Last February, Continental Flight 3407 crashed outside of Buffalo, N.Y., killing 49 people onboard and one on the ground. Although 3407 was painted in the colors of Continental Connection, it was actually operated by Colgan Air, a regional airline that flies routes under contract for US Airways, United and Continental. The crash and subsequent investigation revealed a little-known trend in the airline industry: Major airlines have outsourced more and more of their flights to obscure regional carriers.
FRONTLINE talked with many regional pilots, including several former Colgan pilots, who speak publicly for the first time. They tell about the pressures to meet contractual responsibilities and avoid delays or canceled flights in spite of sickness, fatigue or broken plane parts. It is a practice in the industry known as pilot pushing. “They said safety was a priority a lot,” says one former Colgan pilot. “In my experience, however, on a day-to-day basis, being on time and completing the flight was much more important, much more important.” Says another former Colgan pilot: “The saying around the company was always, ‘Move the rig.’ And that just kind of told me that they were willing to kind of push the bounds in order to make money.”
After my recent posts about United Airlines, my friend Jenny told me to watch the PBS documentary, Flying Cheap. It focuses on the crash of flight 3407 outside Buffalo, but goes deep on the lower standards regional airlines have for pilots and airplanes.
My flight from IAD to BUF last week was delayed for 4 hours because of mechanical issues,. The mechanic replaced the wrong part the first time around. Turns out it wasn’t a United flight at all even though everything indicated so. It was Mesa Airlines, a regional airline operating under the United name.
Check out the full synopsys here.
You can also watch the entire video at pbs.com here, or on Netflix streaming.