Whose Flight Was 3407?

In news stories about the crash of a commuter turboprop into a house outside Buffalo, N.Y., in February, the flight has been referred to alternately as Colgan Air Flight 3407, Continental Airlines Flight 3407 and Continental Connection Flight 3407.

This underscores the confusion about who is responsible for flights flown by regional airlines under contract to major carriers. Continental sold tickets for the flight and its name was painted on the aircraft. But the plane belonged to Colgan Air, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airways, which also employed the pilots.

This practice,  laid out clearly in a recent Buffalo News story, is starting to worry people. Mike Loftus, a former Continental pilot whose daughter was killed in the crash of Flight 3407, told the  News that the big airlines have to take some responsibility for their contractors.  But the story points out that the major carriers refused to testify at a recent Senate hearing on airline safety.

A pilot of my acquaintance who works for a major airline believes his employer is practicing false advertising when it sells tickets for regional airline flights to people who think they will be flying on the major airline.

Regional airlines carry about 20 percent of passengers in the United States on fleets of small aircraft, which account for about half of all domestic flights. And that percentage is growing, not in spite of the lower pay that the flight crews earn but because of it. It’s simply cheaper for the major airlines to contract out to regional carriers.

The relative health of the regional carriers is evident from recent acquisitions by Republic Airways. The company, which already owns Republic Airlines, Chautauqua Air and Shuttle America, has bought half of Hawaiian interisland airline Mokulele and is now proposing to bring Denver-based Frontier Airlines out of bankruptcy as its wholly owned subsidiary.

Republic is not implicated in any way in the crash of Flight 3407, but its growth suggests that the business model of the major airlines is not the one that’s winning.

Having well-paid, highly experienced pilots flying large jets has proven to be a very safe way to fly. Having less-experienced, lower-paid pilots flying small aircraft has proven to be a much cheaper way to fly. The conflict is obvious.

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