Monday, March 23, 2009

Montana Crash: Crucial Questions

Time to stop interviewing otherwise uninformed witnesses describing a fireball when a plane crashed on approach to the airport in Butte, Montana, yesterday and get to the serious business of trying to understand why this happened. Because I'm worried that it represents a growing problem with air-travel safety.

Reports from the scene are sketchy (the local paper, the Montana Standard, evidently had its reporter on other business yesterday, as it used AP wire copy throughout the day). But the plane, a Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 turboprop, crashed in a cemetery just short of the runway. Initial reports had it that 17 were killed -- most of them children from California, bound, with some adults, for a ski trip to the Bridger Bowl ski resort area near Bozeman, which was the plane's destination. For some reason, the pilot (and there was only one) needed to divert to Butte instead. Some reports today say that 14 were killed, not 17. This is what happens when local newspapers slash staff, by the way.

Here are the questions I'm asking:

--This plane was registered to Eagle Cap Aviation, an Oregon charter and leasing company. Who was actually operating it?

--Was it a charter flight? Meaning, did the operators sell seats to people who signed up?

--The Times reports today that county officials in Butte said the plane had "no black box because it was not a commercial flight." But a charter flight is "commercial," it just isn't "scheduled." Why was there no requirement for a cockpit voice recorder on this airplane?

--It it was, as appears, a charter flight, who sold it or arranged it? With cutbacks in small-city scheduled air service, some ski areas have been putting together holiday packages using subsidized charter air travel. Was this the case in this incident? The destination airport, Bozeman Gallatin Field, has been growing rapidly in scheduled service, charter service and private aviation flights in recent years, but last year one of its smaller carriers, Big Sky Airlines, went out of business.

--Was there a control tower at Butte manned yesterday when the plane crashed? Was it supposed to be manned? (I read a report today that aircraft landing there are on visual flight rules, meaning, heads-up, you're on your own. How can that be, in an airport that does have some scheduled flights with Delta Connection? Horizon Air recently discontinued service to Butte.)

--If the tower was supposed to be staffed, was it staffed to the correct number? One of the great simmering scandals in our sagging air-transportation system is the staffing crisis among FAA air traffic controllers. Across the nation, because the FAA has been unable to keep up with hiring and training to replace a large number of recent retiring controllers, about 25 percent of the controllers pushing tin in our towers are not yet certified and are classified as trainees.

--From what I can see, the Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop, a plane that is used as a regional airliner as well as for charter and corporate flying, is designed to carry from nine to 12 passengers. If initial reports are correct and there were 16 passengers on board (and one pilot), was this particular aircraft certified to carry that many people? If there were 13 passengers, the question is the same.


1 comment:

Dennis Schaal said...

Joe: It is indeed ironic that U.S. airlines, with their early moves to cut capacity, are expected to out-perform their foreign peers. I'm thinking that the move by U.S. airlines to implement all of those ancillary services and fees, which are so abhorred by travelers, will contribute to the airlines' performance. As you know, the U.S. airlines are "ahead" of foreign airlines in "merchandising," i.e. this new business model. And, for now, I agree, it indeed is a great time for leisure travelers to go shopping for fare sales.