Flying Cheap

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 here, or on Netflix streaming.


  1. That’s a great Frontline episode. Like I said in my comment to your other posts, Southwest Airlines seems to have perfected the maintenance of airplanes. Buy only one model and train the hell out of your maintenance staff to service that one model. I bet virtually every Southwest maintenance person is an expert on the 737 and can spot/fix issues quickly and efficiently.

  2. Also, Southwest owns all their planes/routes/pilots/staff/etc to ensure consistent quality and safety. I’ll deal with the cattle call for that.

  3. I feel honored to have gotten a shout out on your blog! I’m glad you enjoyed it….it’s pretty terrifying. Sadly, the flight we ended up getting for your wedding is on "United"….I’m glad we made the reservations so that our flight is scheduled to land almost 24 hours before the wedding so that we actually have a chance of making it to the ceremony on time. 🙂

  4. Personally and statistically speaking: the odds of dying in a plane crash are so low in comparison to stuff like dying in a traffic accident or having a heart attack that I just choose not to consider it. It’s good that some people do care so that it doesn’t get more dangerous, but we might as well make and watch documentaries about slippery bathroom floors.(I’m pulling some numbers out of my ass, but roughly speaking I’m in the right direction)

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