Feb. 2, 2010— -- It was nearly a year ago when a Colgan Air flight, operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407, slammed onto the ground as it approached the airport near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people.
Today, that crash is the focus of a new National Transportation Safety Board report, which will highlight safety lapses by commuter airlines. The board, which will present its findings on the accident, is likely to criticize an airline industry suffering from serious shortcomings, using pilots with too little experience, inadequate training, poverty wages, long commutes and suffering from fatigue. The NTSB is also likely to take the Federal Aviation Administration to task for its oversight of the industry.
And in a sign of how much needs to be done to prevent such crashes from happening again, the NTSB today will issue an unusually high number of safety recommendations to make travelers safer in the skies.
"I think the biggest red flags here are going to be pilot hiring, the training and the monitoring because all these appear to have been substandard," ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said on "Good Morning America" today. "There's never just one cause in an accident but ... this really does show a lot of the problems in the industry and the wages really have to be looked at."
Families of Colgan Air victims, still looking for answers, are frustrated by what they see as a slow investigation process.
"A year after the accident, where are we? That's a big question, where are we?" asked Scott Maurer, whose daughter Lorin was killed in the crash. "In my viewpoint, we've heard a lot of lip service."
Maurer was appalled to learn that safety was not pilots' top priority, a point pilots know too well.
"They [Colgan] said safety was priority, a lot," former Colgan Air pilot Chris Wiken said. "In my experience, however, on a day-to-day basis, being on time and completing the flight was much more important."
Wiken, who flew for Colgan Air for four years, is in a new "Frontline" documentary that airs next week. The show exposes the living conditions for some pilots who work for commuter airlines. One former Colgan pilot told "Frontline" about his "crash pad," a small, two-bedroom apartment that housed nine pilots.
"We had guys ... sleeping on the couch. They rented a couch. Guys rented a closet, a big, walk-in closet," former Colgan pilot Corey Heiser told "Frontline."
The investigation into last February's crash shows how meagerly the pilots were living and the long hours they worked. First Office Rebecca Shaw, who was co-piloting the fateful Colgan Air flight, made $22,000 a year and lived with her parents. She commuted across the country to save money.
But as big of a challenge as it may be, the issue of pilot wages and fatigue is something regulators can't change. The FAA is "terrified to get into this question of what happens to pilots off-duty," Nance said, but the responsibility to address such concerns ultimately falls to the carriers.
"We certainly still need to see the fatigue issue addressed. That is without question," Capt. Paul Rice, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said. "We need to see educational issues addressed and we need to see new pilot hiring. And, of course, what we need to see is a continued improvement in the labor and management relations so that we can more fully implement safety programs."
Pilot Training, Fatigue Challenge for Regional Carriers
Lawmakers hoped to step in but legislation to reduce pilot fatigue, require more flight training and experience -- 1,500 hours of flying instead of 250 hours for new hires -- is stuck on Capitol Hill. It has passed the House but has seen no action in the Senate, which has been consumed with health care legislation.
"It's tremendously frustrating," Rice said of the stalled legislation. The bill "talked about new requirements not only about hiring pilots, but also for licensing requirements, educational requirements, a whole broad range of things."
Regional airlines have improved in terms of training pilots in simulator aircraft, thanks to a push by the Regional Airlines Association, but finances remain a key issue, Nance said.
"One of the reasons why we've got such a growth in regional carriers, which have done a tremendous job overall in improving over the last 20 years ... but the problem here is that they are always running on the edge of economic disaster because they are the ones that the big carriers turn to to try and save money," he said.
As is the case with many Colgan Air routes, Flight 3407 was operating as Continental Connection as part of a codeshare agreement with Continental Airlines.
The FAA is moving forward with tougher safety standards and what many say are long-overdue rules to reduce pilot fatigue but those new regulations could take years to implement.
"Things do take time," pilot Rice said. "Nothing is going to happen overnight here. But the good news is, things are happening. A year ago -- two years ago -- none of this was happening."
The FAA has also pushed airlines to improve remedial training for pilots who are not performing well enough in the cockpit. And it has encouraged airlines to adopt rules that allow their pilots to report safety problems voluntarily, without fear of reprisal.
But for those who lost their loved ones in the Colgan Air crash, change is not happening soon enough.
"People are at risk. A lot of people are at risk," Maurer said. "We need to be taking actions much quicker and much sooner."
Colgan Air says it has made 20 safety improvements, including enhancing training, requiring new pilots to have more experience, improving the pilot background check process and increasing the frequency of check rides by veteran pilots.
"Since the accident, we have examined every aspect of our operations to make sure that everything that could be done is being done," Colgan Air's parent company, Pinnacle Airlines Corp., said in a statement. "As a result, we have taken more than 20 important and specific steps to further enhance our operations."
As for whether travelers can feel safer in commuter airlines, Nance said, it's really a question of the circumstances, and the weather.
"When the weather's good it's excellent," he said. "When the weather is bad and we've got all sort of problems, we come up against the question of whether or not these folks have enough training and whether the training has been imposed correctly and their fatigue factors."