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Interview: Roger Cohen

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Cohen is the president of the Regional Airline Association, an organization representing approximately 30 airlines and 280 industry suppliers. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 21, 2009.

What is a regional airline?

... We self-describe regional airlines as those carriers that are flying aircraft anywhere between nine and 90 seats, but it is a self-defined term, and the industry has changed quite a bit over the years.

Let's talk about that. How has it changed? The rise of the regionals has been rather dramatic, hasn't it?

It has been a steady and then a very dramatic rise in significance of regional airlines. It has been fueled by a number of factors, primarily the tremendous advancements in aircraft that have occurred over the last 10 to 15 years.

Explain that a little bit.

I think everybody, if those of you who can remember back, people always pictured regional aircraft or commuter aircraft [as] very small, not really the most comfortable planes, maybe not always pressurized, not the most advanced, flying very short-haul routes that really just connected small communities to small communities.

Today's regional airlines are really the backbone of the domestic network system. Over 50 percent of the flights are on regional airlines. These [are] aircraft that are [the] most advanced, most modern, most sophisticated [in terms of] passenger comfort that are out there today anywhere in the world.

Over 50 percent. So it's no longer correct to say this is a small segment of the flying market.

No, it is not a small segment ... People haven't really noticed it because -- this is a key point -- because the system is all one system. It has all been integrated into the domestic airline network. It's made it much easier and better for travelers.

Help us, though, understand the business model. Why have the mainline so-called legacy carriers over the past couple of decades looked to lean more heavily on these contract players [for] outsourcing their flying?

... The first thing to look at is that there is no one-size-fits-all business model for regional airlines. It really goes back, again, to the airplane. And so to serve the 400, the 600 communities, 650 communities in this country that have scheduled service, 480 of them -- that's 75 percent -- are served exclusively by regional aircraft.

This allows those commuters to have great scheduled service on modern aircraft frequently, competitively, to virtually one stop in the world that they could not have before or if they were only served by very large aircraft. ...

So from a big-airline perspective, this is cheaper. It's a way of saving money.

Not necessarily, because the general measure of airline economics is what's called cost per available seat mile [ASM]. And a regional aircraft ASM, per ASM is much higher than a mainline cost.

But why are the airlines doing this? Why have they pushed toward this regional model?

It's not that the airlines have pushed for it. In order to provide the service to these communities, this is the best way to serve the traveling public. ...

I know I'm still trying to get at this notion of a business model, why the code shares, why an outfit like Continental is more interested in having a separate company fly certain routes rather than going out and buying airplanes that match those routes on their own. What is the advantage there, from their perspective?

From their perceptive it is so that they can focus their operation on the type of aircraft they fly, so that the thing about regional airlines is that the people that work there are focused exclusively on operating that type of aircraft in that type of environment, ... because for the passenger -- and here's the real secret why -- people have to realize that there has been this transition, [and this] is that the passenger buys one ticket, doesn't have to check his bag on two or three different airlines, gets on an aircraft that is modern, looks the exact same way. [There is still] the seat magazine that says Continental and everything on there, so that [it] is a seamless experience for the traveling public, frequent flyer mileage on the mainline carrier.

So it looks like Continental, but is it really? ... It's Colgan or it's somebody else, right?

It could be Continental, but to the passenger, he or she is buying the ticket on Continental. He or she is enjoying the exact same customer service that they would enjoy on that mainline carrier. [From] the passenger's perspective, he or she is on just as sophisticated and modern an aircraft. ...

But there is no secret. It is very clear who is operating the aircraft.

But in the case of Continental, the company has made it very clear that they're not involved in how that airline does its business when it comes specifically to the issue of safety. They don't get in their hair. They say it's up to the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]. So is it really Continental? They're not in their business, but people are buying a ticket thinking it is Continental.

The most important point here about safety in this industry is that there can only be one regulator, because you couldn't have various carriers overseeing different standards, different rules for any type of aviation, whether it's general aviation, commercial aviation. All flying can only have one regulator, and that's why we have such a safe system that we have today.

Are those regulations enough?

The regulations and shared responsibility that have been built over decades and decades [are] giving American travelers the safest system of transportation the world has ever known. ...

Help me understand how these business arrangements work. They call it code shares, but what it is is contracting out flying. What's the relationship like?

I have never seen one of these contracts.

You've never seen one, really?

I honest to God [have] never seen one. ...

But you must understand the basic framework of the business.

