Problems Persist Year After Buffalo Crash

Firefighters look over the wreckage of Continental flight 3407 which lies amid smoke at the scene after crashing into a suburban Buffalo home and erupting into flames late Thursday Feb. 12, 2009, killing all 48 people aboard and at least one person on the ground, according to authorities. The 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft, operated by Colgan Air, was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to Buffalo Niagara International Airport (AP Photo/Dave Sherman)
AP Photo/Dave Sherman
A year to the day after the Continental Connection crash that killed 50 people in Buffalo, New York, CBS News has found that many concerns about commuter airline safety remain unaddressed.

For example, regional airlines cut their requirements across the board on average for minimum flight hours for pilots from 1,000 in 1998 to 250 in 2008 according to data compiled by aviation career consultant and former pilot Kit Darby. Since the crash in Buffalo, those requirements haven't changed. The FAA minimum requirement still stands at 250 hours.

And CBS News has learned that the minimum flight hours required of new pilots for Comair (a regional airline for Delta) had plunged from 1500 hours in 2004 to 600 in 2006, the same year Comair flight 5191 crashed in Kentucky killing 49 people. The NTSB blamed pilot performance for the crash in Kentucky and pilot training for last year's crash in Buffalo.

Kristin Baur, a spokesperson for Delta Airlines who contracted with Comair says the airline's minimum is now back to 1200. And she says the crew of 5191 had more than 12,000 hours of flight experience between them.

Aviation consultant Darby says the industry slashed requirements for pilots due to a severe pilot shortage and he says the good news is that due to the tight economy, pilots with limited experience are not being hired today. But while he still expects many changes in the regional airline industry in response to the Buffalo crash, he is not surprised that the pace of change is slow, "Any changes happening right away would be unrealistic, there are too many fingers in the pie," he said.

The FAA requirement for commercial pilots is 250 hours which some aviation experts say is too low. Regional pilots take off and land more than major carrier pilots, and they also fly at lower altitudes which is more dangerous.

In a report released last weekthe U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General determined that a year after the Buffalo crash, regulators and the industry have not implemented key safety changes.

The NTSB cited pilot performance or fatigue as potential factors in four of the last six regional airline accidents. But the Transportation Department's Inspector General notes that the last time pilot fatigue regulations were updated was 1985. Other safety concerns that came to light as a result of the Buffalo crash remain unaddressed according to the Inspector General.

In particular, the Colgan Air co-pilot lived across the country from her hub which required her to fly across the country to begin her day. The report notes that despite concerns about long commutes, "the air carriers…do not track this information…as a result the potential safety impact or extensiveness of this issue is unknown."

The IG also raised concerns about the possibility of two poorly performing pilots randomly ending up in the same cockpit, "Three of the five regional airlines we visited did not have an automated tool in their pilot monitoring programs to alert the scheduling department for crew pairings," according to the Inspector General.

Despite concerns about lower salaries for pilots the report notes there has been "no known study" to determine if there is a link between lower salary and safety.

According to airline salary data from aviation career consultant Darby, air cargo airlines typically pay their pilots higher salaries than regional airlines that ferry passengers.