Today, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is beginning a two-day forum to assess the safety of partnerships between large airlines and smaller regional carriers. According to the Associated Press (AP), the forum will examine the safety standards at large carriers and their regional counterparts.
As the AP points out, "The issue is an important one for anyone who flies in every part of the country. Regional airlines now account for half of domestic departures and a quarter of the seats filled with passengers. For more than 400 communities, they provide the only scheduled service."
The last six fatal crashes in the U.S. have involved regional airlines.
Part of this examination will likely focus on the fact that passengers don't often realize they're being handed off to a regional carrier. Airlines are supposed to notify passengers when an itinerary will be operated by multiple carriers, but that message isn't always clear or fully understood.
As a rule, regional carriers aren't less safe than any other airline, but the business of flying regional jets is a much different animal. Regional pilots are often less experienced than their peers at larger carriers, and the lower pay at regionals forces pilots into long commutes and unstable living conditions, leaving them particularly vulnerable to fatigue. Regional carriers are often left to implement their own safety procedures and policies, meaning standards at the big airline may not exactly match that of the smaller airline.
According to the AP, "Continental chief executive Jeffrey Smisek told a congressional hearing in June that his airline doesn't have the resources to oversee safety at all of its code-sharing partners. That responsibility, he said, belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration."
For its part, the FAA says it has pushed larger carriers to bring regional carriers' standards for training, maintenance, and overall safety protocol in line with the parent airline. But many see this as an example of passing the buck, and accuse the airlines and the FAA of avoiding any responsibility for safety at regional carriers.
Readers, do you think it's sufficiently clear when a major airline hands you off to a regional? Have you ever been surprised to find yourself on a carrier you've never heard of?