'Flying Cheap': Buckle up, indeed – washingtonpost.com


“Frontline” almost never fails to make its case, but it seems fairly easy to make here, through interviews with former pilots, Federal Aviation Administration investigators and grieving relatives of those who died on Flight 3407. Cockpit transcripts reveal two underpaid, unexperienced pilots yawning and complaining about their grueling commutes. They lost control of their plane just a month after the nation had been celebrating the cool, experienced reserve shown by Chesley Sullenberger, who successfully landed his disabled US Airways jetliner in the Hudson River with no casualties. The difference? A captain like Sully is expensive.

That cheap ticket you found online is the byproduct of deregulation in the extreme, which allows major carriers to transfer to smaller carriers the high-cost (and all liabilities) of what once might have been a costlier, premium flight. According to “Frontline,” half of all domestic flights are now handled by smaller carriers, no matter what the brand-name logo on the plane's tail might suggest. And, as it happens, the last six fatal crashes in the United States involved commuter flights.

via ‘Flying Cheap’: Buckle up, indeed – washingtonpost.com.


7 Responses to “'Flying Cheap': Buckle up, indeed – washingtonpost.com”

  1. Kathy Karsten Tipton Says:

    Enjoyed the Detroit piece last night, but I can’t bring myself to watch “Frontline” just yet…my husband has to fly Thursday. When he’s safely home I’ll check it out 😉

  2. Ernest Lehmann Says:

    1. The law should read, “If you label a plane with your logo, you must be liable for that airplane, it’s crew, passengers, baggage, mechanics, safety, and food.”

    2. Quality systems should be transparent and anonymous and available to the public on the Internet. If these issues were known and published before the accident, we might have saved lives. If they are not fixed, passengers should be able to check the status of the quality logs from their iPhones before the plane pushes off from the terminal.

    3. Passengers can vote with their checkbooks. Say no to codesshare flights with regional carriers. Maybe I can’t avoid all flights out of Buffalo on Colgan, but I bet if we all force them out of business eventually we’ll certainly pay a bit more but our families will see us safe and sound.

  3. Erik Fowler Says:

    Mr. Miles O’Brien:


    Congrats on your Frontline documentary. Excellent and comprehensive. I am also a private pilot.

    Why is no one talking about tailplane stalls and the fact that recovery from this type of relatively unknown and not-well-trained-for icing stall in a turboprop is exactly as was performed by the Colgan pilot? Is it possible that he (presumably) misdiagnosed the problem (confusing a traditional wing stall for a tailpane icing stall), but prescribed the correct solution?

    You don’t yank bank on the yoke of any airplane during a stall because of bad coporate culture or continuing safety training – traditional stall recovery is hard-wired in even a 500 hour pilot. Something doesn’t make sense in the stall recovery thesis. Watch the NASA video above. Tailplane stall recovery is aggravated by lowering flaps or lowering the nose, and proper technique is to move yoke aft abruptly and retract flaps, exactly as Colgan pilot did.

    Feel free to call or email.

    Erik Fowler

    • Eric Sprague Says:

      It’s a good theory, but the captain’s inputs were WAY too aggressive for either type of recovery, look at his pitch attitude! Also, if you watched/read the testimony at NTSB, the incidence of tailplane stalls is almost non-existent.

      BTW, it’s very important to note the captain had less than 200 hours in type. He was new to the aircraft, and was not expecting such deceleration when those massive props came up in RPM. Also, may not have realized he was putting in SPOILERS as he tried to level the wings with the yoke. Major oversight here, guys.

  4. Erik Fowler Says:

    Things to do to make the regional airlines more safe and accountable to the flying public:

    1. Forget the lawyers, the majors taking responsibility for their downstream vendors is just a modern good business practice (think Wallmart – hello?). If you sell something with your name on it, it’s your business to ensure quality control. PERIOD. And yes, joint and several liability seems a no-brainer. Your name, your ticket, your ass too.

    2. Airlines should be required to have comprehensive safety standowns, just like the military does. I am a business owner, pilot, and veteran. When you mess something up, ALL planes stop flying for a period of time, and someone comes in from the OUTSIDE and reviews your policies and procedures from the TOP TO BOTTOM. Then they are implemented. Period.

