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'Flying Cheap': Buckle up, indeed

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Anyone who regularly travels to the less glamorous American cities knows what happens after a layover in the hub: Your ticket may say Delta or United or Continental, but that's not exactly true now, is it? For the last leg, to, say, Wichita, you're flying Colgan, Pinnacle -- who? Hunh?

Buckle up and enjoy a renewed sense of doom from watching -- what else? -- the always grim but journalistically committed "Frontline." In Tuesday night's installment, "Flying Cheap," producer Rick Young and aviation correspondent Miles O'Brien examine the unsavory business practices and regulation-skirting circumstances that may have led to the crash a year ago of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo, which killed 50 people. The flying had been outsourced to Manassas-based Colgan Air. (Results of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation last week blamed pilot error in the crash.)

"Frontline" almost never fails to make its case, but it seems fairly easy to make here, through interviews with former pilots, Federal Aviation Administration investigators and grieving relatives of those who died on Flight 3407. Cockpit transcripts reveal two underpaid, unexperienced pilots yawning and complaining about their grueling commutes. They lost control of their plane just a month after the nation had been celebrating the cool, experienced reserve shown by Chesley Sullenberger, who successfully landed his disabled US Airways jetliner in the Hudson River with no casualties. The difference? A captain like Sully is expensive.

That cheap ticket you found online is the byproduct of deregulation in the extreme, which allows major carriers to transfer to smaller carriers the high-cost (and all liabilities) of what once might have been a costlier, premium flight. According to "Frontline," half of all domestic flights are now handled by smaller carriers, no matter what the brand-name logo on the plane's tail might suggest. And, as it happens, the last six fatal crashes in the United States involved commuter flights.

For these carriers to turn a profit, "Frontline" reports, rookie pilots are pushed into the captain's (or first officer's) seats, and poorly paid. Although this isn't exactly news, "Flying Cheap's" most fascinating moments are when the cameras accompany an unidentified group of pilots into their "crash pad" -- a two-bedroom, airport-proximate apartment in an unnamed Northeastern city where as many as a dozen pilots split the rent. Forced to commute cross-country and then fly, some earn as little as $16,000 a year to start.

"Flying Cheap" is full of common sense and outrage -- and, of course, requisite cost-cutting bad guys. A regional airline industry rep, for example, wants us to believe that the solution to overly tired, underpaid pilots is as simple as a $50 motel room in Newark.

"Frontline" finds considerable fault with federal oversight, unsheathing the highlighter on the usual reams of reports. But it seems like there's another, less examined culprit here -- the American consumer, who has come to expect the best of service but the lowest of fares. That would be the business people jetting off to can't-miss meetings and conferences, as well as the obsessed grandparents who need to be present for every toddler's birthday. We are a nation addicted to cheap flying.

So the lower altitudes, the turbulence, the pilots dozing at the controls of twin props? That antsy, grip-the-armrest feeling? Maybe you're getting exactly what you've paid for.

Frontline: Flying Cheap, (one hour) airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on WETA.


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