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Who's Piloting Your Plane?

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Who's Piloting Your Plane?

Around the Nation

Who's Piloting Your Plane?

Who's Piloting Your Plane?

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Read Barbara Peterson's Article, "Downsized! The Rise Of Regional Airlines"

Regional carriers have snuck into the commercial airline business with smaller planes, lower paid pilots and dubious safety records. We'll talk with Barbara Peterson, aviation correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler, about the rise of regional airlines.

NEAL CONAN, host:

It's no secret that most of the major airlines are struggling, and to cut costs, big carriers farm out more and more flights to regional airlines. Today these regionals carry almost a quarter of all U.S. air passengers, flying nearly half of all the flights. And their smaller planes are also flying longer routes. But these cost-saving measures might raise more cause for concern than just a little leg and head room.

After a fatal crash last February, we learned that the pilot had failed safety standards and that the co-pilot received a salary of only $16,000 a year. So, pilots, flight attendants, what do we not understand about regional airlines? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Barbara Peterson joins us now from our bureau in New York. She's the aviation correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler. Her article in this month's issue is �Downsized! The Rise of Regional Airlines.� Nice of you to be with us today.

Ms. BARBARA PETERSON (Aviation Correspondent, Conde Nast Traveler): Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you point out that even if we book a flight on United Airlines, we may find ourselves flying United Express.

Ms. PETERSON: Exactly. Yes. And one of the things that has been a real issue of concern is that, well, the major airline is supposed to disclose to the consumer at the time of purchase the exact airline they'll be flying on, especially if it isn't the airline you think you're flying on.

Well, that doesn't always happen. And some of the, you know, third party Web sites, you know, the, you know, like Travelocity, sometimes they don't necessarily have that information up there when you're making the decision. So it isn't that easy to evaluate. And there have been some real problems with consumer deception, if - or confusion perhaps.

CONAN: So, to some degree, this is an issue of transparency, the major airlines using their marketing muscle and essentially pawning you off on, well, a much less well-known airline.

Ms. PETERSON: Yes. And, you know, it's a symbiotic relationship. Obviously, for the major airline, it gives them a chance to reach many more markets than they could serve with their own aircraft. And that's actually how these regional airlines grew up. And it's not a bad thing. Of course, you know, it's a good thing that we can fly to a lot of small cities and - that wouldn't necessarily get the same level of service if they could only have, say, 737s or 757 service.

However, as we reported in the article, there's been sort of a mission creep in the last few years. You know, these airlines are flying longer routes, they are popping up in markets where you almost never used to see a small plane like that. And they're really, I think, being used in a sense for the majors to take up routes where they obviously feel they can't make money. And it's a way for them to cut their costs and still keep their name out there.

CONAN: In part because the pilots and the flight attendants are paid a lot less than the pilots and the flight attendants on the major airlines.

Ms. PETERSON: Exactly. And you actually have the sort of almost contradictory situation now where the majors, which have been really hurting the last few years, they've been laying off or furloughing their pilots and other crew members. And then you have these regionals who are taking up some of the slack, and their crews are less - obviously less well paid and less experienced. So you have this odd situation where you've got a lot of really highly experienced crew members who may just be sitting around waiting to be called back.

CONAN: And can you give us the names of some of these regional airlines so we know who we're talking about here?

Ms. PETERSON: Oh, there's a whole grab bag of them. And some of them are better known than others. Some of them are quite large, in fact. One of the biggest ones is SkyWest Airlines. And they have almost 300 planes. And Pinnacle is another one. Colgan, of course, which became fairly well known, unfortunately, for not very good reasons. And, you know, there's Chautauqua, Shuttle America, you know, there's a whole laundry list of them.

But, really, the names won't mean that much to the average traveler because you're really buying a ticket on a major airline's Web site. You're buying a ticket that will read United, Continental, Delta, you know, not the small airlines.

CONAN: And the plane will be in fact in the livery of Delta Express, not in Colgan or whatever.

Ms. PETERSON: Yes, though sometimes you may see it in very small print. And they are required to put their names on the boarding pass, for example. But again, it's small print and, you know�

CONAN: Operated by Colgan Express or something like that.

Ms. PETERSON: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Jerry(ph). Jerry is calling us from St. Louis.

JERRY (Caller): Good afternoon. Great topic. I live here in St. Louis which, of course, now has been - gone from hub status to, you really can't fly out of here on a mainline carrier. And as a passenger, of course, that means your carry-on-sized bag is often not going to fit and it does cause tremendous amount of inconvenience. But I also have a perspective of having spent over 25 years in the airline business working for the most part for two major carriers and then spending a short time at a regional carrier.

And the economics are very different, but I think they're driven by the fact that as long as the major airlines were hiring - in fact, for 50 years, probably, you could especially get pilots at a very low wage to do anything because they work simply racking up hours because the holy grail was to get your name on a seniority list at a major carrier and you'd be golden for life.

