Manassas-based Colgan Air today struggled to defend itself as details emerged about the low pay of its pilots, their long commutes and the need of some to hold second jobs to make ends meet.
Colgan faced a number of questions from the National Transportation Safety Board about its pilots in the second day of public hearings that cover the crash of Continental Connections Flight 3047 that killed 50 people near Buffalo on Feb. 12 this year. The NTSB is in its second day of public hearings into the crash, which was the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years.
Under questioning from the board, Mary Finnigan, Colgan’s vice president for administration, reported that Rebecca Shaw, co-pilot of the crash plane, drew an annual salary of $16,200 a year. The board also said that Shaw once held a second job in coffee shop while working as a pilot for the airline in Norfolk, Va.
Asked by a board if the Colgan expected Shaw to reside in the New York area, near her base in Newark, Finnegan responded: “Pilots are told what the pay scales are. Our pay scales are within the industry standard.”
Later on, asked if Colgan made cost-of-living adjustments to assist employees who reside in expensive areas such as New York, Harry Mitchel, Colgan’s vice president of flight operations, said no program existed for pilots. But, he added that Colgan had such a policy for managers.
The testimony offers a rare, behind-the-scenes look into regional airline world that has grown significantly over the years as major airlines contract out air service to regional airlines that serve small cities. Colgan was operating the Buffalo flight as regional airline partner of Continental Airlines. Regional carriers often fly jets that seat 78 passengers or less and turboprops, like the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 involved in the crash.
According to the Regional Airline Association, 74 percent of the nation’s 640 airports with scheduled airline service are only served by regional airlines. There are 70 regional airlines in the United States. Pilot jobs at the airlines are often considered entry-level jobs in the industry. Mitchel acknowledged that Colgan jobs were a “stepping stone” to higher-paying jobs at bigger airlines.
Pilots who work for major carriers flying large jet planes typically earn about $125,000 per year, on average.
Colgan has about 430 pilots and experiences an annual attrition rate as high as 30 percent, according to the safety board. Captains at Colgan Air typically earn between $50,000 and $53,000 per year.
The safety board also delved into the long commute for regional airline pilots. According to the NTSB, 93 of the Colgan’s 137 Newark-based pilots identified themselves as commuters, including 49 of them who commute greater than 400 miles and 29 who live more than 1,000 miles away.
Both pilots were based at Colgan’s Newark, N.J., office but lived in other cities and commuted to work by catching planes. Oftentimes, pilots commute to work by using privileges afforded to them by informal agreements among airlines that allow non-working pilots to sit in the jumpseat, or an open seat, when available and at little to no cost.
Shaw had an especially long, cross-country commute. On the day before the accident, Shaw left Seattle on an overnight FedEx flight to the East Coast. She arrived in Newark at 6:30 a.m. after a changeover in Memphis.
The board has said Shaw sent numerous text messages throughout the day, an indication that she wasn’t getting adequate rest. Although Renslow arrived in Newark three days before the flight from Tampa, Fla., he was observed sleeping in the airline’s crew lounge, a practice forbidden by the airline, according to the NTSB. The board has said it has found no evidence that either had accommodations in Newark.
Kitty Higgins, an NTSB board member, called the long-distance commuting and crew-room sleeping an other fatigue-related factors “a recipe for an accident and that’s what we have here.”
She continued, “Where does that all come together for somebody to say, ‘Wait a minute. What is going on here?”
Colgan officials said the airline has made a number of policy improvements, including strengthening a policy that limits the pairing of inexperienced pilots in the cockpit. Colgan is currently in discussion with its pilots’ union on flight and duty time rules and commuting policies.
The scheduling practices at Colgan are already under federal scrutiny. The Federal Aviation Administration has sent 16 letters of investigation probing whether Colgan was over-scheduling pilots between November 2008 and March 2009.
An FAA spokeswoman said the investigation was part of a routine review of the airline compliance with scheduling rules, which seek to ensure that pilots are getting sufficient rest. The spokeswoman said the current investigation was not triggered by the Buffalo crash.