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Flying Cheap: Sky Safety Lags as Airline Outsourcing Booms

February 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Since 2002, the last six fatal commercial airline accidents in the U.S. have all involved the small regional airlines that major carriers are increasingly leaning on to keep down fares. In an excerpt from the PBS program "Frontline," Miles O'Brien investigates the safety issues associated with such outsourcing.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: the investigation into the crash of Continental Flight 3407. It happened last February just outside Buffalo, New York. Fifty people died. The plane was operated by a small carrier called Colgan Air.

Tonight, the PBS program “Frontline” looks at the accident and at regional airlines.

Here’s an excerpt. The correspondent is Miles O’Brien.

MAN: Today, we are opening a public hearing concerning the accident that occurred on February 12, 2009, at Clarence Center, New York.

MILES O’BRIEN: Three months after the crash, the NTSB held preliminary hearings on its investigation of 3407. At the start, they played a video depicting the last two minutes of flight.

KAREN ECKERT, sister of crash victim: Sitting there, the very tough part was watching the video, the recreation of the flight. What I realized on that flight is the quiet part of the flight, you’re descending, you’re approaching, and they’re five miles out of Buffalo. It’s a quiet time.

And, all of a sudden, that plane — and they showed that pitch and roll. And you count — if you count how many seconds of absolute terror must have been in those, it was horrible. It was horrible.

MILES O’BRIEN: During the hearings, the evidence suggested the cause of the crash was not icing, but, rather, pilot error.

WOMAN: So, in your expert opinion, what did this crew do correctly, and what did they do wrong?

WALLY WARNER, test pilot: Obviously, the — the initial reaction to the stall warning was incorrect.

MARK ROSENKER, acting chairman, National Transportation Safety Board: Do you believe this was a recoverable stall?

WALLY WARNER: My opinion is yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: Here’s what the black boxes told investigators, in a nutshell. The airplane was on final approach to Buffalo. The landing gear came down. And it started losing speed very quickly.

Very soon, a warning system came on, a wheel-shaker, to tell the pilot that the plane was going too slowly to fly. He is supposed to push on that wheel when that happens. Instead, he pulled back. The speed got even slower. And then another system kicked in, a pusher, in which the plane tries to push the nose over itself to gain airspeed.

Instead, the captain pulled back. And then the first officer put the flaps up. And that made matters worse. The plane stalled, spun, and crashed into the ground.

The NTSB investigated the professional backgrounds of the pilots. The captain, Marvin Renslow, was 47. He was hired by Colgan in 2005 with only 618 hours of flying time, less than half the time required by most major airlines. The NTSB found that Captain Renslow had failed five performance tests, or check rides, some of which Colgan had failed to discover.

The first officer, Rebecca Shaw, 24, joined Colgan in January 2008. She made less than $16,000 in her first year at Colgan, and spent the night before the crash commuting from her home in Seattle.

DEBORAH HERSMAN, National Transportation Safety Board member: She commuted from Seattle to Memphis, stayed in a crew lounge in Memphis from midnight until 4:00 a.m., commuted from Memphis to Newark from 4:00 to 6:30, and then hung out in the crew lounge in Newark until her 1:30 show time.

MILES O’BRIEN: The transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder provided clues about other problems. The first officer seemed under the weather and concerned about the cost of calling in sick.

“If I call in sick,” she said, “now I have got to put myself in a hotel until I feel better.”

And both pilots appeared tired. The transcript notes sounds similar to yawns.

MARK ROSENKER: We are going to find out what happened here.

MILES O’BRIEN: The investigation threw a spotlight on to the operations of Colgan and raised questions about pilot qualifications, training, and pay.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “Flying Cheap” airs tonight on “Frontline” on most PBS stations.