Plane Answers: The Frontline episode regional airlines don’t want you to see

I’ve always been a big fan of PBS’s Frontline. It’s obvious that they study a subject before they report on it. And as any pilot knows, that can be a rarity in the often hyped television coverage of the airline industry.

Frontline has tackled specific airline subjects in the past and I’ve always found them to be accurate and insightful. I’m looking forward to the episode tonight called “Flying Cheap” that may just expose the disparity in pay and working conditions at the regional airlines.

Major airlines have long used separate carriers as a firewall of deniability while playing them off each other to secure the lowest bid. They control the scheduling of these companies, but leave the maintenance and operational responsibility to the regional.

A few carriers, such as Delta and American wholly own and have control over their regionals, but they still contract with other small airlines to some extent.

After the response from last week’s Plane Answers about the NTSB reaction to the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo, it will be interesting to see if this PBS Frontline episode spurs enough public interest to cause some changes. PBS has provided an eleven minute excerpt below of the show that may give you an idea of what direction the program is taking tonight.
From the Frontline press release:

In “Flying Cheap,” FRONTLINE investigates the deadly airline crash of Continental 3407 in Buffalo, NY, and what the crash reveals about dramatic changes in the airline industry. The rise of the regionals and arrival of low-cost carriers have been a huge boon to consumers, and the industry insists that the skies remain safe. But many insiders are worried that now, 30 years after airline deregulation, the aviation system is being stretched beyond its capacity to deliver service that is both cheap and safe.

Frontline examines the rise of low-cost regional carriers-who now account for more than half of all domestic US flights-and asks: Is the aviation system being stretched beyond its capacity to deliver cheap, safe service? Watch on air and online beginning Tuesday, February 9 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

In the eleven minute excerpt from tonights program, there’s a gem of a quote from Roger Cohen of the Regional Airline Association, the group that lobbies on behalf of these smaller carriers involved in code sharing.

When confronted with the low pay and how it represents an untenable economic position for the junior pilots, Roger, who looks like he recently came back from an extended Caribbean vacation, defends regional pilot pay with this:

“I just checked the web this morning-you can get a hotel room near the Newark airport for $50 a night.” He proudly claims.

Roger doesn’t realize that, at $21,000, this would represent between 20% of a line-holder and 50% of a reserve pilot’s potential take-home pay. At these rates, even a crash pad looks too expensive and the crew lounge becomes far more tempting.

I had to run some numbers. On a typical one hour and fifteen minute flight, a Dash 8 burns $2,900 worth of fuel. A copilot in his fifth year at Colgan earns $29 an hour, or $36.25 on that flight. (Source: Maybe it’s time to rethink that pay scale. Management doesn’t realize that if they gave this pilot the tools (and incentive) to fly just 1% more efficiently, they could nearly double that copilot’s salary.

But that just touches on pay. Be sure to watch the excerpt below to catch a VP of operations at a regional that comes up with an innovative way to falsify records in order to get a pilot to fly past his FAA mandated sixteen hour duty day:

While not every regional airline pilot earns these kind of wages or flies with this kind of pressure, tonight’s episode just might highlight a few companies that have been driving the pay and working conditions lower for much of the industry. Every pilot I know will be watching. But maybe passengers should take a look at this, as well.


PBS has posted the entire Frontline episode, “Flying Cheap” online to view here.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr