Pilots risk all for long hours, low pay

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: If you fly Continental Connection or United Express, chances are it's not Continental or United flying your plane. It may well be a regional carrier like Colgan Air. Colgan operated the Continental flight that crashed a year ago in Buffalo and killed 50 people. Tonight, the TV news magazine Frontline reports the pilots who fly regional routes are often underpaid and overworked -- which can be a deadly combination. Here's reporter Miles O'Brien.


Miles O'Brien: Regional airlines like Colgan have been involved in every one of the last six fatal commercial airline accidents in the U.S.

Corey Heiser used to fly for Colgan. He says regional pilots work long hours for low pay.

Corey Heiser: My first year was . . . I made a little over $22,000. Gross.

The Federal Aviation Administration says airline pilots can't fly more than eight hours a day. That's to make sure pilots don't' get tired and make mistakes in the air. But FAA work rules allow pilots to be on duty for up to 16 hours a day, and Colgan pilots only get paid for the hours they fly.

Heiser: We are only paid when the door's closed and the engines are running. We may be on duty for 80 hours a week and get paid for 20 of it -- if we're lucky.

For many regional airlines like Colgan, their pay from the majors is based not on the number of passengers they carry, but on the number of flights they complete.

Clay Foushee is a congressional investigator and former airline executive. He says this pay scheme could undermine safety.

Clay Foushee Because if you have cancellation or you deviate due to weather, are they actually gonna get paid for flying? Or are we incentifying regional carriers to actually complete segments when it may not be safe to do so?

The industry group representing these airlines says that would never happen.

Roger Cohen is president of the Regional Airlines Association. He says profit never trumps safety.

Roger Cohen: Safety is the number one priority, and there is no airline, no matter what the business arrangement, that would ever operate any aircraft at any time and risk the safety of the passengers and crew.

But Corey Heiser and other Colgan Air pilot say safety sometimes took a backseat to the bottom line at Colgan.

Heiser: The saying around the company was always "Move the rig." And that just kinda told me that they were willing to kind of push the bounds.

O'Brien: Why were they pushin'?

Heiser: Cause if we didn't move those airplanes they didn't make any money.

In Coco Beach, Fla., I'm Miles O'Brien for Marketplace.

Radke: And you can find out more tonight "Frontline," which airs on most PBS station at 9 p.m.

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