Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who's Flying That Plane?

I am a great believer in the value of "crowd sourcing," which is a concept gaining acceptance among those journalists who understand that the hidebound old way of doing business (running to the same tired sources for an "on the one hand, on the other hand" pile of 1,500-word irrelevance) doesn't work in a digital age.

Often, readers have more cogent things to say than the usual suspects we keep quoting. Often, they have more expertise. And the Internet gives us the ability to present an argument at length,

Anyway, Paul Ferber, a professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology, makes excellent points about the way major airlines have "outsourced" much of their flying to small regional and commuter airlines, some of which we board without having any idea of which corporate entity is actually flying the plane. He also has cogent things to say about the way the airlines have blithely cut service to many cities.

Here's Professor Ferber's e-mail:

"The tragic accident in Buffalo this past week should force us to reconsider the role of commuter airlines and prop planes in the commercial aviation picture. Have you noticed how fast Continental has danced away from this one? Sure, they stand by ready to assist Colgan Air in dealing with this accident, but they are also pretty fast to label this as an accident involving Colgan Air.

Perhaps they should be reminded of whose name was painted on the airplane.

As you may have guessed, I am no fan of commuter airlines, and almost never fly them, despite flying to the level of Silver Preferred on US Airways for every year since the late 1990's. But I am constantly amazed at how the majority of the traveling public has allowed itself to be bamboozled by the major airlines into being outsourced to a product that is inferior in everything from overhead baggage compartments to the safety record. Plus, these outsourced flights are flown by airlines that, in most cases, we have never even heard of.

There is some limited truth in the argument that some travelers have no choice, as detailed in the article in Sunday's Times. No choice that is, other than to fly or not fly. For some small places the only choice may be regional airlines or nothing. But not for places the size of Buffalo. The fact of the matter is that the major airlines would have no choice but to offer service with their aircraft and their employees if enough people refused to book these commuter flights. But people put low fares first, and sign up and line up for the puddle-jumpers.

I enjoy your column a great deal, and think it encourages people to give greater thought to various issues regarding commercial aviation. I hope that this accident prompts people to rethink their traveling priorities.

For me, I'll just continue to restrict myself to the one (1) US Airways flight out of Rochester, the 8:25 a.m. to Charlotte. Yes, they've reduced us to the point where we don't even have a single flight to Philadelphia, aside from those covered by the regionals. And when they get rid of the one flight to Charlotte, that will be the end of my days on US Airways.

United, AirTran, and JetBlue are realistic alternatives."



Anonymous said...

Seriously, what does this guy know? The criticism should be on this writers ignorance and not on regional carriers as the FAA is the only entity that certifies major airlines as well as regional. Regional pilots are just as qualified and skilled as major airline pilots and in my opinion have more experience. Regional pilots make 4-10 takeoff and landings a day when major airline pilots will only do 1-3. Regional jets are newer and have more safety related features. Makes you think twice about actually listening to some non-experienced writer that just sits in the back drinking his pepsi and eating his pretzels (which USAIR no longer serves).

Anonymous said...

Another idiotic post by an aviation outsider. I guess Airtran changing their name from ValuJet worked for this moron. I fly for a regional and we have a perfect safety record, never having landed in the everglades.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should expand your horizons to a flight operated by Republic Airways. That airline has never had a fatal accident and continues to fly "commuter" flights for 5 major airlines. Actually their safety record is better than ANY of the major airlines. I do agree with some of the things you are saying but quit generalizing and giving regional airlines a bad name.

Anonymous said...

Mr.S, UAL uses regional as well. I don't think many of the major would survive without regionals. The economy stinks,ridership is way down,just a few factors why majors using regionals. I've been on many regionals and the name is on the outside of the plane in addition to the major it is operating for.It is also on the safety info card and stated in the safety demo.If I make a reservation, I also go online to see what type of plane I'm flying and it will list all the info I need. I wouldn't fly on AirTran/Value Jet if someone paid me. AWFUL customer service! JetBlue is amazing...no complaints.

3forall said...

"But I am constantly amazed at how the majority of the traveling public has allowed itself to be bamboozled by the major airlines into being outsourced to a product that is inferior in everything from overhead baggage compartments to the safety record."