    3. Regional pilots should make a liveable wage. If you can’t rent a 1 bedroom apartment in the place of your departure flight, including basic living expenses, then pay is too low. Money worries equals distractions and stress. Again, there is a reason the military provides food, clothing, health care, boarding, and recreation. DUH. It’s pretty basic.

    4. Pilots should not be allowed to commute more than 1 hour per leg, and should live within 1 hour of the departure flight. 16 hour days is absurd.

    5. Someone needs to start a non-profit airline where passengers, pilots, air crew, and mechanics are on the board of directors.

    6. “Self-policing” model of FAA in times past needs to go out the window. FAA is an oversight and safety agency accountable to taxpayers, not the airlines. Change their mandate.

    7. Companies that have a culture of irresponsible greed, where costs to society and the environment are simply “outsourced” rather than dealt with in a constructive manner, need to be put out of business and their corporate charter revoked. Period. Companies can and must be equally accountable to their employees and communities, and those people should be on their boards, not just shareholders.

  5. starviego Says:

    This sounds like something other than pilot error was involved–

    NTSB Dockets, File 431227–witness statements

    pg2 of 131
    Vicki Braun
    …plane engine had ”echo sound” then sounded like the engine stopped then heard a ”boom.”

    pg6 of 131
    Shannon Alessandra
    Just prior to the airplane crashing, the engines made a ”weird sound.”

    pg7 of 131
    Jean Andreassen
    Andreassen stated that she heard strange noises from the engines

    pg8 of 131
    Kristen and Aaron Archambeault
    They both described the engine noise as ”sputtering”

    pg11 of 131
    Michele Beiter
    Michele stated the noise ‘skipped’ and she was relieved it stopped, and then it started again. Michel is positive there was a skip. Michele further described everthing she heard as, ‘Noise, skip, noise, loud noise.’

    pg13 of 131
    Robert Bijak
    The engines sounded like a metallic rattle and remined Bijak of a car engine with no oil in it.

    pg14 of 131
    Tin Bojarski
    The plane did not sound right and sort of sounded like a car with a broken muffler.

    pg17 of 131
    Ronald Braunscheidel
    …he heard a very loud spitting and sputtering sound of a plane engine flying overhead. Braunscheidel described the noise as a car without a muffler.

    pg 18 of 131
    Sharon Brennan
    Brennan believed the plane was… maybe in trouble based on the noise.

    pg28 of 131
    Dan Cizdziel
    …heard a sputtering, binging noise….

    pg42 of 131
    Doug Errick
    Errick indicated that as the plane got closer the engines became very rough. Errick thought the engines were coming on and off, almost like engines were trying to come back on, but couldn’t remain running. Errick thought the engines were changing RPMs rapidly.

    pg49 of 131
    Mary Grefrath
    Grefrath recalled that the engine sounded like it was spuddering.

    pg66 of 131
    Jean Larocque
    Larocque… stated he heard puttering plane… Larocque reported that the engines were not making a uniform sound.

    pg 77 of 131
    Molly Merlo
    …she heard the airplane make a ”gurgling” sound.

    pg81 of 131
    Marianne Neri
    The engine noise did not sound like a normal plane, but more like a helicopter. It was obvious something was wrong with the engines.

    pg85 of 131
    Angela Pillo
    The sound was very loud and ”rough,” as if the engine was having trouble. The sound was further described as sounding like a ”lawn mower”

    pg91 of 131
    Lisa Rott
    ….she heard a consistent low grumbling sound that she believed to be a propeller plane. Rott advised that the sound the plane’s engines was not smooth and did not sound like other propeller planes that she has heard in the past.

    pg96 of 131
    Kenneth Smith
    …heard a big bang then continued to hear the sound of airplane engines.

    pg89 of 131
    Joseph Summers
    …heard a plane which was very low and didn’t sound normal. Mr. Summers cited a ”rambling noise” which sounded as if an engine was not running properly.

    pg101 of 131
    Rick Telfair
    Telfair stated he then heard a winding or grinding noise, then a screeching or grinding noise and approximately 20-30 seconds later heard a large boom… Telfair further described the noise of the engine as fighting, almost as though they were trying to go faster but couldn’t, not accelerating but distressed.

