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Senators Question Airline Executives About Pilots' Living Conditions

The nation's pilots, strapped-for-cash in a bargain-driven industry, often find themselves bunking with 20 or more co-workers in crash houses - dorm-like alternatives to expensive hotel rooms. They're a solution to underfunding in the airline industry which, some say, could be jeopardizing flight safety.

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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

A Senate aviation panel on Thursday questioned executives from Continental Airlines and Colgan Air about the living conditions of pilots, including what one senator described as food-stamp-level pay and the controversial industry housing known as crash pads.

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Both airlines are under intense scrutiny by Congress for safety practices after Continental Flight 3407 crashed Feb. 12 in Buffalo, killing 50. Colgan, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines, provided the flight crew and the aircraft under a contract with Continental.

The accident has drawn attention to regional pilots' $20,000 annual starting salaries, work rules, training, commuting habits and level of fatigue, and the impact of economic pressures on flight safety.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on aviation, called the hearing, the panel's third on regional airline safety issues this year.

Responding to a question about pay practices, Phil Trenary, Pinnacle's president and chief executive, said regional pilot pay is "very much the same" as what it was 10 or 20 years ago.

He added, "I urge you please do not ever equate professionalism and competence with pay. . . . Some make over $100,000, some make less than that. They are all professionals."

Trenary added that compensation is based on what other regional airlines pay and is negotiated with airline unions.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said the pay level for regional pilots means that some could "put their family on food stamps." Throughout the hearing, Dorgan said he was troubled that larger carriers such as Continental might not play enough of a role in ensuring that their regional partners maintain high safety standards.

"My question is, if the network carrier decides to put their colors and their brand and their logo on the fuselage, what is their responsibility?" he asked.

Other industry witnesses at the hearing included Don Gunther, vice president of safety at Continental; Peter M. Bowler, president and chief executive of American Eagle Airlines; and Steve Dickson, senior vice president of flight operations at Delta Air Lines.

The executives said the responsibility to regulate regional air carrier safety should remain with the Federal Aviation Administration. Otherwise, they said, regional carriers with contracts from multiple airlines could face different requirements from each airline. They said they are involved in multiple Federal Aviation Administration safety programs.

The Washington Post published an article Tuesday that described how some regional pilots share crash pads near their duty stations to save money and have a place to rest between flights. Some have complained that they cannot afford to move their families to live near the hub airports where they work. Asked by Dorgan about the practice, the airline executives repeatedly said that where pilots live is their own "lifestyle decision."

Members of families who lost loved ones on the flight said they were unimpressed by the performance of executives at the hearings. "The fact that majors don't inspect regional airlines is so unbelievable to me," said Kenneth Mellett of McLean, whose 34-year-old son, Coleman T. Mellett, died in the crash. "There seems to be truly an indifference to commuting, to pay, to fatigue."

Regional airlines account for about half of U.S. flights, but about 90 percent of passengers traveling on regional airline flights purchase their tickets from a major carrier. The larger airlines handle flight scheduling, fares and customer-service standards.

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