'Frontline' examines the hazards of flying on regional carriers

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If you fly with any regularity out of Pittsburgh International Airport, you've probably flown on a regional carrier, the smaller planes that nowadays are more often jets but still can be propeller-driven "prop planes."

These aircraft carry the same logo and branding as larger planes, which make them look to passengers like they are on a Continental plane or a United plane. After all, in many cases the tickets were purchased from the Continental or United websites. But often a small notation indicates otherwise: "Flight operated by Comair" or "Operated by EV."

Frontline: "Flying Cheap"
  • When: 9 tonight. WQED

Even if you've noticed such notations, you may not realize that the flagship carrier has no responsibility for your flight, not when it comes to safety, crew training and especially not when it comes to damages in a lawsuit resulting from a crash.

Former CNN science correspondent Miles O'Brien teamed with "Frontline" producer Rick Young for PBS's "Frontline: Flying Cheap" (9 tonight, WQED), an excellent, in-depth look at the complicated American aviation system on the one-year anniversary of the crash of Continental Flight 3407 outside Buffalo, N.Y.

"Flying Cheap" uses the Buffalo crash as a jumping off point but traces the history of regional carriers like Colgan Air, the company responsible for Flight 3407. The program shows how deregulation gave rise to these cheaper-to-operate alternative carriers that "code share" with the major airlines, allowing for what one industry insider calls "a seamless travel experience."

But this system also glosses over the qualitative differences between regional carriers and major airlines, which have higher standards for pilot experience. The program also shows the economic and fatigue factors facing regional carrier pilots, some of whom make less than $22,000 per year. A former Colgan pilot says he was upgraded from first officer to captain in nine months -- on a major airline, that can take more than seven years.

Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Young interview one regional pilot who was asked by his Colgan bosses to fly a new type of plane he was not qualified to fly. Another pilot recounts a captain he flew with who falsified flight records. When the first officer filed a complaint, the captain's license was revoked by the Federal Aviation Administration, but Colgan executives defended the captain.

"They said safety was a priority a lot," says former Colgan pilot Chris Wiken. "In my experience, however, on a day-to-day basis, being on time and completing the flight was much more important."

"Flying Cheap" is a must-see hour of television for anyone who flies regularly or has concerns about airline safety.

TV editor Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow Rob???OwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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