Is it Safe to Fly on Regional Airlines?

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There are three types of airplane passengers: the happy vacationers who keep their faces glued to the window, the bored business travelers who just wish planes would still serve food, and the unlucky passengers who suffer from an acute fear of flying.  The latter group is often a target for playful teasing, and people are quick to mention that you’re thousands of times more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash.  But while the aviation industry has a reputation for statistical safety, horrible accidents can and do occur — and many of them affect small regional carriers.  Are regional airlines putting their passengers at risk of injury and death?

takeoff plane in airport

Safety Regulations Under the FAA

Food and drug safety is regulated by the FDA.  American flight safety is also overseen by a regulatory agency: the FAA, or Federal Aviation Administration.  The FAA is responsible for handling the guidelines pertaining to all things flight, from airport construction to air traffic control, to safety rules and recommendations.

Technically speaking, regional airlines and major international carriers alike are both bound to Part 121 of the FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulations.  Furthermore, all pilots must demonstrate proficiency by passing rigorous training programs and regular exams.

But it isn’t a question of whether or not rules are in place; it’s a question of rules being followed. When budgets are tight, corners are cut — and compared to juggernauts like Delta and United Airlines, regional airlines have notoriously shallow pockets.

Colgan Air Flight 3407 Kills 50

Colgan Air Flight 3407 departed from Newark, New Jersey on the evening of February 12, 2009. Under the control of Captain Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Lynne Shaw, Flight 3407 was scheduled to touch down in Buffalo later that evening.  But 3407 would never make it to the runway.

At approximately 10:20 P.M., the Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 stalled, lost lift beneath its wings, and crashed into a residential home in the small town of  Clarence Center, New York.  The crash killed all 45 passengers, both pilots, both flight attendants, and one person on the ground, bringing the final death toll to 50.  At the time of this writing, Flight  3407 remains America’s most recent fatal crash to date.

Plane Crash

Tight Budgets and Cut Corners

It was later determined by the NTSB that the cause of the crash was a pilot error — yet the errors can be traced back to Colgan Air’s tight budget.

Renslow and Shaw were both intensely sleep-deprived at the time of the accident.  47-year-old Renslow had commuted to Newark from his home base in Florida, while 24-year-old Shaw had come all the way from Seattle.  If the pilots had received better incomes, they may have been able to front the cost of a hotel — but First Officer Shaw was paid only $16,000 per year.

After long, weary hours of travel, the pilots arrived in Newark to embark on yet another flight — this time, at the controls.

Sleep deprivation was only one of the many broken links in the system.  Despite the pilot training regulations “enforced” by the FAA, Captain Renslow had already failed five performance tests prior to the accident.  Nonetheless, Colgan VP Harry Mitchell described Renslow as “fully qualified.”

When asked about the accident, former NYC Mayor Bloomberg stated, “I wouldn’t have flown with either one of them.  One was very inexperienced and overtired and a novice and the other had flunked tests repeatedly, apparently.  I would not have wanted them at the controls.”

According to NTSB examiner Kitty Higgins, “I think it’s a recipe for an accident and that’s what we have here.  “Fatigue has been compared to driving drunk. It has the same effect on an individual as alcohol.”

Regional Passenger Airplane

The Codeshare Deception Hides Carriers and Shifts Liability

Had passengers known, they may have agreed with Bloomberg.  But Colgan Air riders had no way of knowing that they were in the hands a regional carrier, much less the hands of fatigued, inexperienced pilots.

Colgan Air flew for Continental, US Airways, and United Airlines.  When passengers purchase and receive their tickets, those were the names they saw — not the name Colgan Air.  Travelers who bought tickets to the ill-fated Flight 3407 had no way of knowing.

Scott Maurer lost his daughter Lorin that February night.  “She believed she had Continental pilots and Continental safety and Continental service,” says Maurer, “but, you know, we know different today.”

When Lorin and the other 44 passengers looked out over the tarmac, they would have seen nothing to warn them there, either.  Flight 3407 was painted in the Continental colors, and even featured the Continental logo.

Not only does codeshare make regional carriers look like major airlines — it also shifts legal liability, heaping it liberally onto the regional carrier and isolating the major.  According to the terms of Colgan’s agreement, ”  [Colgan] employees, agents and independent contractors… for all purposes, under no circumstances shall be deemed to be employees, agents or independent contractors of US Airways.”

According to NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, “Codesharing is a significant issue and something we believe is worthy of examination — from a safety perspective — as it relates to the overall commercial passenger system.”

Colgan Air was based in Virginia, which sets a cap on punitive damages.  But in the legal aftermath of the crash, U.S. District Judge William Skretny ruled to apply the laws of crash site New York state, which does not cap damages.  A total of 56 lawsuits were filed, with at least 12 settled out of court to date.

Colgan Air made its final flight on September 5, 2012.

The past six fatal crashes in the United States have all involved regional carriers — which constitute more than half of America’s domestic flights today.

If you or someone you love was hurt in a plane crash, or if a member of your family was lost to wrongful death, the aviation accident lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm may be able to help you obtain compensation. To arrange for a free and confidential case evaluation, or if you simply have questions, call our law offices at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online today.

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