By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009; A02
Executives of Colgan Air struggled to defend the Manassas-based airline yesterday as details emerged about the low pay of its pilots, their long commutes and the need of some to hold second jobs.
Colgan faced questions from the National Transportation Safety Board about its pilots on the second day of public hearings into the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which killed all 49 people on board and one on the ground near Buffalo on Feb. 12. It was the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years.
Under questioning from the board, Mary Colgan Finnigan, Colgan's vice president for administration, confirmed that Rebecca Shaw, co-pilot of the fatal flight, drew an annual salary of about $16,200. The board also said that Shaw once held a second job in a coffee shop while working as a pilot for the airline in Norfolk.
Asked whether Colgan expected Shaw to live in the expensive New York area, near her base in Newark, Finnegan responded: "Pilots are told what the pay scales are. Our pay scales are within the industry standard."
Later, asked whether Colgan made cost-of-living adjustments to assist employees in expensive areas, Harry Mitchel, Colgan's vice president of flight operations, said no program existed for pilots. But, he added, Colgan had such a policy for managers.
The testimony offered a rare, behind-the-scenes look into the regional airline world, which has grown as major airlines contract out service to small cities. Colgan, which is a unit of Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines, was operating the Buffalo flight as a regional partner of Continental Airlines.
According to the Regional Airline Association, 74 percent of the nation's 640 airports with scheduled airline service are served only by regional airlines. There are 70 regional airlines in the United States. Pilot jobs at the airlines are often considered entry-level jobs in the industry. Mitchel acknowledged that Colgan jobs were a "stepping stone" to higher-paying positions at bigger airlines.
Pilots who work for major carriers flying large jet planes earn about $125,000 a year on average. Colgan, which has about 430 pilots, said the average salary is $67,000 for the captain of one of its Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 planes, the turboprop jet involved in the Buffalo crash. The average pay for a co-pilot is $24,000.
The safety board also delved into the commutes of regional airline pilots. According to the NTSB, 93 of Colgan's 137 Newark-based pilots identified themselves as commuters, including 49 who commute more than 400 miles and 29 who live more than 1,000 miles away.
Both pilots in the crash were based at Colgan's Newark office but lived elsewhere. Often, pilots commute by using privileges afforded to them by informal agreements among airlines that allow nonworking pilots to sit in a crew-only jump seat, or an open seat, at little or no cost.
Shaw, 24, had a cross-country commute. She and her husband lived with her parents in Seattle. The day before the accident, she left Seattle on an overnight FedEx flight. She arrived in Newark at 6:30 a.m. after a changeover in Memphis. The board has said Shaw sent numerous text messages through the day, an indication that she wasn't getting adequate rest. After a delay because of wind, the flight left for Buffalo at 9:18 p.m.
Marvin Renslow, 47, arrived in Newark from Tampa three days before the flight. He was observed sleeping in the airline's crew lounge, a practice forbidden by the airline, according to the NTSB.
The board has said it has found no evidence that either had accommodations in Newark.
Kathryn O. Higgins, an NTSB board member, called the long-distance commuting, crew-room sleeping and other fatigue-related factors "a recipe for an accident and that's what we have here."
She continued, "Where does that all come together for somebody to say, 'Wait a minute. What is going on here?' "
Colgan officials said the airline has made a number of policy improvements, including strengthening one that limits the pairing of inexperienced pilots in the cockpit. Colgan is in discussions with its pilots union on flight and duty time rules and commuting policies.