Shocking Media Reports about Commuter Airline Safety


UPDATE – May 12 – Full 3407 Buffalo FAA Transcript released – here.

In light of last weeks tragic crash of a Continental Connection Dash 8 near Buffalo, I decided to tackle the issue of  commuter airline safety. First, the good news:

  • The planes themselves have good safety records. They may be claustrophobic and bounce around a lot, but they are as safe as the big (Bar Refaeli painted) jets. This was the first crash of a Dash 8.
  • Turboprop planes are a key part of the hub and spoke model of modern air travel and are held to the same high standards as the big jets.

That’s about all I could say on the positive side. The fact is that there have been 7 fatal crashes of incidents involving US commuter airlines in this decade, alone. Fasten your seat belts and read:

  • The big airlines kind of outsource these flights to companies that may not live up to the reputation of the Delta’s, American’s, etc. of the industry. Pinnacle Airlines crashed 3 turboprops since 2000, including Continental Connection Flight 3407 .  You might not be aware that these brand names are often Pinnacle Airlines, or its subsidiaries (including Colgan Air)  flights:
    • Northwest Airlink
    • Delta Connection
    • Continental Connection
    • US Airways Express
    • American Connection
  • The pilots may not be as good in a field where experience and disciple count:
    • They may be inexperienced – Capt. Marvin D. Renslow had only 110 hours flying time on the Dash 8.
    • They may be overworked –   In his 3 1/2 years at Colgan, Capt. Renslow flew the maximum number of hours allowed.
    • They seem to be underpaid –  The New York Post reported that Capt. Renslow was moonlighting as a part-time produce stocker at a Tampa, Florida market.
    • They are often entry-level.  First officer Rebbecca Shaw, the more experienced (on Dash-8) pilot in the cockpit,  graduated high school in 2002. Sully, by comparison, has 40 years of experience and was a US Air Force Academy graduate and top flier in his class. He landed a fully loaded Airbus A320 in the Hudson River.
    • Have you heard about  Captain Jesse Rhodes and First Officer Peter Cesarz?  –  pilots of Pinnacle Airlines flight 3701, operating as Northwest Airlink , who “decided to have a little fun” and see how high their plane could go. They did. At 41,000 feet the engines flamed-out. Then they lied to air traffic controllers trying to find them a place to land. They crashed and died. No one else was on the plane.
  • The airline whose name is painted on the plane accepts only limited responsibility. Continental says that “it left safety oversight to the F.A.A”.  And the F.A.A. sited Colgan Air six times in as many years for maintenance or operational violations. So much for Continental’s “due diligence”

I would bet that at least some of that was surprising and even troubling.


With over 20% of all passenger boardings on commuter planes and with some regional airports  served only by commuters, TLV2JFK readers end up on these flights from time to time. Since each and every reader of this blog is dear to us – consider avoiding these airlines, if possible. Besides not flying to hick towns, we suggest looking carefully at the flight you are booking.

For the major airlines, commuter flights are generally those with high numbers, but not always. High numbers can also mean codeshares or special flights. Here is the best list of flights that are commuter flights that I could come up with:

United – 2830 – 3899, 5280 – 8099

Delta – 4365 – 6949, 7755 – 7829

Continental – 1200 – 1299, 2000 – 3159, 3180 – 4049, 4750 – 5993, 7425 – 8059, 8635 – 8960, 9491 – 9595 (whew!)

Finally, I apologize in advance if I hurt a billion dollar industry with my very limited knowledge of aviation. And I did not mean any disrespect for the dead. All I did was read a few newspaper articles, and flyertalk. And share my feelings.

And, if anyone knows why Continental flights 4950 – 4999 are reserved for SNCF French Rail, please do let me know!

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12 Responses

  1. 3701 was not a Continental flight.

  2. Good post. But what am I to do if I need to get to these god forsaken places. I expect this blog to give me solutions not just scare the bejeebers out of me.

  3. I believe American Eagle is a fully owned subsidiary of American Airlines. So, much of what you say above might not apply to them.

  4. This post is crap. Sorry, but all the numbers you’ve cited above don’t lead to the conclusion that the commuter carriers are dangerous. Are there more incidents? Yes. Does that mean you’re going to die because you fly on one? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

    Pilots must fly planes. That is what they do. How are they supposed to gain experience flying if they aren’t allowed to operate commercial aircraft? They put in a TON of time in simulators, but they also have to fly in real life and not every pilot can be born with a few thousand hours of experience in them. How else are we supposed to actually get pilots into the industry with years of experience?

    I also don’t buy that someone working the maximum amount of time is inherently dangerous. Care to justify that assertion?

    Finally, there have been several fatal crashes of 737s and A320s this decade, too. Why no fearmongering about those aircraft types??

    Oh, and since you asked, the CO codeshare “flights” on SNCF are for cooperative service from CDG to other cities in France operated via train rather than plane. They have a similar agreement with Amtrak out of EWR.

  5. Wandering Aramean –

    I like your blog – mileage runs, alliances, codeshares, inside-industry views and all.

