aspx?googleid=273500

    What is Pilot Fatigue- New Rules Considered – September 2009

    http://www.injuryboard.com/national-news/what-is-pilot-fatigue-new-rules-considered-.aspx?googleid=270866