Mr. Sharkey, how can you post this comment without verifying this information? Don't they teach that in journalism school? Or were you absent the day they taught journalism in J-school?

I defy you to study accidents from deregulation to now and compare the safety record. You might be surprised.

Anonymous said...

*****But people put low fares first*****

At the end of the day that's all the typical American consumer cares about. Statistically there is no difference in safety between so called "regional" airlines and their mainline partners. We can go back to the old days of one or two mainline flights a day, but that seat will cost you.

Kaleberg said...

I have nothing against regional airlines. I fly Kenmore Air almost once a month, from Port Angeles to Boeing Field. It's great. The pilots are probably not being paid a fortune, but they are flying nine seaters, and they do a great job of it. They do their flying out in the open with no cockpit doors to hide behind. Kenmore shares a terminal in Seattle with Seaport, another small airline that flies to Portland. There's a hierarchy in the waiting room. All the Seaport people are in business dress, suits, heels, leather bags. The San Juan Island traffic on Kenmore is more dress casual. The REI, Patagonia "well worn" crew flies to Port Angeles.

All that, and no TSA.

Once again, I have nothing against regional airlines, at least the ones flying under their own flag. My guess is that the big problems are with the regionals flying with national paint jobs. If nothing else, they are probably the low bid for the route. I can't imagine one of the big airlines hiring any smaller airline, except the cheapest, and that means they get the older airplanes, the less experienced pilots, and the clown college ground crews. No offense to their employees. Once they get some experience, they'll try to move up.

Anonymous said...

Did we forget that the 2 accidents that happened before the buffalo flight was a Continental 737 and the professor's beloved US Airways A320. Accidents happen and it's not just the "regionals". Certain regionals have been cited more than others but that doesn't mean we are all unsafe.

Anonymous said...

"the clown college ground crews". Talk about generalizations! You do realize that a large percentage of the ground crews are out-sourced to third-party contractors and not just the planes/crew/maintenance/customer service? There is in fact a good chance that any one throwing your bag at the local airport does not actually get a paycheck from the company who is on their shirt. With that in mind - my extensive travel has shown that by-in-large, the worst ramp personnel are the ones who work directly for the major airline from whom you purchased your ticket. They have lost their retirement, pay scales, work rules and overall their reason to do a good job when they launch your "FRAGILE" bag into the cart from 15 feet away. They don't care anymore.

It is true that in-large, regional airlines have "less experienced" pilots. Every occupation has entry level positions, but Regional Airline Pilot is not an entry-level position. Most pilots spend years training and earning certificates from the same FAA that accredits ALL Part 121 Airlines in the states. Many pilots will then go on to teach for hundreds if not thousands of flight hours. And then they may be hired by a Regional Airline. And is some cases, when the economy is just right, you can even see these same pilots being hired right into one of the mainline major carriers like US Air, Delta, American etc. Mainline carriers also like to hire ex-military pilots who may have far fewer hours than his Regional Pilot competition, but his TomCruise attitude, his cool sunglasses and most of all his excellent networking skills with former squadron buddies give him a distinct advantage.

As far as the older airplane comment goes, regionals have on average a much newer airplane. For instance, the Q400 operated by Colgan in the tragic BUF incident was a state-of-the-art new aircraft. New airplanes do not always make safe flights.

Now to the original poster's article. This fellow believes everyone else has been "bamboozled". When you book flights, your iternerary will state what company the flight is operated by. Why not check the company out before entrusting your life in a pressurized medal tube flying at 500mph at 40,000 feet. By the way the airline crew will also inform you of what company they work for as well as the saftey card that this Silver Preferred member glances at while trying to look like a "fying pro".

I also find it a coincidence that his flight from ROC-CLT is on an airplane that has a bad track record with birds as of late. But then again I'm sure he has that all figured out as well.

someone who actually knows what they're talking about said...