... It can vary carrier to carrier, year to year.

But is it really one level of safety?

Absolutely. One level of safety.

Now, as I understand it, the most common arrangement is pay for segments, pay for completion of flights. Doesn't that create an incentive which is contrary to safety? In other words, you get your money if you get that plane from Newark to Buffalo or whatever the case may be, no matter what. And somewhere along the way safety takes a lower seat.

Safety is the number one priority, and there is no airline, no matter what the business arrangement, that would ever operate any aircraft at any time and risk the safety of the passengers and crew. So it's totally unrelated to any type of business arrangement.

Can you tell me what sort of incentives there are for your members to put safety right at the top of the list?

It is the number one incentive for every airline is operating safety, because the cost of not operating safely is just so astronomical in terms of the most important [things]: the safety and lives of the passengers and crew. So there is no second thought on this. ... Operating safely makes great economic sense.

Let's talk a little bit about the context of what brought us here. It's not just what happened in Buffalo; it's some other accidents as well. There have been six accidents over the past seven years in this country, all of them involving regional carriers. What does that tell you?

I think it's important to look at the overall record. Let's put this all in context -- there has been no common thread in any of those, and you're looking at a snapshot.

If we were to look at a snapshot going back five years before that, you would have seen all of the accidents on mainline carriers and a perfect safety record for the regional carriers, which the entire industry is now coming off its safest period in aviation history: over two years without a fatal accident.

That's good. But when you have accidents, it's time to stop and think about what's going on. Did those accidents offer any sort of warnings? Are there any red flags that you see out there?

I think what the industry has done, particularly after two and a half years, we continually learn and build on each of the safety initiatives that we have done. ... Right now we have gone back and looked at every procedure, every practice, everything we do across the industry, working with all of the stakeholders, with the government, with our employees, with our fellow airlines, with airports to make sure that we are doing everything toward one goal, and that's to prevent any future accidents.

OK. But there is nothing about Buffalo or the five accidents that preceded it that gives you pause for concern about the safety record of the regional airlines?

Absolutely not. Our safety record is outstanding. It's our only priority, and we are doing everything humanly possible to make sure that any other future accidents never ever happen again. We are making tremendous progress and doing some really groundbreaking things in a number of areas to try and accomplish it.

So you are changing, or you are advocating some changes, in [the] way your members do business.

... The FAA has issued its "Call to Action," and our members not only participate in that Call to Action, they have helped lead that Call to Action. But even more importantly, we have gone out independently. Our members have gone out and done the following things: We have convened our safety experts to look at every single practice, including every NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] recommendation, that is out there to look and say, "Is there something here that even the FAA may not have mandated that we ought to be doing?" We looked [at] the whole new science of human factors and a number of issues there, ... particularly in the area of fatigue management and helping everybody in aviation, every professional, learn how to recognize it and how to identify it and how to manage it.

So there are some things that need to be fixed.

The history of aviation safety has been continually building on not only accidents and incidents, but all the great practices. That's why the system -- as you know; you are a flyer -- is the safest it's ever been. An American would have to fly every day for 36,000 years to ever be involved in a fatal accident. And that is a record that has been built by tremendous work of everybody in the industry going back decades. ...

All right. But crew rest, that's an issue that's been discussed for years and years and years. What is changing now? Why are you looking at that at this moment?

We have been great participants in the study of the federally convened review of this whole issue of what is the appropriate amount of flying rest, because conditions have changed in the industry since the rules were set in place. As you know, sometimes rules in aviation do get a little bit dusty.

For the longest time it was considered that age 60 was some magic number there; that the day you were 60 -- if you were 59 and 364 days you were safe to fly, and the day you turned 60 you weren't any longer. It took a long time for everyone to recognize that needed to get changed. We're moving this issue right now in terms of the writing of the rules for crew flight and duty time and rest. This is moving at the fastest that any rulemaking has ever been moved in certainly my experience, and I think everybody at the FAA would say so, too. ...

The crews, as it stands now, with the work rules and the way the rest periods are built, are being pushed, aren't they?

Every crew at any airline is operating not only within this broad parameter of what the federal rules require, but in an envelope much, much smaller than that. ... The schedules are created to try and eliminate fatigue, try to avoid it, to try to make the schedules as safe as can possibly be.

But the schedules as they are, per the rules, are not good, are they?

The rules right now needed to be reviewed. They are being done so. We are at the forefront of reviewing and revising those rules. ...

