Safety Myths and Facts

At least one of you caught the flub, whereby I claimed the 2003 crash of a US Airways Express turboprop stands as our only fatal accident since autumn, 2001. The tragedy I neglected to mention — inexcusably, since I’d written of it only the week before — was that of Corporate Airlines flight 5966 near Kirksville, Missouri, this past October.

Both crashes involved 19-passenger turboprops — a Beechcraft 1900 in the case of the former; a Jetstream 32 in the latter — performing code-share operations on behalf of major carrier affiliates. The US Airways Express craft was crewed by Air Midwest, regional subsidiary of the Mesa Air Group, also a subcontractor to America West and United. Corporate flew under the banner of American Connection, a partner of American Airlines.

Stay with me now. American Connection is not to be confused with American Eagle, the better known and wholly-owned stepchild of AMR Corp., responsible for the brunt of American Airlines’ feeder flying. Corporate’s tie to American is essentially one of name only, and it shares the ad hoc Connection moniker with the similarly aligned Trans States Airlines. The two were paired up to take on low-volume markets from American’s newly conquered, ex-TWA hub in St. Louis.

None of this is pointed out, I should add, to suggest that the increasingly convoluted relationships between large and small airlines are a detriment to safety. At the same time, they’re confusing and obfuscating, intentionally or otherwise, which will always be a bad thing more than a good one. Lawsuits filed after Kirksville propose that victims were led to believe the Jetstream, including the salary and training of its pilots, was under complete auspices of American Airlines. Which was not the case.

Truth be told, even fully administered franchises like American’s Eagle are run independently, with separate seniority lists, bargaining agreements, training departments and management structures. (Pilots and flight attendants at these entities do not, with the occasional exception — such, where they occur, are known as “flow-through” arrangements, enjoy automatic progression from regional to major.)

Does that, on its own, leave American culpable if the crew is found at fault? Not likely, but either way it would probably behoove ticket sellers to be more open and up front about exactly whose airplane customers will be taking a seat on. It’s always there in the fine print, but people are apt not to notice or otherwise misunderstand.

Corporate Airlines, should you have trouble Googling, now calls itself RegionsAir. For some that brings back memories of the Everglades crash in 1996, and the AirTran-nèe-ValuJet transition that followed. RegionsAir says it commenced the name change process well before Kirskville.

Meanwhile, and I’ll just throw this out there since it’s already making media rounds, much as it offends my rules of remaining mum before official judgments are in: the Kirksville crew had been on duty for almost 15 hours, and was preparing for its sixth landing of the day. That’s a potential red flag that may or may not mean anything. Go easy on the conjecture, and remember a few points stressed in this space before:

Myth 1: Small planes are inherently more dangerous than larger ones.

Truth: The metric between size and safety is a tough one to shake, and it’s wrong. Groan about noise, vibration, or elbow room if you want, and it’s true that smaller planes are better — which is to say worse — at transmitting the ripples and lurches of flight from airframe to flesh, but there’s almost nothing about size, strictly speaking, that correlates one way or the other to the chances of crashing.

Myth 2: Small planes are quaint and ill-equipped.

Truth: A modern turboprop can wear a price tag of $15 million; a spiffy new regional jet (RJ) more than twice that amount. And if you haven’t noticed, that money isn’t going into galleys and sleeper seats. It’s going toward the same high-tech avionics and cockpit advances you’ll find in many a widebody Boeing.

Myth 3: Pilots of these planes are young and inexperienced.

Truth: Some are, some aren’t, and experience here is a relative thing. Often enough it’s industry economics — hiring trends and rates of attrition — that determine aggregate experience levels. In any case, all crews are trained to the same high standards and logbook totals aren’t always a good indicator of skills. In the meantime, many pilots on furlough status from the struggling mainliners have found themselves biting the bullet at this or that Connection, Eagle, Airlink or Express. (Complex and sophisticated as their machines tend to be, the average RJ pilot’s salary starts at around $20,000 per year, and sometimes less.)

Late model turboprops like the Dash-8, ATR, and Saab 340 are still common, but it’s the regional jet, the RJ, that has become the ubiquitous standard. Over the past decade the industry has collected RJs almost as fast as red ink — the former as proposed antidote to the latter.