And of course we know that those circumstances have changed. But I think the bottom line is I have a ticket that my mother used from Paris to New York in 1953 and it was $295 one-way. So that would equate to probably over, you know, almost $5,000 roundtrip.

CONAN: Sure.

JERRY: And I don't think there's a demand for a service at that price anymore.

CONAN: Not much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Not much. But while you're racking up those hours, of course, you don't have the experience of those pilots who are on the major carriers.

JERRY: No, of course. And, you know, it showed. I mean, you know, at this time, we were looking at hiring people that had the bare minimum of 300 hours in order to get your basic commercial license. I remember the �70s when I started, you would not even get - I mean, they would throw your resume away unless you had extraordinary circumstances and an excess of 3,000 hours.

CONAN: Wow. That's not the case now, I don't think, Barbara Peterson.

JERRY: No.

Ms. PETERSON: No. Well, what happened was a couple of years ago when airlines briefly started making money again - remember that? That, I mean, basically blinked and it was over.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. PETERSON: But, anyway, what happened was a lot of the major airlines called back the pilots that they had laid off after 9/11 and then the recession. And then the regionals which were growing at that point in their reach, they had to basically, you know, do a callout to anybody who could fly a plane, basically. That's when you saw some of these really low-hour pilots get hired. There was a big hiring wave. So that got a lot of them in the door.

And your caller is absolutely right. Of course, they've got to start somewhere. And the regional airlines have been a long, you know, proven training ground.

CONAN: Go to the minor leagues, if you will.

Ms. PETERSON: Precisely. Yes. But there are two things we've got to keep in mind. One is that training is key. It's not so much what the logbook says, that helps. But they've got to be trained to deal with all manner of emergency that they might encounter. For example, flying in icing conditions. And that was one of the more troubling things that came out of the investigation into that Buffalo crash.

CONAN: Now there was a Colgan flight, yeah.

Ms. PETERSON: Yes, exactly. They had not - neither of them had been in those types of weather conditions. Or, you know, not everybody can actually experience every emergency. You should hope that they wouldn't, actually. But they can be trained for those in a simulator. But, again, all of those things cost money. And Congress is actually currently considering legislation that would actually require these airlines to beef up their training, to hire pilots with higher numbers of hours, and also to have mentoring between the major airlines and these little guys who are flying under their name. I mean, that only makes sense. After all, they are flying the flag, so to speak, so why not live up to some of the more, you know, tougher standards?

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Anna(ph). Anna with us from Los Angeles.

ANNA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ANNA: Hi. I just want to make a comment regarding the experience as a regional pilot. I am a regional pilot, and I have been flying for the airline for more than 20 years, so there are a lot of us out there that do have the experience. And I resent being lumped into that category of the green rookie, inexperienced pilot that doesn't know what he's doing, because I do. I chose to stay at the regional for family reasons and to keep my seniority, so there are a lot of pilots at my airline that had been there more than 20 years.

CONAN: Barbara Peterson?

Ms. PETERSON: Yes. She's absolutely right. And, you know, if you read our article in the December issue, we do actually make that point. And I wouldn't want her to think that that didn't come out in the story because it certainly did. I interviewed, in fact, a couple of pilots for regionals who've been there for more than 10 years and they certainly are very well qualified. There's - this is not to denigrate them. Of course, they're doing a tremendous job.

And, you know, the other thing that we should really point out too is that, well, the several accidents that have happened in recent years are disturbing. Let's put it in perspective. There were 52 million takeoffs and landings in the United States last year on commercial airlines. There's been one accident in the past 37 months. I mean, that's an incredible�

CONAN: One accident involving injuries or fatalities.

Ms. PETERSON: Fatality, exactly. Yes.

CONAN: Exactly. Yes. So, Anna, I think there is some recognition of the quality of regional pilots in the story.

Ms. PETERSON: Yes, there is, but�

CONAN: No, I was just hoping to put that to Anna. Are you still there?

Ms. PETERSON: Okay.

ANNA: Yes, yes. I'm here. I would like to point out, too, that there have a few incidents recently where major airlines have landed on taxiways and it could have been a total disaster. So, you know, there are pilots out there throughout the whole industry that make mistakes. It's not just regional.

CONAN: All right. Anna, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ANNA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Barbara Peterson, who's the aviation correspondent for Conde Nast Traveller. Her most recent article is titled, �Downsized! The Rise of Regional Airlines.� It appears in the December issue of Conde Nast Traveller. If you are involved in the regional airlines, what don't we understand about what you do? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Kathleen(ph) on the line. Kathleen calling from Central Oregon.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KATHLEEN: I just would like to make a comment. I was a flight attendant. And when I flew for a regional airline - first off, I'd like to point out that I flew with some of the most competent pilots anywhere. I would put them up against any major airline pilot anywhere. They were fabulous. But I'd also like to say that the pay was unbelievable. I worked with other flight attendants who actually qualified for food stamps, because the pay was so low. And you don't say much about it. You don't complain about your job, because you're fully aware that there's a lot of people standing in lines who'd like to have it, because the ticket to becoming a flight attendant at a major airline is to work for a regional first.