I've heard them called standups or camping trips. These are the guys that go out late at night, fly a flight. They've got four hours of downtime at an airport, and they have to fly back in the morning. Classic recipe for fatigue. That's not a good way to make for a well-rested flight crew, right?

... It's important to kind of explain how the trips are established. Trips are set up there that allow for each pilot to bid on trips, and some of the trips that may seem the most difficult may be the most popular trips because those trips may allow that pilot the most time off. And so it's each pilot's choice. But no matter if it's choosing A, B, C or D or E schedule, every schedule that's out there right now is being done safely, is within the rules and is being done to try and accommodate the needs of the traveling public.

But if you've got a guy who's there for four hours on an overnight, they don't give him a hotel -- we hear these stories time and again -- they are literally unrolling a sleeping bag and sleeping at the airport, does that make any sense?

Again, the schedules that are out there are safe. ...

So why do you want to fix them?

Because they need to be made safer and based more on what we are learning and science and everything. Again, everything in aviation safety is to reduce and reduce down to the most narrow element any of the risks, and so if there are some things we can learn and we can do to both mitigate fatigue, create schedules that do better fit into all of that, we're going to do it.

Let's talk about a related issue, and that's pilot pay. And this comes up quite a bit. First officers at a typical regional airline [are] making on the order of $18,000 and $20,000 when they start out. That's a pretty low wage, but I don't know that people are aware that the pay scales are so low. Is that an adequate salary for what that job entails?

Let's get the facts out on the table on this, Miles. The average salary for a regional airline captain is $73,000. The average salary for a first officer at a regional airline is about $32,000, $33,000.

Average is kind of a hard thing to get your hands on, because, especially with the economy slowing down, you've got a lot of more senior first officers, and so the pay scale may have crept up a little bit, but even at $30,000 a year, if you're based in New York City, you're not living large, are you?

We have 60,000 regional airline employees around the country. There are roughly about 400,000 airline employees nationwide living in 600 communities, many of whom earn less than that, and they find it very affordable to live in those communities. So it's absolutely doable.

So the pay scales are adequate.

The pay is fair. It's very comparable. ... Compensation in the airline industry, ... it's built on a number of foundations. Number one, seniority. Number two -- and I think this is really important to know -- the wage scales are collectively bargained. They are done by the unions, and the gap there between that, if there is a gap between what the first officer makes and what that captain makes, that's because the pie is being split that way; that everybody else said: "Well, I had to do my time in the barrel going back years and years. You do, too." So that pie is split up basically because of the collective bargaining.

So basically you are saying it's the unions that have sort of forsaken their more junior members.

I don't want to cast aspersions. Again, these are collectively bargained. ...

What the unions will say is, first of all, many of these contract carriers are not [part of] a union, and in many cases the flying contracts get moved around so much, and these contract carriers have been serving various masters, and sometimes it gets mixed around, and the deals get to be cut, that it's difficult for the unions to keep up with all of this. ... The bottom line is one of the key advantages from the legacy carriers' perspective is that the labor costs, because they can separate it out from the collective bargaining agreements that they have with their pilots, are much cheaper, aren't they?

... Let's talk about compensation, and in addition to the compensation, ... crew members get a generous per diem while they are on a trip, all ... their expenses while they are traveling on company business.

Per diems are just expenses, though. You can't count them as income. By the way, is that included in that $30,000 average?

No, that is not. ... But then again, this is a job that most pilots are working 70, 75, 80 hours per month as opposed to a 40-hour work weeks that most Americans do.

Right. But you know as well as I do that's the time when the engine is running that we are talking about. There's a lot more time involved in that job which is not included in that.

But again, most contracts provide that most crew members have 12, 13, 14 days off a month. ...

I'm still trying to drive out why their pay is so little. Why? They are not paid a lot of money. I don't get it. It seems like, on that dark and stormy night, I want somebody up there driving who is well rested and well paid. Is that too much to ask?

... What every traveler wants is a person up there flying them who is professional, who is highly trained and is capable and skilled at flying, which every one of our crew members is.

So the amount -- you don't think that whether it's $16,000 or even $30,000, whatever that amount is, union would say: "Hey, let's start them at $50,000 or $60,000. We're going to get more experienced people; we're going to get a better-quality, a more professional flight crew"?

We believe strongly in the professionalism of everybody who is flying for us. And as you know, people enter into aviation really because, number one, it's a passion, and this is something that people voluntarily do. They don't get drafted into doing this. They gain tremendous skills that they can use and move around later on in their life.