    To appreciate my post you need to understand that the TLV2JFK community is very different than most of the aviation / frequent flyer sites. We fly very often between offices in Tel Aviv, New York and the Bay Area. We bump into eachother on Sunday and Fridays at the airport and then on Saturday at the country club or the synagogue. We spend $10,000 on airfare for our summer trip to the States. But my readers don’t know as much about aviation as your community does.

    My posts serves only to make relevant airline developments available, in laymans terms, to my readers. I prefer to discuss deals, frequent flyer issues, etc. BUT, when tragedy hits – my readers look to me for facts.

    And that what I provided – facts. As reported by New York Times, Post and Flyertalk. These were new to my readers – CEO’s, bankers, lawyers, doctors, who can certainly make their own decisions.

    If you look at the news media you will find much more biased and opinionated coverage than TLV2JFK.

    If you are still annoyed – feel free to write a post about me on your blog.

  6. Stumbled upon your website. Love your insight. Glad you’re sharing your experience with the world. We just started a blog 3 months ago. Come visit and give us some feedback:

  7. The airlines need to be more selective and have
    higher standards.

  8. I came across your post by accident while searching for something else, but I need to respond as a professional airline pilot for a commuter airline.

    I find a quote of yours interesting: “If you look at the news media you will find much more biased and opinionated coverage than TLV2JFK”. You stated yourself that “all [you] did was read a few newspaper articles, and flyertalk and share [your] FEELINGS”. Then you have the audacity to say you “prefer to discuss deals, frequent flyer issues, etc. but, when tragedy hits – [your] readers look to [you] for FACTS”. First, newspaper articles ARE “news media” and not really a reliable single source for factual information. Second, you actually used as a source? That is nothing more than a blog site for the OPINIONS and rants of frequent flyers.

    I have been an airline pilot for a commuter airline for 8 years and have several thousand hours of flight time, so I can trump your misguided opinions with factual insider information.

    First of all, Captain Marvin Renslow was NOT inexperienced. He had several thousand hours of flight time, which included thousands of hours of pilot-in-command time. He only had 110 hours in type. This is very common when a pilot transfers to a new airplane as his/her seniority allows (for higher pay). Pilots change equipment all the time. In fact, this happens very frequently at the “big airlines” as you call them, since they often operate a more diverse fleet and employ larger pilot groups. The fact that Captain Renslow only had 110 hours in the Q400 means nothing with regard to his experience. He may have screwed up, and frankly from what I have read, it appears that he did. BUT do not think for a second that the guy was inexperienced.

    Second, your argument that he was “overworked” because he worked the maximum number of hours allowed is ridiculous. The maximum number of hours allowed in a YEAR is 1000 hours of flight time. I fly between 950 and 1000 hours a year consistently and I average 15 to 18 days off per month. Oh, and I also get about 6 weeks of vacation every year… Flying the maximum number of hours allowed does NOT equate to being overworked.

    Third, your OPINION that commuter pilots to not take their job as seriously is ludicrous. You are making a blanket statement about several thousand commuter pilots based on the actions of a few idiots. As in the article, you refer to TWO. What a joke. You have NO idea how seriously we take our jobs. NONE. By the way, the crew you refer to was not flying a Continental flight. They were a Pinnacle Airlines crew, operating as Northwest Airlink (callsign “Flagship”). Pinnacle does not even operate under the Continental banner. EVER.

    Fourth, there were only THREE fatal accidents involving commuter planes in the United States in roughly the last decade- Air Midwest in CLT, Comair in LEX, and Colgan in BUF. During the same period, there were EIGHT fatal accidents in the United States (aside from 9/11 terrorist attacks) involving mainline carriers, or the “big planes” as you refer to them: Alaska Airlines in LAX, American in LIT, American from JFK, Continental in DEN, Delta in PNS, ValueJet in MIA, Southwest in MDW, and TWA from JFK. Keep in mind that when you see a report of a fatal accident it is not always what it seems. For instance, there are several accident reports, typically with 1 fatality, that represent someone on the ground being killed from walking into a propeller for instance. Per the FAA, these are reported as fatal accidents. Do a little research based on FACTS and you will see that you are wrong.

    Finally, your assertion that commuter pilots are typicially “not as good in a field where experience and disciple count” could not be further from the truth. Let me give you some facts to back this up:

    **Commuter pilots consistently fly between 4-8 legs per day, vs pilots of larger aircraft that might fly 4 legs at most in a day, meaning more takeoff and landing experience… roughly 80-90% of all accidents occur during takeoff and landing, so keeping these skills sharp is important

    **Commuter pilots fly at lower altitudes where the majority of inclement weather occurs, providing them with more frequent experience navigating through the most challenging flight environment

    **Commuter pilots typically fly less automated airplanes, decreasing reliance on automation and keeping basic flight skills sharp, vs larger more automated aircraft where complacency can be a real problem… especially when automated systems begin to fail and basic navigation by flight instruments is required to complete the flight safely.

