Regional Pilots Share Their Stories

Leonard Cobb of Salt Lake City, a former regional pilot, said the public has no idea how tired pilots are.

Michael Zaite of Cleveland resigned from his job as a commuter pilot last October when handed a schedule that would have meant a net loss of monthly income, just three to five days at home each month, and an exhausting schedule.

"There were times when I started to get really uncomfortable going to work," Zaite said.

A former regional pilot who asked to remain anonymous and is now employed by a major carrier said commuter airline crews aren't up to par -- but added that the employees aren't to blame, they just aren't getting the resources.


The men and women who have worked for regional airlines are speaking up about their experiences today, at the end of a week in which a hearing on February's plane crash in Buffalo shined a spotlight on the realities of their jobs. Since Thursday, ABC News has received nearly 100 e-mails from those with stories to share.

Watch "World News with Charles Gibson" TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. ET for the full report.

This week's National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the Buffalo crash focused on how training, the pilot's failed flight tests, lack of sleep, low pay and cockpit chatter may have played a part in the crash that killed all 49 people on board, and one person on the ground. NTSB member Kitty Higgins called some of the conditions at Colgan Airlines "a recipe for an accident."

But many now suggest the picture painted at Colgan Air was not an anomaly. Several said the regional carriers -- often perceived as the farm teams where pilots and crew members gain experience before working on larger commercial jets -- aren't making the grade.

"In the interest of cost cutting, the commuter airlines seem to be overworking and underpaying their pilots," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told ABC News. "The training doesn't seem to be full and adequate."

The regional airline industry has doubled in size in the last 14 years. Now, nearly a quarter of all passengers flying on any given day in the United States are flying a regional carrier. Still, in the past seven years, more than 150 people have lost their lives in regional airline accidents in the United States compared to just one in a major carrier.

After several commuter plane crashes in the early 1990s, rules took effect in 1997 that created more stringent requirements for commuter planes. They now have to follow the same rules as the major carriers.

Pilots can be on duty 16 hours per day, which includes time not spent flying, such as preparing the plane and monitoring weather reports. They can fly only eight hours in a 24-hour period. The FAA also requires 250 hours of flying time for pilot hires, though it says industry practice is usually higher, with many logging at least 500 hours.

"This is all one industry," Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association said Thursday, "one level of safety. And that's something the industry is committed to 24-7."

Pilots Tell Stories of Low Pay and Family Struggles

Cobb, 53, stopped working as an airline pilot about a year and a half ago. Though he credited his former regional employer with doing "an exceptional job" training pilots, he added that the airline did not have "actual stick pusher training," as was the case with the Buffalo crash.

"They never went to the point where it actually engaged and push the nose of the airplane down and made you recover from a full stall," he told ABC News today. "And like they said: The FAA doesn't require it -- so why do it? So that's the airlines attitude: If it is not required by the FAA, we're going to do our training as cheap as possible."

Today, Cobb works as a Greyhound bus driver, where he makes more money than he did in his last year as a pilot.

"You spend a significant time of your career in the right seat, making the lower salaries," Cobb said.

On the Buffalo flight, neither first officer Rebecca Shaw nor pilot Marvin Renslow had living accommodations in Newark where the flight took off. Both were spotted trying to nap on Colgan Air crew room couches the morning of the accident.

NTSB board members questioned how the airline would expect first officers such as Shaw -- whose salary was just under $24,000 per year, according to Colgan Air -- to afford a place in Newark to rest.

Asked if he ever flew tired, Cobb said, "Oh yes. It's plain and simple, yes."

Colgan Air has made a number of changes since the accident. It is instituting a fatigue awareness program for its pilots. It will put every pilot through a new program to better understand and handle emergencies in the cockpit.

But in San Jose, Calif., a former regional pilot now working for a major U.S. airline suggested the long hours and low pay he experienced in his old job means he'd prefer not to a regional flight today.

And Lorilei Valeri, whose father died in December 1993 when a commuter plane crashed in Hibbing, Minn, said Thursday that 16 years later, nothing has changed when it comes to keeping commuters safe.

"I definitely had hoped that no other family would ever have to experience that," Valeri told ABC News on Thursday.

"Nothing has changed," she added. "Ultimately, the safety of airlines has to do with money."