The most important thing is it doesn't matter what anybody is making. And the NTSB, through all of its investigations, has never found compensation to be a contributing factor to any fatal accident, so I think the key point here is that everybody who is flying, it's important that they are fit and that they are sufficiently trained and capable of doing it, which they are.

You are right. They haven't listed compensation as a contributing cause, but many times they list fatigue. And I would say those two issues go hand in hand, because what you are talking about here, when you are paying that person $18,000, $20,000 or even $30,000, to tell them they are based in New York City, you are telling them they have to live somewhere else, and that means they have to commute, and that means there is a fatigue issue.

They're commuting. Let's take these issues one by one, and get on the table, number one, is that compensation does not equate to safety -- no linkage, none whatsoever. Never has been, never will be. Number two, commuting. ...

If you happen to be stuck in a high-dollar city with this low wage, you don't have much of a choice in the matter. And yes, commuting has always been a part of aviation, but if you are a Sully [Capt. Chesley Sullenberger] and you are commuting, you can afford a hotel. If you are making $16,000 or $18,000 a year and commuting, you are sleeping on the Barcalounger in the pilots' lounge. And that's not good, is it?

Again, let's get the real numbers out there. Average pay for the first officer: $32,000.

I'm not talking about average. There are some people, as you well know, who make $18,000 to $20,000 a year. That's 21 bucks an hour; they are getting capped out at $1,000. I mean, you know there are people at that scale who have to live this life. We're not talking about average. We are talking about human beings who are flying my grandmother to Buffalo. So there are people there living this life, and it seems as if they are in an untenable position economically.

Absolutely not, because there are many other people who earn less money than that and work more days in these communities that can afford it and do it and do it responsibly. I just checked the Web this morning. You can get a hotel room at the Newark airport for $50 a night.

I bet $50 a night might be something to think about at that salary.

... Airline employees, non-airline employees, commuting is a choice. It is not forced by the economics.

This is not a salary that matches the location of some of these bases, and there is no compensation for that fact. These airlines don't factor in that.

But every single pilot -- before they can apply for the job -- every flight attendant knows where bases are, where they could be stationed, where they could be moved. This is all part of the collective bargaining agreement. When bases do change, crews get changed around for whatever reason, all of that is covered by the contracts, the expenses of moving them. ...

I want to address the schedules. ... Commuting is part of that, isn't it?

Yes, and it's one of the reasons why we called for a very serious study and why House bill 3371 has [as] one of its key provisions to call for a study of commuting and to see what kind of impact it does have on fatigue. We strongly support that study. We want to participate in that study.

What if they say it's bad and the commuting has got to stop? How are they going to hire pilots to live in New York? You might have to pay them some more money.

Whatever that study shows, whatever that congressional study shows, that will give us a road map for the proper answer to this question. That's probably the big issue, why we have this now. There has never been a study about it. ...

... Does your organization take a stand on how much the mainline carriers, the legacy carriers, the people whose paint job is on the airline, how much they should get involved in how the airline does its business?

No, we do not. No association gets into the business [of] the economics of -- we're not allowed to.

Is it your understanding that your members, generally speaking, get a lot of guidance from their larger people who are giving them these contracts? Are they getting a lot of guidance on how to run the airlines, or is it simply up to them to meet FAA standards?

The guidance is nonstop. And the collaboration and coordination within an airline, among airlines, with the regulators, with their employees goes on 24/7, 365 days a year. ...

It's hard flying being a regional pilot, ... with all the number of flights, the shorter runs, the congested air space, the weather constraints. It's some of the hardest flying there is, isn't it?

There's all types of regional flying. We've got regional flying between medium-size communities out West that differ from flying in the Southeast, that differs in flying in the Northeast. ...

But you could make a case that some of the most challenging flying out there is done by the least experienced crews.

... All flying is done safely. Everybody is capable of doing it. You get experience by actually doing it, and the quality of training that all airline crews get is outstanding. It is a very challenging job and a challenging industry. ... The track record is that our airlines and our crew members have done it safely for decades and decades, and they are just focused on keeping it that way.

But at the regional level you've got pilots with less experience. ... We're talking about people getting started in the business, right?

I just looked at the numbers actually today. The average captain in the regional industry has 8,500 hours. The average first officer is well over 3,000 hours. By just by the sheer measurement of number of hours, that is a pretty significant amount of hours, so less experience does not mean inexperienced.