CONAN: It's interesting, we got this email from Denise(ph) in Chandler, Arizona: Last year, my husband and I went to a local barbecue restaurant. While talking to the waiter, he told us he was a pilot with - name withheld - airline, but had to supplement his income with the waiter's job. Pay equals status equals esteem. Self-esteem equals excellent performance. It's no surprise there may be some pilot problems.

Well, you said some of the pilots are among the best you've ever seen. But Kathleen, as you say, there's somebody waiting to take your job if you don't want it.

KATHLEEN: Yes. Exactly. And another thing I don't think the public is aware of is there is no such thing as an eight-hour day when you fly for a regional, at least in my experience. And when they say that, oh, these pilots, they get eight hours between flights, they're not - they don't consider the fact that it takes you an hour to get to the hotel, an hour to get something to eat. You get four hours of sleep and then you got to be back, you have to be there an hour before your flight time.

CONAN: And you don't�

KATHLEEN: So eight hours does not mean eight hours of sleep.

CONAN: The clock doesn't start until wheels are up, right?

KATHLEEN: Yeah. Right. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. Kathleen, thanks very much.

KATHLEEN: You bet. Thank you.

CONAN: And that pay issue is something, obviously, it rankles flight attendants and other people and certainly pilots who work for regional airlines.

Ms. PETERSON: Yes. And one of the other things that leads to - and I'm glad that your caller mentioned, the fatigue issue - is this business of "commuting," quote, unquote. And I put that in quotes because most people wouldn't consider a Seattle-to-Newark trip a typical commute to your job. But that's what a lot of these pilots do is they live somewhere where they can, you know, have a more affordable lifestyle, and then they commute. Now, a lot of the major airline pilots do that, too, but most of them have the money to shell out, you know, for a hotel room, if they need one. However, what we've been seeing is that some of these pilots who commute these long distances, they don't really even have the money to spare to do that. So they're sleeping in crew lounges or taking a red-eye flight, which is the copilot in the Colgan air crash apparently had done the night before.

Now, you know, they're professionals and you hope that, yes, they still arrive, you know, basically, you know, alert enough to fly. But that's not a good situation. And I guess what we're questioning here, the points that we raise in the story is why do they have to be paid such low wages? I mean, they're skilled people. They've spent years learning how to do this, and quite a bit of money, by the way.

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. PETERSON: Because one of the other things that's happened is the military, you know, used to train a fair number of pilots who eventually ended up flying for commercial airlines. That was another typical, sort of, route up the food chain. However, that's not happening anymore. The military is producing almost no pilots who end up at commercial airlines. So, guess what, they have to learn somewhere, and the regional airlines are sort of the de facto training ground.

CONAN: And most of them are graduates from places like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and places like that.

Ms. PETERSON: Well, yes. And then there are some of these smaller flight schools at, you know, they basically boast that they can turn what they call a zero-hour pilot into an airline pilot in maybe a year or something.

CONAN: Yeah. Let me read this to you, an email we got from Jill(ph) in Palo Alto: I've been a commercial pilot for 32 years, 25 of them with United Airlines based in San Francisco. I typically fly long haul flights to Asia on the Boeing 777. On all these flights, there are three or four pilots, so the total experience level on the cockpit is on the order of 75 to 100 years or more - contrast that with some of the outsourced flights in the domestic U.S., where the cockpit crew may have as little as three or four years of total experience.

And well, yes, we also remember the phone call we had from Anna(ph), who says she's been a regional pilot for 20 years. And you, Barbara, talked with some who had been regional pilots for more than 10 years. Nevertheless, the issue given the overall fantastic record of safety in the past few years, how does this affect the safety record and concerns about safety as we fly?

Ms. PETERSON: Yes. Well, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the last six fatal accidents in the United States on passenger airlines were all on regional planes. So, you know, yes, as I pointed out before, the overall record is very good, but that is a troubling statistic because it indicates maybe there is a double standard. Now, there's not supposed to be a double standard. Officially, they eliminated what had been actually a double standard between commuter airlines and major airlines more than 10 years ago. They actually had to pass, you know, legislation and change the rule to do that, but they did. However, it's one thing to, you know, say, okay, legally there is no difference in the standards and the reality of it, which as we see, you know, less experience, you know, maybe not such, you know, thorough training.

In fact, some of the smaller commuters that we looked at, they actually contract out their training. So not only are they contracting with the bigger airlines, but they're contracting out. So it doesn't make any sense.

CONAN: Barbara Peterson, thanks very much.

Ms. PETERSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Barbara Peterson, aviation correspondent for Conde Nast Traveller. We have a link to her story on our Web site, npr.org. She was with us from our bureau in New York.

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