Feb. 2, 2010 -- Pilot error was one of the chief causes that led to the deadly crash of Colgan Air flight, operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407, last February, federal investigators said today.
The National Transportation Safety Board met today to discuss the findings from the report on the crash, which killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground when the plane slammed into a house as it approached the airport near Buffalo, N.Y.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said it was the pilots' "complacency and confusion that resulted in catastrophe," and more importantly, the safety issues involved in the crash still have not been fixed.
"These are issues that we have seen time and time again, and unfortunately it has taken 50 lives for us to focus additional attention on these issues that have not been addressed," Hersman said.
In the cockpit that night, Capt. Marvin Renslow did not notice that the plane's speed was dropping dangerously low. When cockpit warnings indicated the plane was about to stall, instead of pushing what is called the stick shaker forward to increase speed, Renslow pulled it backwards multiple times. The second in command, First Officer Rebecca Shaw, may not have been experienced enough to respond right away, investigators said.
"That is very unusual behavior, and quite frankly, I can't explain it," said Tom Haueter, director of NTSB's office of aviation safety.
"It wasn't a split-second thing," NTSB Safety Investigator Roger Cox added. "I think there was time to evaluate the situation and initiate a recovery, but I can't give you a number of seconds."
Colgan today said the two pilots manning the plane were given proper training, and that the airline has taken a number of steps since the deadly accident to ensure its equipment is upgraded and personnel properly trained.
"By all accounts, Captain Renslow and First Officer Shaw were fine people," Colgan spokesman Joe Williams said in a written statement. "But they knew what to do in the situation they faced that night a year ago, had repeatedly demonstrated they knew what to do, and yet did not do it. We cannot speculate on why they did not use their training in dealing with the situation they faced."
The NTSB report highlights major safety lapses by commuter airlines.
As expected, the board today sharply criticized the regional airline industry, which is suffering from serious shortcomings, using pilots with too little experience, inadequate training, low 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.
The NTSB issued 20 safety recommendations to avoid such disasters in the future but not a single regulation was released today.
The Colgan Air crash highlights a major dilemma facing regional airlines. While they are subjected to the same rules and regulations as large carriers, who they often codeshare with, their earnings are lower and hence they pay their pilots less, have a less thorough evaluation process and often make their staff work the maximum number of hours allowed.
The two pilots of the Colgan Air flight both had traveled from Seattle and Tampa, Fla., to Newark, N.J., before the flight. Capt. Renslow failed several flight checks when getting his pilot's license, but failed to disclose them all to Colgan Air on his application.
Shaw made $22,000 a year and lived with her parents. She commuted across the country regularly to save money.
In the last year, several regional airlines have started hiring pilots with more experience than they did before, according to FltOps.com. The government has promised to raise the minimum number of hours required for a commercial pilot's license -- currently it's 250 hours -- but that has not happened yet either. Additionally, there hasn't been any new regulation addressing pilot fatigue.
In terms of salaries, here hasn't been a significant shift for pilots hired at regional airlines, reports jetjob.com, which tracks jobs in the aviation industry. The starting pay for these pilots is as low as $18,300 a year.
Authorities say the Colgan Air crash has overall heightened the sense of awareness of these issues, but it will take a long time to implement the needed changes.
The FAA issued a "call to action" last year to ramp up airline safety and pilot training efforts but those actions are all voluntary, and it could take years to draft new safety regulations. The FAA increased inspection of remedial training, which all airlines now have, but the actual regulations could be two years away.
"There have been some changes. Not great large changes, but there have been some changes," said Capt. Paul Rice, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "Some of the companies are really proactive, have worked with our pilot groups and are starting to improve their training and look into the training."
Investigation into Continental Flight 3407 Crash
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."
Families of Colgan Air victims, still looking for answers, are frustrated by what they see as a slow investigation process.
"In my viewpoint, we've heard a lot of lip service," said Scott Maurer, whose daughter Lorin was killed in the crash. "People are at risk -- a lot of people are at risk. We need... to be taking actions much quicker and much sooner."
"[FAA] Administrator [Randy] Babbitt has said we need to have patience, and we understand that," Maurer added. "But we lost lives. We don't go home to our family like other families do, and we don't want to see this happen again."
The issue of pilot training and fatigue is not new, but it has come under intense scrutiny since the crash occurred nearly a year ago.
"The FAA has been terrified to get into this question of what happens to pilots off-duty, but that is the responsibility of the airline and if they're paying poverty wages they have a responsibility to know what the response is going to be, that is, doing second jobs, being in crash beds, things of this nature," ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said on "Good Morning America" today.
Pilots say their top priority is not safety, but rather getting the plane to and from destinations on time.
"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."
Experts say regional airlines need to better address these concerns.
"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."
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.
New Airline Safety Regulations Could Take Time
The FAA has pushed airlines to improve remedial training for pilots who are not performing well enough in the cockpit. 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 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."