Are regional airlines as safe as major airlines?

All U.S. commercial air carriers are subject to the same standards and requirements, and receive exactly the same level of safety oversight. Since 1995, the FAA has imposed one level of safety on the entire air carrier industry. Every regional airline meets and exceeds the federal government’s strict safety standards.

What kind of proactive safety measures do regional airlines have in place?

Regional airlines undergo continual scrutiny and periodic safety audits by the FAA, each of the mainline carriers they serve, the Department of Defense, the International Air Transport Association, and their own internal safety teams. This multi-layered system of safety oversight is designed to proactively identify and manage safety risks, preventing accidents long before they could occur.

For example, regional carriers promote an industry-wide culture of safety by empowering individual employees to identify and report safety concerns. This practice is one of many ways that regional airlines exceed Federal requirements by voluntarily adopting safety assessment programs, including:

In 2009, the regional airline industry participated in a focused FAA inspection of all airlines’ training programs. The FAA determined [PDF] that 99.4% of these programs met or exceeded federal requirements.

Safety is the first responsibility of every regional airline employee. Before every flight, regional airline policies and the FAA require that pilots conduct a thorough safety check of the airplane, inside and out, to ensure that all the equipment and safety systems are operating to the FAA’s and the manufacturers’ specifications. These safety systems include GPS satellite navigation, Traffic Conflict & Alerting Systems (TCAS), and Terrain Awareness & Avoidance Systems (TAWS). As operators of the most advanced fleet of commercial aircraft in the country, regional airlines are often the first to implement these technologies.

How many hours of flying experiences does a pilot need to fly for a regional airplane?

Every commercial airline captain, whether at a regional airline or a major airline, is required by the FAA to have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience and an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. The ATP certificate is the highest level of certification issued by the FAA and the same as that held by every pilot at major carriers.

The FAA also mandates that all first officers must have at least 250 hours of experience and a Commercial Airman certificate. Regional airline pilots often far exceed these Federal requirements—at many regional airlines, the average captain has well over 8,000 hours of flight experience.

What kind of safety training do regional airline pilots get?

In addition to the hours of flying experience required, every airline pilot must successfully complete that airline’s extensive FAA-approved pilot training and testing program before being allowed to fly. All pilot training programs include both classroom training (called “ground school”) and advanced, full-motion flight simulator training. The comprehensive ground school portion of every airline training program includes:

  • Extensive safety practices include fatigue awareness;
  • Aircraft equipment and safety technology systems;
  • Preflight, routine, and emergency flying procedures, including winter weather operations;
  • Cockpit discipline, teamwork and communications requirements known as Crew Resource Management (CRM); and
  • FAA rules and company policies.

The airline flight simulator portion of each airline program includes skill training in the performance of specific flight maneuvers and covers all conditions and situations that could be experienced during routine or emergency flight operations, and includes adverse weather conditions, equipment failures, and unanticipated events such as stalls and wind shear.

On top of this classroom and simulator training, all regional airline pilots are thoroughly trained and tested on the specific type of aircraft and missions that they fly.

Are regional airline pilots tested on their knowledge of safety procedures?

Every commercial airline pilot must successfully pass periodic FAA-required written exams and flight skills tests (called “check rides”). The FAA applies one set of standards to pilot testing, at regional airlines and mainline carriers alike, and for both captains and first officers. Captains and first officers are trained and tested to the standards of the Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, the highest level of certification issued by the FAA.

Pilots must meet all FAA standards on each of their check rides or they cannot fly. The fact is that every pilot flying for any commercial airline has passed every FAA test or they wouldn’t be allowed to fly.

How have regional airlines worked together to improve safety?

The exclusive focus of the RAA Convention in May 2009 was on safety. RAA President Roger Cohen reported that at the Convention, “all day, from early morning to night, our airline presidents engaged in detailed, heartfelt, thoughtful self-assessment of every safety practice, addressing the issues you’ve read all about: training, fatigue, commuting and crew lifestyles, and cockpit professionalism.”

Immediately following the May 2009 Convention, RAA launched its own Strategic Safety Initiative that goes beyond FAA safety requirements. As part of the Initiative, RAA has:

  • Assembled a task force of member airlines’ safety and operations directors to share safety best practices in accordance with guidance provided by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
  • Sponsored an independent Fatigue Study through Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center to determine the impact fatigue and other risk factors have on regional pilot performance.
  • Begun developing an industry-leading Fatigue Awareness Management Program to identify best practices for avoiding, recognizing, and managing fatigue at all commercial airlines.
  • Urged Congress to require the use of cockpit voice recorders for accident prevention, improve check ride tracking and analysis, and conduct random fatigue tests to ensure that pilots are rested before flying.
  • Urged the FAA establish a single national database of commercial pilots’ training and check ride records.

How have regional airlines increased safety measures in the last year?

Regional airlines take a proactive approach to safety. In the last year, regional airlines have worked with employees, safety auditors, and Federal regulators to further enhance flight safety.

Twelve regional airlines are implementing, or have implemented, flight data analysis programs to collect and analyze flight data to improve safety. ExpressJet and Pinnacle airlines are industry leaders in implementing flight data analysis programs approved by the FAA, called Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) programs. Both airlines have had FOQA programs integrated into their operations for several years. ExpressJet analyzes the data from 8,000 flights per month and has over 700,000 flights in its FOQA database. FOQA programs will further add to the multi-layered system of safety oversight regional airlines have in place to proactively identify safety risks.

In addition, more than 25 different regional airlines have implemented FAA-sponsored Aviation Safety Action Programs (ASAP). An ASAP is a program that encourages airline employees to voluntarily report safety issues even though they may involve an alleged violation of FAA Regulations. Regional airlines and mainline carriers have adopted FAA-approved programs like FOQA and ASAP in their collaborative effort to continuously improve safety.

Isn’t pilot pay an issue at regional airlines?

Virtually all regional airline pilots are paid on union-negotiated wage scales. Pilots at the top end of the scale can make as much as $150,000 annually. First officers start at the lower end of the scale but move up as their years of service progress and when they get promoted to captains. Average pay for Captains in the industry is $73,919, while the average pay for a First Officer is $ 32,895.85. However, regardless of where a captain or first officer stands on the pay scale, they are trained to the same standards, they operate under the same regulations, and they are held to one standard of safety by the airline and the FAA.

What are airlines doing to prevent pilots from flying fatigued?

Every airline has a strict policy that says that no pilot should fly fatigued, a policy that is supported and enforced by their unions, the Air Line Pilots Association and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—as well as by the FAA. Any pilot who is too tired to fly a particular trip can rest instead. The airline industry is unique in that on any given day, there are thousands of airline employees standing by as “reserves,” ready to fly on short notice. So there is no need for any pilot to fly when they are tired. This is a key tenet of pilot professionalism and of safety.

ExpressJet explains their fatigue management policy clearly: If a pilot calls in fatigued, they are still paid for the trip. No questions asked. The airline does not penalize a crewmember for a fatigue call.

Furthermore, the regional airline industry is leading the way to better understanding and avoiding fatigue by sponsoring cutting edge scientific fatigue research and by developing an industry leading fatigue training program that will be adopted by all carriers.

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