... Is it appropriate for people to be building time [at regional airlines], learning from the school of hard knocks with paying passengers behind them?

... Let's not look at the number of hours here. Let's look at the quality of training and that every crew member flying at a scheduled airliner today, regardless of the size of the aircraft -- ...

But there is no substitute for the experience, is there?

Experience comes in a variety of ways. It comes in training; it comes in flying. One could argue ... that somebody gaining hours just flying around above a cornfield someplace can be building hours and hours and hours and hours. By some measurement that would be experience. But is that person then able to then go in and start flying passengers in scheduled service? And the answer is, before they can go into scheduled service, they have to get trained to be a real commercial airline pilot. ...

But you hear about these people [who], in less than a year's time, become captains of these airplanes. It used to be that pilots waited 10 years before they ever got into that captain's seat. Everything is compressed because of the nature of the way the business has churned. ... I've talked to some people who were there [in that position].

The point is that the person who does do that is fully capable, fully qualified, fully trained and safe and fit to fly.

But if you have somebody who is kind of a low-time captain with a low-time first officer, is that a good recipe?

The rules and the practices of the carriers prevent that from happening so that every schedule is put together with the notion that you don't put some of your junior people with other junior people, and that's why the schedules are so sophisticated. That's why you pay attention to that. That's why every airline out there is practicing those kind of good scheduling practices to make sure. ...

But if the airline is going to lose money and doesn't move that plane from point A to point B in the prescribed time, there is a lot of pressure to cut corners, isn't there?

There is never [that pressure]. I'm glad you asked this question, because in the wake of the Buffalo accident, we had a board meeting, and at our board meeting we spent literally about 10 or 12 hours -- [the] longest board meeting in RAA history -- talking about all of the action we needed to take as an industry to make sure we were [safe], and not one time not once was the word "cost" ever mentioned in that entire meeting. Not one time, because, again, safety is number one. It's the only priority for this industry. And I think what we're seeing now is why it is in good safety practices and makes the most sense for all the right reasons.

... But the pilots themselves get paid to turn on the engines and move that airplane. They don't get paid as much, or sometimes don't get paid at all, if they say there's a problem with de-icing in the left engine; this plane isn't safe to fly; we're not going until the mechanics check it out. And so there is an incentive for them to push safety, isn't there?

Absolutely not. No pilot out there would ever do that. And every airline out there has nonpunitive policies that you do not fly if that aircraft or the pilot is not safe to fly. ...

But you don't see why there might be safety and the bottom line here are at odds?

Good safety is best for the bottom line. ...

But if a pilot is in a situation where he is literally out of pocket by writing up a maintenance squawk on an airplane, that's not a good setup, is it?

It should not happen and to my knowledge does not happen. If a pilot sees something wrong with an aircraft, it is his or her responsibility to make sure that problem gets fixed before that airplane ever leaves the gate.

It's also his responsibility to pay his mortgage, whatever the case may be, and there's a lot of pressure there.

I don't know any [pilots] that would risk the lives of their passengers, of their crew members, in order to do that, so I dispute that totally.

So if I were to tell you we've heard repeated stories from pilots saying just that, what would you say?

I would say that those pilots should never fly an aircraft that they don't believe [it] is fit to fly. ...

Is the FAA doing its job?

The FAA does a terrific job in a very challenging environment, the men and women who work there, and this is going back administrations. The current people, [Administrator] Randy Babbitt and the people that are there now, do a terrific job, and their focus is exclusively on making sure that this system remains as safe as it is today.

When you say "tough environment," you are talking about the economy, obviously. How is business for your members?

Very busy. Been in the airline business for over 35 years, and it has always been very challenging, very competitive. Americans enjoy tremendous service and incredibly low fares, and as anybody who has ever watched or observed or been in the airline business, this is not a place to earn a fortune. ...

I've seen some numbers which seem to indicate [regionals] are doing better than the parent companies, if you would call them parents.

Some yes, some no.

How do you explain the ones that are doing better? What are they doing differently?

It is a competitive business, and much of it can be the result of great management, great practices, great aircraft. Maybe you got a better deal on when they purchased aircraft. That has a lot to do with it -- type of aircraft, when they bought it, type of financial arrangements. Could be anything. Again, this is a deregulated environment.