    My point is this: your article is complete garbage. You read a couple newspaper articles, read some stuff on some angry frequent flyer’s blog, and then put together a blog that LOOKS great, but in all reality is nothing more than nicely formatted CRAP. It scares me to think that ANYONE “looks to [you] for facts”. You should stick to deals and frequent flyer issues, rather than trying to “put into layman’s terms” information that you don’t understand yourself.

  9. Commuter Pilot –

    I appreciate the lengths you went to in order to clarify the picture for my community. Your points are valid and I made some changes, including the title of the post (changing the word “facts” to “media reports”).

    I wish I had the time and knowledge to research and do justice to the issues I cover. But very few bloggers do. We state our opinions and provide sources. The sources are often media and other user generated content sites (like Wikipedia or flyertalk). As opposed to traditional media – we provide a forum for comments on our articles. (I am sure you have read the NYT coverage of flight 3407 – did you bother correcting their errors? and if you did would they publish or respond to your comments?)

    I must disagree with you on two points. Captain Sullenberger III made it very clear to Congress that pilots are “underpaid”. As far as “overworked” – I guess that is my interpretation of the situation when someone is flying the maximum allowed number of hours. If you disagree with that logic then you are saying that no airline pilot in the United States is overworked.

    Finally, members of my community have 1000’s of hours of flight time in the cabin and include highly educated engineers, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and women, etc. – yet are not very well informed on what goes on behind the scenes. We have very limited access to experienced commercial pilots (we do know some F-16 pilots, though) and limited knowledge of how the industry works. I invest energy into my TLV2JFK blog to help point out facts and opinions that my readers would not otherwise find.

    And the whole point of this article was to point out that flying a commuter airline operating under the banner of a mainline carrier is just not the same as flying a mainline carrier. And people are surprised when their Albany to Buffalo flight is not on a 767.

    Your comments will certainly enlighten my readers. If you have the time, I will gladly publish a post from you as a guest blogger entitled “View from the flight deck” in which you can clear up what you feel is misleading information about this issue and other points in any of my 80 blog posts.

  10. I should clarify my point about the “overworked issue”. I was not meaning to imply that commuter pilots OR mainline pilots are never overworked. I was just pointing out that the simple fact that a pilot flies the maximum hours allowed in a year does not, in and of itself, equate to being overworked. Most pilots fly close to the max every year. It is how those hours are spread out. The amount of flight hours we fly has very little to do with whether or not we are overworked. Here is a really simplified example to illustrate my point.

    Pilot “A” flies 1000 hours in a year (the max hrs allowed), but because his airline is very efficient at building trip pairings, he only flies 11 days a month, spends 10 hours on duty each of those days , and flies 8 hours each day (the max per day) and spends 1,320 hours at work each year, and he is home every night because his trips are all day trips. Pilot “A” is based in New York and lives 5 mins from the airport.

    Pilot “B” flies 1000 hours in a year, but her airline scheduling department is terrible at building trip pairings so she flies only 4 hours per day, but is on duty for 14 hours each of those days (completely legal). She does a lot of sitting around the airport in between flights. She flies 22 days per month, is at work 3,696 hours per year, and is in a hotel room approximately 175 of those nights, gone 4 days at a time each time she goes to work. Pilot “B” is based in New York, but lives in San Diego and has to travel standby back and forth to work each time, significantly adding to the amount of time she is away from her home. She has no choice because San Diego closed as a base after she bought her home, her husband has a job that he cannot leave in San Diego, etc…

    My point is that when you read that someone had FLOWN the maximum number of hours in a year, it does not necessarily mean they are overworked. With consistent, efficient schedules, you can fly the max and NOT be overworked. On the other side of the equation you could fly only HALF the max allowed and BE overworked if your airline built schedules that constantly flip-flopped PM to AM start times, built in a ton of airport sit time between flights, worked you for 16 hours every day (which is the max number of hours we can be on duty in a day), and spent over half the year and all holidays/weekends away from friends and family. There are so many factors that go into whether or not we are overworked, but I hope you get the idea.

    As far as our pay, I never argued that point. I absolutely agree that we are underpaid. Considering the education, training, and time required to get into the position AND the responsibilities we have while working…. there is no argument here that we are severely underpaid. BUT that does not mean that we are any less safe or take our jobs any less seriously. We all have A LOT invested into this career by the time we start at our first airline (usually a commuter airline).

    Thank your for making an effort to correct your article. I may very well take you up on that blog posting idea, because we get a bad rep due to common misconceptions about what we do. We have a job that is unlike most jobs out there. It is really more of a lifestyle and people on the outside have a very misconstrued idea of how it all works.

  11. Hope you do write a post. I am trying to get an airline exec to write one also. My readers deserve to hear a different perspective from time to time.

    Thanks for clarifying the “overworked” issue. My assumption is still that a commuter airline will be less accommodating of its pilots than a mainline one in terms of building trip pairings. Also, as you stated, commuter pilots do a whole lot more per flight hour. So, compared to mainline pilots, I am assuming that commuter pilots are more overworked.

    As far as “underpaid” – that really worries me. Underpaid people need to pay their bill and may moonlight. The thought of the pilot in the well pressed uniform on the flight deck stocking produce to make ends meet saddens and terrifies me.

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