    pg 102 of 131
    Denise Trabucco
    Trabucco described the sound as a humming, similar to a transformer prior to it blowing. Aafter the humming, Trabucco heard a popping sound. … About a minute after the humming and popping sound, Trabucco and her family felt a vibration that felt a little like an earthquake.

    pg105 of 131
    Lorraine Unverzart
    The airplane engines made a ”chugging” sound, similar to a ”spark plug misfiring.”

    pg106 of 131
    Louis Vitello
    …he heard the plane engines sputtering as it approached, and then heard a ”popping sound.” Immediately after that Mr. Vitello heard ”grinding” noised, stating that the noises reminded him of gears grinding together, sounding like the gears were missing teeth.

    pg124 of 131
    David Wolf
    …the engines were making an unusual ”shuttering” sound

    pg126 of 131
    Melissa Wols
    She stated she heard the plane…. grinding and sputtering as it approached and passed over his residence. Wols advised it sounded similar to what grinding metal would sound like.

    pg129 of 131
    Rita Zirnheld
    It ”sounded like spttering” and ”engine was coughing.”

    pg130 of 131
    Barbara Garrett
    She said the plane engine was making loud noises, as though metal was banging and clattering.

  6. Eric Sprague Says:

    Miles, I consider you to be the nation’s foremost aviation journalist and one of the best news anchors of all time. I consider Frontline to be the best show on television and best source for in-depth news coverage anywhere, hands down. I give you tremendous credit for this and so many other stories where you have made the intricacies of the aviation (and space) world clearer to the audience. I want to share a bit of my inside knowledge of what it’s like to be a captain at Colgan Air, and call you out on a couple of elements of the story that I hoped you would have included. I was a classmate of Chris Wiken when we were both hired by Colgan, and we were both promoted to Captain on the SAAB 340 together during the same simulator session a short time later. The experiences of my three years at Colgan in many ways mirrored what you showed in your piece, and obviously you have proven all your points. But professional pilots like myself would want included a finer point here on our own deep feeling of disappointment at what happened here as well as the elephant in the room, the fact that Colgan Air (in the weeks before the crash) was just beginning to conform itself with the standard of a unionized company, and was essentially non-union at the time of the accident. Perhaps because of time limitations, I think you missed some of these big issues that are so relevant to understanding what happened. I have worked at smaller companies, as well as a major airline, and in my opinion, the training we got at Colgan was absolutely top notch. The standard to which we were held was extremely rigorous. And I know so many outstanding pilots who would never have failed those passengers so dismally in piloting skill (basic stall recovery) and judgement (fatigue and situational awareness). But we are only as strong as our weakest link. While you pointed out why this weak link can be explained to some degree by economics, expansion, falsification of records, and inept bureaucracy, you could have dug deeper. This Captain had flown long enough at Colgan that more people should have complained about him. As you illustrated, complaints lodged by a first officer can be met by retaliation from management at an non-union airline. Key words: NON-UNION. When a union is present, there is a critical balance in place to allow employees to file safety complaints and complaints about professional standards in such a way that nobody has to worry about repercussions. At a non-union carrier, first officers may have been afraid of losing their job, which adds up to losing their career. Furthermore, pilots working under union contracts have better rest rules, enough pay to afford better quality of life, and less fear of calling in sick. The testimony of Capt. Sullenberger to congress is also relevent to this case, and should perhaps have been mentioned or annotated. It’s unthinkable how badly this flight went, and you know this as a pilot. You could, given more time, have illustrated what a ridiculous thing it is to lose control in a stall. This makes his previous failed check rides so crucial to the story, and it’s interesting how he managed to hide this from everyone. A critical part of the new regulations forthcoming will be better tracking of failed checks. This is such a rare thing in my perspective, I don’t know how he slipped through the cracks. Perhaps by pointing out some of this stuff, you could have brought about some more support for making regional airlines a better place to work and therefore a safer way to fly. It is so relevant to the times in which we live, don’t you agree? Thanks for your excellent work, it’s so great to see you continuing in important and interesting subjects like this. I bet Rutan and Branson will get you into space, keep the faith (and bring me too)! P.S. I haven’t written anything to you since I sent a shot in the dark to your unpublished CNN email to praise your MIR deorbit coverage (an email to which you very graciously replied, to my great amazement), so you can tell this story is a big deal for me. Kudos!

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