Stonewalling on safety?

Did a regional airline stonewall federal investigators who were trying to determine if the pilot of a doomed flight was qualified to fly?

The Continental Express flight that crashed on approach to Buffalo in 2009, was actually a Colgan Air flight, owned by Pinnacle Airlines (the same airline that has since purchased Mesaba Airlines and closed the headquarters in Eagan). The probe into the crash revealed the pilot probably helped the airplane spin into the ground by pulling up on the flight controls when he should have been pushing.

A lawsuit filed by some of the families of the 50 people who died, however, uncovered e-mails which confirm that the airline had some concerns about the flying abilities of 37-year-old Marvin Renslow, the pilot.

Like this one (click for larger image. You can find more emails here h/t: WGRZ):


The NTSB wants those e-mails. Today, NTSB chair Deborah Hersman criticized Pinnacle for withholding the e-mails during the Board’s investigation:

Two weeks ago, we were disappointed to learn of internal documents released by Pinnacle Airlines Corp., parent company of Colgan Air, that were not provided to the NTSB during the course of our investigation into the February 12, 2009, crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407. The NTSB investigation began immediately after the crash and concluded with a public meeting on February 2, 2010.

Today, in a letter to Pinnacle Airlines Corp., the NTSB requested that the company make available any and all information regarding the training and technical qualifications of the Captain and First Officer on-board Flight 3407.

While the content of the newly released email exchanges appears to be consistent with information our investigators learned through other means during the course of the investigation, it is critical that the factual record of this accident be complete. The previously undisclosed documents do not appear to give reason for reconsideration of the NTSB’s final report and probable cause determination.

There’s a bigger story here, aviation writer Christine Negroni says: the lack of safety of regional airlines:

This is just a few months after the hearing into the Colgan crash where executives of Colgan insisted safety was their highest priority. The same airline who’s safety director admitted during the hearing that he had never heard of James Reason, the grand-daddy of human factors and a legend among safety specialists.

Doing the rounds of the television networks after the emails went viral this week, attorney Russ told one interviewer, “Colgan sacrificed safety for profit.” He’s giving the airline credit by assuming it had safety practices to sacrifice.

I wrote just some of a blizzard of articles that included the excellent Frontline report Flying Cheap, and a lengthy story in the Wall Street Journal. All delved into the many factors making regional airline operations so unsafe. (see my list of accidents since 2000 below) But the focus has narrowed to efforts to require minimum hours for pilots. I’ve not seen any indication that regional airlines and their relationship to large airlines has fundamentally changed.

One thing that clearly has not changed is the actions of big carriers to minimize the telltale signs that the airplane you might be getting on isn’t flown by the airline you think.

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