The regional airline industry says safety is its top priority, in part because accidents are bad for business. But pilot unions and the families of air crash victims say safety has been sacrificed to cost-cutting at some carriers.
The Federal Aviation Administration says it holds all airlines, large and small, to the same standards. But a coalition representing corporate travel managers says business travelers don't believe regional carriers are as safe as larger airlines, and many travelers don't want to fly them.
Those were some of the sometimes contradictory messages presented at a two-day National Transportation Safety Board forum that began Tuesday. The board is examining the safety implications of "code-sharing" agreements that allow major carriers to sell seats to passengers on smaller, regional carriers that operate one leg of a flight.
By working together, major and regional carriers benefit from money-saving efficiencies in flight connection times, integrated baggage handling, gate locations and marketing.
Major carriers, ticket agents, and online ticketing websites are supposed to tell passengers before they buy a ticket that a portion of the flight will be operated by another carrier. But in practice, passengers are often unaware that the airline they buy a ticket from isn't the operator of the entire flight, witnesses told the board.
The issue is an important one for anyone who flies in different parts of the country. Regional airlines now account for half of domestic departures and a quarter of all passengers on domestic flights. For more than 400 communities, they provide the only scheduled service.
The last six fatal domestic airline crashes all involved regional airlines. Pilot performance has been cited as a factor in four of those.
"Regional airlines can no longer be considered the minor leagues. They are major players in the airline industry and they are here to stay," NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said.
Continental chief executive Jeffrey Smisek told a congressional hearing in June that his airline doesn't have the resources to oversee safety at all of its code-sharing partners. That responsibility, he said, belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration.
John Kausner of Clarence, N.Y., told the safety board he was outraged by Smisek's remarks. He said his daughter, Elly Kausner, a 24-year-old Florida law student, had no idea when she bought a ticket online from Continental Airlines to fly home to western New York that the last leg of the flight would be on an airline she had never heard of _ Colgan Air. Her e-mail confirmation ended with a cheery "Thank you for flying Continental."
Elly Kausner, along with 48 other passengers and crew members, and one person on the ground, was killed last year when Continental Connection flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo. NTSB cited errors by the flight's two pilots.
Even if his daughter had known part of her flight was operated by Colgan, she couldn't be expected to make an informed determination of whether a small airline she was unfamiliar with was safe, Kausner said. Continental should have ensured Colgan was employing pilots that were as competent as the pilots employed at the larger carrier, but that wasn't the case, he said.
Instead, Continental, Colgan and FAA "passed the buck," he said.
After the accident, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said he would look at whether the FAA has the authority to review code-sharing agreements with regard to safety oversight by major carriers.
However, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said Monday the agency doesn't plan to review the agreements. She said all carriers _ large and small _ are held to the same safety standards laid out in FAA regulations.
But Babbitt has leaned on major carriers to work voluntarily with their regional partners to adopt many of the crew training, aircraft maintenance and other safety programs at larger airlines that exceed FAA standards.
Airlines and FAA officials say the effort has been successful.
Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, told the safety board that the voluntary safety programs have been adopted by 85 percent to 100 percent of regional carriers, depending upon the program.
"Every carrier does recognize that it's bad for business not to be as safe as you can be," Cohen said.
The proof of safety has been a steady decline in airline accidents, said John Meenan, the chief operating officer of the Air Transportation Association, which represents major carriers.
But Captain John Prater, head of the Air Line Pilots Association. said major carriers partner with regional carriers in part to cut costs, creating extraordinary pressure to keep staffing to a minimum and salaries low. Some carriers promote pilots to captain with only a few hours of leadership training before putting them in charge of a passenger airline, he said.
U.S. carriers are required to conduct a safety audit of their foreign code-share partners, but not their domestic partners. Most international carriers also demand their foreign code-share partners _ and sometimes their domestic partners _ complete a safety audit by the International Air Transport Association, a trade association for the airline industry.
Those audits are voluntary and aren't overseen by any government agency, but the airline association makes them available to government regulators.
(This version corrects that airline trade association makes safety audits available to government regulators.)