Let's talk a little bit about [Continental] Flight 3407 to the extent you can. The crew of Flight 3407, that crew flying under the Continental paint job, would those crew members have been flying for the mainline carrier, Continental?

I can't speak to an accident that is still under investigation.

All right. But in general, people with that level of experience could not be hired by Continental, right?

I cannot speak for Continental Airlines. I just can't answer that question. I just don't know.

Let me just maybe ask it this way. ... Seventy percent of the 600 cities that get air service get it from regional carriers.

Exclusively.

Exclusively. So can you tell me that the people in those cities who only have access to regional carriers are getting the same quality of service and the same safety levels that people in a big city get?

Absolutely. There is just one level of safety for every scheduled airline in this country, and regional carriers provide it to 70 percent of the communities exclusively. Those airlines are operating safely to every one of those communities, absolutely.

One level of safety, but there are ways of doing business which may exceed some of those standards and that baseline. What you see at the major carriers, without getting into a lot of jargon, is a lot of systems which capture data about flights, ways that incidents are reported well before they get into anything that could be a safety issue, which are kind of part of how they do business, which hasn't come to some of the smaller carriers because it's so expensive to institute these things.

As we told Congress just the other day, 98 percent of the passengers flying on our member airlines, when this show is aired, will be on airlines that have a gold standard of those programs, ASAP [Aviation Safety Action Program], FOQA [Flight Operations Quality Assurance], all of those programs that you have been referring to. Those are the ultimate in safety programs.

Help people understand what you're talking about here.

These are the most advanced safety programs which gather information both from the individuals in a nonpunitive way. Pilots, mechanics, anybody says, "Hey, I think I saw something or I did something that may have violated the rule, may have made a mistake," it's done in a nonpunitive way. That information is gathered, looked at, and so you learn from that. The FOQA program actually takes the data directly from the aircraft. It pools it electronically, and data is then processed, de-identified -- again, nonpunitive. ...

One of the things as part of our Strategic Safety Initiative that we have really advocated ... is one of the great safety tools that's out there that unfortunately is only used sometimes, and has only been used after an accident, and that's that cockpit voice recorder, because we believe that there are ways that you can use that information gathered from that cockpit voice recorder, which in the case of the Buffalo accident showed us so [many] tragic things. If we had learned some of those things in advance, we could have trained, and we could identify it, and we [could have] tried to fix it all to prevent an accident. ...

These changes are happening now. Why are they happening now and not 10 years ago?

We have been calling for some of these changes for years and years, and safety is a shared responsibility with the federal government, with our employees, with all of the stakeholders among them. And when we learn [a] new safety enhancement, we do begin to explore it. That's where we get to the whole study of the fatigue testing. ...

You have talked about some of the ideas that are floating around, some of the legislation that is out there. One of the ideas is to require an ATP [Airline Transport Pilot] certificate for everybody who sits in the flight deck, essentially upping the number of hours. ... What does your association think about that notion of requiring that higher level of experience for first officers?

... We have been focusing on not an arbitrary number, whether it's 1,500 or whatever the number, but the quality of those hours. And there are a number of ways, and we're looking at them as well; [for example], if there is another stepped-up certificate in there somewhere between commercial license and that ATP license, that if that makes sense, then that's something that industry collectively is certainly going to explore. But let's base it on a real quality of training and proficiency.

You are saying you do not favor a required Air Transport Pilot certificate for all members of flight crews of regional airplanes.

We believe that that 1,500-hour number that's in the legislation, as a number of other people have pointed out, is arbitrary, and we will work with Congress and everybody else to come up with the best possible solution to that issue, all geared toward safety.

All right. But there are a lot of rules that are arbitrary. Fifteen hundred hours is not a good idea.

Fifteen hundred, again that arbitrary number, and again, it's just a line. If it's 1,500, what makes 1,500 better than 1,499 or 1,501? Again, we ought to be focused in on what kind of hours, quality of the training, experience.... Here's a real important point, is that regardless of what first officer, captain at any airline, that recurring check that that airman goes through every year at that airline, it's the same test that that first officer has to pass as that captain has to pass. It's pass/fail. If you don't pass it, you could lose your job.

Except that at a lot of these places, the first officer only has an annual check. The captain has twice a year, right? Is that enough checking?

This is one of the things we have also called for in our Strategic Safety Initiative, is a more thorough analysis or more thorough study of not only the pilots check rides while he or she is at the airline, but going back into history, because I think it's important to look at the whole body of work so that we can make better decisions about not only on hiring but on what kind of training needs to be done, how to train people better. That's why we want more open access available on a pilot's entirety of his or her career.