Oh and I suppose Professor Ferber would be willing to pay 10x more for his plane ticket to offset the higher cost of operating a larger plane, right? Let's see... we can't fill up a 50 passenger plane, so let's put one of those BIG planes on the route... then everyone will want to buy a seat because it's a BIG plane and we'll have no trouble filling it up! (I'm laying on the sarcasm on pretty thick here) If you want 5 star service and every route in the US flown by those BIG planes then pony up the cash!! Also I suppose the Prof thinks all those EXPERIENCED pilots with 20,000 hours went straight from 1,000 to 20,000 right? In the 70's major airlines that fly BIG airplanes were hiring people off the street that had never flown a day in their life, but now we're worried about those INEXPERIENCED regional pilots with 4,000 hours! Get some facts Prof, you're title doesn't make you an expert on everything.

Paul Ferber said...

People commenting on my original posting have offered up an interesting mixture of insults and diversionary arguments, but also some pretty good points. They also haven't really refuted my central argument, that the traveling public has allowed the major airlines to outsource itself to an inferior product flown by regional/commuter airlines, which much of the public has never even heard of.

It is somewhat difficult to respond to specific people, as most of the commentators seemed to be named anonymous. But let's start with Captain Anonymous, the person who called me a moron. He or she also called me an "aviation outsider." It's true that I don't draw a salary from any aviation company, but rather, pay money to them. But while I don't work for an airline, my experience as a passenger makes me eminently qualified to comment on certain aspects of airline operation. (In this person's case it is probably best that they continue to hide their identity behind an air sickness bag, as their employer probably does not consider insulting potential customers to be part of their business model.)

In revisiting the issue of safety, it would first be useful to acknowledge another writer's concern that generalizations can sometimes mask variation among the group being described. It is also undoubtedly true that some regional commuter airlines have a better records than others, in terms of safety and other qualities. Safety itself can be measured in a variety of ways, and over different time periods. I'm sure that, given a particular choice of parameters and timeframe, the regional/commuters, as a group, can look pretty good. But let's try this statistic: Passenger fatalities on U.S. scheduled airlines over the last five years. That's a particular measure that we people who sit in the back and munch pretzels might focus on.

Speaking of pretzels, let's talk about other aspects of the flying experience. As noted in my original comments, the regional/commuter airlines offer an inferior product in almost every amenity worth discussing, from headroom to bathroom. And, given the types of aircraft that they fly, this is a generalization that does not mask much variation. In regard to the overhead baggage compartments, let me note that there is a reason why I am pulling something behind me. This particular type of luggage goes by a name: carry-on. I emphasize the "ON" part. If I wanted the bag to be in the hold, I would have turned it in at the check-in counter.

My comments seem to have offended some employees of the commuter/regional airlines, and if that is because I criticized their product, then the offense was meant. But I fear that some of you got offended because you thought I was criticizing the employees, and that was not the intent, as can be seen from a careful reading of my original comments. I think that the men and women who fly for the regional/commuters are, in general, hardworking professionals with a lot of dedication and talent, and less salary then they deserve. They didn't design the whole commercial aviation picture, and some of them may not think that it is perfect. But they work within it, in order to be in a profession that they believe in.

Speaking of professionalism, Captain Anonymous, the one that called me a moron, wondered if I knew that AirTran used to be Valujet. Of course I know that, and don't consider it a point in their favor. I included them in the list of airlines that fly fullsize jets from Rochester because, well, they do. I never flew on Valujet and actually took an instant dislike to them due to that silly logo that was painted on the tail of their planes. Aviation, to me, is an endeavor demanding the utmost seriousness and professionalism, and a cartoonish logo did not seem to set the proper tone.

In conclusion, I fly a good deal and try to enjoy it, but think that some aspects of professionalism and the air travel experience have been degraded by changes in the industry. And the ultimate enabler of this is us, the passengers. I don't expect many of them to change their habits, but I'll continue my routine of avoiding commuter/regionals, and stick with fullsize aircraft. The experience there is also far from perfect, and, in contrast to a silly remark by another Captain Anonymous, I never expressed a lot of "beloved" feelings for US Airways. But I will choose it over puddle-jumping.

(The opinions above are mine, and not necessarily held by Mr. Sharkey. The person who criticized his journalism skills should get a better understanding of the difference between a reporter presenting facts, versus providing the opinion or quotations attributed to others. Attributed, no less, to a real name, as opposed to someone called "3forall.")