In nearly every serious regional airline accident during the past 10 years, at least one of the pilots had failed tests of his or her skills multiple times, according to an analysis of federal accident records.
In eight of the nine accidents during that time, which killed 137 people, pilots had a history of failing two or more "check rides," tests by federal or airline inspectors of pilots' ability to fly and respond to emergencies. In the lone case in which pilots didn't have multiple failures since becoming licensed, the co-pilot was fired after the non-fatal crash for falsifying his job application.
Pilots on major airlines and large cargo haulers had failed the tests more than once in only one of the 10 serious accidents in this country over the past 10 years, according to a USA TODAY review of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports.
At a time when fatal aviation accidents have become increasingly rare, regional carriers have had four since 2004, compared with one by a major airline. Regional airlines fly roughly half of all airline flights, carrying about 20% of passengers.
Pilot qualifications on regional carriers was at the center of an NTSB hearing last month into the February crash of a turboprop near Buffalo that killed 50 people. The pilot at the controls when the plane plunged had failed five checks, according to records revealed at the hearing.
Three of the accidents in which pilots had repeatedly failed tests involved a single airline conglomerate, Pinnacle Airlines. The crash near Buffalo was on Colgan Air, which is owned by Pinnacle. The captain on a Pinnacle jet that crashed in 2004 after accidentally killing both engines had failed seven checks.
Pinnacle spokesman Joe Williams said the airline was not aware of all the test failures.
"I'd say this is a symptom of a larger problem in selection and certification" of pilots, said Bill Voss, president of the independent Flight Safety Foundation. A shortage of pilots this decade, prompted in part by the lower numbers of former military pilots seeking airline jobs, prompted lower minimum qualifications, Voss said.
Failing a single check during a career means little, but failing multiple times "really sends up the red flags," said Patrick Veillette, a corporate jet pilot who has written extensively on safety issues.
Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen defended the industry's safety practices. "All of our members are flying under the exact same standards as the mainline carriers," Cohen said.
The NTSB has voiced concern about a loophole in a law requiring airlines to check pilots' records when hiring. The 1996 Pilot Records Improvement Act orders airlines to check pilot records from previous employers, but that does not cover failures that occurred while a pilot was in flight school.
Airline pilots receive dozens of written and flying tests during a career.