WASHINGTON – Despite a promise to ensure “one level of safety” at America’s airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration still isn’t reviewing the safety impact from deals that the big airlines strike with smaller companies that operate flights on their behalf – such as Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed in Clarence Center four years ago, claiming 50 lives.
That’s the central conclusion that the Department of Transportation’s inspector general reached in a report released Tuesday on the “code-sharing” agreements by which the mainline carriers contract out the operation of an increasing number of flights to smaller regional airlines such as Colgan Air, which operated Flight 3407.
“FAA does not take an active role in reviewing domestic code-share agreements for possible safety impacts,” the inspector general reported. “Even though the 2009 Colgan accident revealed different operating standards between that regional operator and its mainline partner, FAA has not developed policies to ensure that code-share partners advance a common level of safety.”
In addition, the inspector general said a great deal of confusion remains among travelers about who, exactly, is flying their airplane, despite a provision in a 2010 law aimed at clearing up that confusion.
Most notably, though, the inspector general said the FAA did not adequately follow through on its 2009 “Call to Action” on aviation safety, whereby it promised to work to develop a system to review agreements between the major carriers and their regional partners.
“As a result, domestic code-share agreements go into effect without consideration of their possible impact on air carrier safety,” the inspector general’s report said.
What’s more, the inspector general said, the FAA has not given the airline industry proper guidance on how to share safety information and best practices. That’s an important point, the report said, because the Flight 3407 crash investigation revealed that Colgan’s crew-training program was “not as robust” as that of Continental Airlines.
In response, the FAA said it had determined that the major carriers had improved their communications and data-sharing with their regional partners, meaning there’s no good reason for the agency to review the deals between those airlines.
“The fact is these actions are not necessary or justifiable,” the FAA’s general counsel, Robert S. Rivkin, wrote in response to the inspector general’s report. “Expanding the listing, tracking and reviewing of domestic code-sharing agreements would require additional resources without any identified or demonstrable benefit.”
The FAA also noted that it’s not required by law to review those deals.
The FAA’s take on the deals between the big airlines and their smaller partners drew some heated comments from the Families of Continental Flight 3407, as well as local lawmakers.
“They’re not even looking at the safety!” noted Scott Maurer, whose daughter, Lorin, was killed in the crash.
“My big takeaway is that this is again another example of the lack of oversight and follow-through at the FAA,” said Susan Bourque, whose sister Beverly Eckert, a 9/11 activist, was killed on Flight 3407. “They seem to keep coming, one after the other.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said that he was pleased that the Department of Transportation recognized some major flaws at the FAA as result of the investigation but that recognizing the problems is not enough. “They must act to correct the problems immediately or else the congressional delegation will need to pursue other remedies,” he said. “Never should the mistakes of Colgan Air be repeated – and this is an example of that.”
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said the major airlines are clearly not holding their regional partners to the same safety standards.
“Whether that’s false advertising or call it what you will, it’s unacceptable,” he said.
Collins also echoed the inspector general’s concern that many travelers still don’t know when they are booking a flight on a regional airline, despite a 2010 aviation safety law stemming from the Colgan crash that requires travel websites to state that information clearly.
“While some websites display the operating carrier prominently on the itinerary, others name the operating carrier in small footnotes at the end of the itinerary, causing the consumer to have to search for the information,” the inspector general said.
Investigators also studied 16 travel agents to see if they were clearly stating which airlines are operating particular flights and found that 14 of them were not doing so.
Despite the inspector general’s concerns, a spokesman for Airlines for America, a lobbying group for the airline industry, dismissed the safety issues that investigators raised.
“Regional carriers that provide commercial service for our members must meet FAA standards and our members’ high safety standards as well,” said airline industry spokeswoman Victoria Day. “The system is incredibly safe.”