Could you sum up all these things that the RAA is pushing for right now that it would like to see changed?

The RAA Strategic Safety Initiative [PDF] has a number of elements, all geared toward one thing: That's eliminating and preventing any future accidents. And a number of the initiatives include, number one, thorough investigation of everything, every NTSB recommendation that might be out there that maybe the FAA, somebody else really hasn't addressed. Is there something we can do independently to fix that?

Number two, a real study on fatigue and coming up with a program that helps identify fatigue risks, mitigate them and nip them in the bud. [And] a number of other studies: a study of commuting and its impact on airline safety; the possibility of using fatigue testing to help, again, identify those risks with fatigue. And again, let's at least begin the discussion of using this the CVR, this cockpit voice recorder, as an accident prevention tool. ...

I missed one of the most fundamental ones, which is something that actually we offered up to Congress in this very strong legislation [H.R. 3371: Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009]. [What it] wholeheartedly requires is a single database of pilot records, because right now, your experience as a GA [general aviation] pilot is collected and stored in one database over here, and then in the same room there is a database that has your record as an airline pilot. And [to] access that information in a quick and easy real-time way is virtually impossible. The legislation would require a single integrated database. We have pushed for that.

Right now the law requires that you go back and look at a pilot's record as an airline pilot going back five years. We believe that's too short. The legislation does, too. We think it ought to go back 10 years.

Do you need legislation for that? You could just ask [the companies] for more data if they want.

As a policy we ask for whatever the law [states], but the law states you can't require anything more than five years.

I've heard some airlines make applicants sign a waiver which would extend the reach back.

And we ask for that waiver all the time. We want the requirement, though, from five years to 10 years. ...

In a very short time frame we have two incidents which caught a lot of people's attention. We had the Hudson River splash, and then we had the horrible accident in Buffalo. You could make an argument that what the big difference between those two events is the amount of experience in the cockpit.

I would make the other observation, which the cockpit voice recorders really kind of demonstrated in both those two incidents, and that's the professional behavior of the crew members in each instance. ... In the Hudson accident [what has] been demonstrated [was] the epitome of professional behavior, whereas in the Buffalo accident, as the CVRs have shown, there was kind of, as the experts have said, a lack of professional conduct. ...

And again, it's not driven by an arbitrary number. It's driven by what's inside.

Well, [if] it's not experience, maybe it's training.

And our training is world-class quality. Every airline pilot that's out there is the highest that it can possibly be and continually relearning and re-inventing training.

All right. But as you can see, there was a lack of professionalism in that cockpit. How do you explain that?

I cannot explain what occurred that night or why, but it's pretty clear that, at least to this observer, that crew didn't do what they were trained to do. ...

I guess it goes back to that old expression your mother told you: You get what you pay for. Is that what we're getting in these flight crews?

We are proud of our flight crews, about the job that they do, about the world-class training that they get, that they continually get. ...

But the big airlines enter into these arrangements to save money. You said it was about efficiency. They don't want to fly these routes, whatever the case, right?

Let's break this down here. We're going to get back to the business model. Flying regionally is more expensive than flying long-haul flying. It's more expensive, and so regardless of where that airplane is flying or what livery is on the side or what business arrangement may be behind it, every airline in this country out there flying is flying safely and flying to the absolute maximum standards it possibly can.

But it is the low bidder.

No, it is not. No.

It's not.

No. Sorry.

They are not trying to save money. Then why wouldn't they just do it themselves?

... Regional airlines specialize in operating, and their operators, their operations, their manuals and their training focus in on those aircraft. It makes better safety sense to have the experts in that aircraft fly and operate those aircraft as opposed to being spread across multiple air frames, multiple missions. ... It has nothing to do with cost.

You're telling me the big airlines outsource their flying because it's safer?

... The operations right now are safe.

No, that wasn't their motive for doing this in the first place. This was to save money. This is an industry that is looking to find a cheaper way to do it and circumvent some of their high labor costs, right?

No. The reason ... is based around the airplane, that that airplane, that 50- or 70- or 90- or maybe even nine-seat airplanes is better suited to serve that community, because otherwise that community might not have service at all. ...

Is this system broken?

The system is tremendously safe. And like any system, it always needs continual relooking, reviewing, improving, and that's exactly what we're doing.

posted february 9, 2010

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