Dispersal of these nimble, versatile planes is seen my many as one of the most effective ways to reduce — some would say outsource — labor expenses. This can get semantic, but it’s less about cheap labor, perhaps, than about increased productivity. An RJ’s low per-trip costs introduce a whole new dynamic to a carrier’s operational portfolio, enabling it to connect certain cities with multiple, conveniently-timed departures not suitable for larger equipment. At first, RJ deployment tended to mirror that of their predecessor turboprops, going hub-and-spoke on routes of 500 miles or less. In time, RJs proved able to capitalize on longer runs — those too distant for turboprops, but unable to support a Boeing or Airbus with any meaningful frequency. Thus, whether Milwaukee-Peoria or Houston-Toronto, RJs are profitable across a wide swath of markets.

The Bombardier CRJ, an outgrowth of the old Canadair Challenger executive jet (the letters CRJ stand for Canadair Regional Jet), is the most popular model to date, with more than 1,300 examples manufactured or on order. The CRJ is sold in three main variants seating between 50 and 90 passengers. On its heels is the Embraer ERJ series, over 800 of which have been delivered. The CRJ hails from Canada, the ERJ (which gets my vote as perhaps the sleekest plane of the past 20 years) from Brazil.

Based on data provided by Air Transport World, here are the five biggest regional airlines, in millions of passengers carried. Totals are for January-September 2004. The “regional” tag has no official application, and some would award “national,” or even “major” status to the names below. None, however, possess any aircraft with more than 70 seats:

1. American Eagle (10.9)
2. SkyWest, d.b.a. Delta Connection (9.8)
3. ExpressJet, d.b.a. Continental Express (9.6)
4. Comair, d.b.a. Delta Connection (9.4)
5. Atlantic Southeast Airlines, d.b.a. Delta Connection (7.7)

It’s interesting to note that while the United States has been far and away the biggest consumer of these planes, virtually all regional jets, and for that matter turboprops too, are today constructed and sold by foreign makers.

My pontifications on safety notwithstanding, and since I’m bound to be asked about it, the worst-ever disaster involving a regional airliner was that of American Eagle flight 4184, on Halloween night, 1994. Thanks mainly to a design flaw, the Chicago-bound ATR turboprop succumbed to a bout with freezing rain after languishing in a holding pattern, plummeting into an Indiana cornfield killing all 68 people on board. As happened after the Air Florida debacle a dozen years earlier, the word “icing” took front and center in the fearful flyer’s lexicon. For a while anyway. The ATR’s pneumatic de-icing system was redesigned, and the plane has avoided trouble ever since.

On that note, reader Leonard Linde writes in to remind us that only five days before, and only about 200 miles from, the aforementioned Kirksville incident, a Pinnacle Airlines CRJ went down near Jefferson City, Missouri, killing two crewman. Linde chews me out for having missed both Missouri mishaps in last week’s column. Indeed I knew of the Pinnacle crash, but because it involved unscheduled repositioning flight, with no passengers or flight attendant on hand, I struck it from the list. Pinnacle, if you don’t recognize the name, does business as Northwest Airlink.

Speaking of Pinnacle, and speaking of mistakes, please don’t mind while I finish things up by diverting your attention from my own gaffes and onto somebody else’s…

Last weekend, the business section of my local paper, the Boston Globe, ran an Associated Press story about Northwest Airlines. The report, picked up by media outlets around the country, focused on Northwest’s ability to maintain a competitive edge by gutting and refurbishing its graying fleet of DC-9s rather than splurging, as others have, for newer aircraft. The article was accurate and ventured to make a valuable point: along with the surprising vintage of Northwest’s venerable Douglases (34 birthdays each), comes the equally surprising (to some) revelation that an old plane, assuming careful oversight, is by no means an unsafe one.

All good but for one thing: Displayed prominently above the text was this photograph.

The picture and caption lead us believe we’re seeing one of Northwest’s geriatric DC-9s. Problem is, what’s actually depicted is none other than a CRJ regional jet, manufactured (I looked up the registration) in 2003. Not only that, it isn’t even a Northwest Airlines plane. The CRJ belongs to our friend Pinnacle Airlines, or Northwest “Jet Airlink,” as stated on the fuselage.

The pic is identified as an Associated Press file photo. That’s the same august body that only a month ago was trying to tell us Air China managed to get 300 people into a 737. But I have no idea if the Globe or the AP was responsible for running the picture. Queries to both have gone unanswered.

I laugh as I type that, for honestly I’m not half the curmudgeon readers must think I am. But as an aerophile I’m hard-wired to notice, and scornfully respond to, the obvious infraction. Frankly, for the sake of accuracy and accountability, I hope enough surgeons, firefighters, nuclear technicians and environmental scientists out there suffer the same compulsion. It’s common to find one or two errors in the typical aviation piece, and I have a ready-to-go email template to harangue the offending reporter. Calling the kettle black, I know. The trick is keeping myself off the list of wrongdoers.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.