Small Carriers Running Domestic Flights Using Major Airline Names, But Minus The Name Brand Safety

In Feb 2009, Continental flight 3407 crashed shortly after takeoff before landing, killing 50 people. Investigators found that the pilot had had less than half the flying time required by the major carriers, and that he had failed five flight performance tests in his career. Though the tail, uniforms and ticket said “Continental,” the flight was actually run by a smaller regional carrier, “Colgan Air.”

A PBS Frontline Investigation found that these smaller carriers can have troubling safety records, exploitative employment practices, and a “move the rig” culture that overlooks established safety protocol in pursuit of profits. Just over half of domestic flights today are not operated by major airlines, but by these smaller outfits.

And as if that wasn’t enough, regional airlines are also riddled with delays. Delta’s wholly owned subsidiary airline “Comair” had the highest percentages of regularly scheduled flights with tarmac delays of 2 hours or more, according to a recent Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report.

Flying Cheap [FRONTLINE]
You’re Most Likely To Get Stranded On The Tarmac With Delta And United [Consumerist]
“Regional” Pilots Make Little Money, Live In One Bedrooms With 9 Other People [Consumerist]


Edit Your Comment

  1. notanignoramus says:

    Umm this has been true for almost as long as I have been alive… More than 20 and probably closer to 30 years… Deregulation helped these small carriers get their niche in the market, and they are essentially the major airlines’ way of outsourcing less profitable routes.

    • Jevia says:

      Yay, another victory for deregulation.

      • nova3930 says:

        Except the deregulation from 30 years ago had absolutely nothing to do with rescinding safety regulations. Deregulation is the entire reason you have low cost carriers like Southwest and decreases in fare costs that actually allow the majority of people the ability to afford air travel which was not the case in the 60s and 70s.

        The FAA still has enormous regulatory power over safety issues in the airline industry. If the FAA has been allowing these smaller airlines to operate without oversight, then responsibility lies just as much with them for not doing their legally mandated job….

        • JustLurking says:

          I totally agree. And while we may lament the loss of the glamour of air travel “the way it once was,” deregulation has definitely brought the price down for many travelers.

  2. Jdavis says:

    This was aired almost a year ago if memory serves correctly.

  3. D in Buffalo says:

    As an FYI, the Flight 3407 went down on its approach to Buffalo, not shortly after takeoff.

    • cromartie says:

      I’ll second this. The copy in the lede is incorrect. This flight crashed on approach.

    • mobiuschic42 says:

      Yeah…I’m flying to Buffalo tonight, so it was really nice to be reminded of this! Oh, and I’m going to a wedding for my cousin – her aunt on the other side of her family lived next door to where the plane crashed in Clarence. :(

  4. just_me says:

    Domestic Fights.

    I would imagine if they are running fights their Flights might be at risk :)

  5. Griking says:

    I really don’t care what logo they wear on their shirts. Either the pilot is qualified to fly or he isn’t. If he’s not qualified then he shouldn’t be in any plane.

  6. JMH says:

    I flew that same Newark-Buffalo Colgan flight a couple of months after it crashed. A bit nerve-wracking, but I guess there’s no time safer than when they’re being extra-special careful right after an accident.

    • zeiche says:

      21 December 1999; Cubana DC10-30; Flight 1216; Guatemala City, Guatemala
      25 December 1999; Cubana Yak42; near Valencia, Venezuela

      Are you sure about your theory? A crash late December didn’t stop Cubana from crashing again on Christmas Day.

  7. Salty Johnson says:

    Luckily you can tell the difference between the flights run by smaller regional airlines and the flights actually run by the name they’re flying under because the smaller airlines’ flights are usually marketed under names like “Express”. United Express is powered by smaller airlines. When going on trips to South Dakota I usually fly United from SFO to Denver and then get on a United Express prop job or CRJ flown by Mesa Airlines or SkyWest. The Continental flight cited in the story was actually a “Continental Connection” flight.

    Here’s a Wikipedia page about United Express and its “actual” operators:

  8. MrEvil says:

    I guess one more reason to fly Southwest? Granted Southwest doesn’t go quite as many places as these third parties do, I’d much rather put my trust in an airline that doesn’t outsource routes.

    • reimero says:

      Flying Southwest (or JetBlue) is great, as long as they service your airport (or one reasonably close by.) Those of us not near major metropolitan areas are either stuck with one of the larger carriers or with a rather long (and expensive) commute to a major metropolitan area.

      • pecan 3.14159265 says:

        Heck, I’m in DC and I would LOVE for Southwest and JetBlue to fly out of DCA. Getting to Dulles is a pain.

      • HogwartsProfessor says:

        I would LOVE if Southwest came here. It’s a three-hour drive to either St. Louis or KC to pick it up there. Not fun and St. Louis airport sucks! Plus I don’t want to drive home that far when I get back and I’m tired.

        They recently built a new airport here with room for expansion, so we can hope.

  9. pridkett says:

    When you book your ticket, it’s supposed to say who you’re actually booking through. For example, booking a flight on Delta from LGA to ORD says that the flight is actually operated by Shuttle America, likewise HPN to DTW says Mesaba. PIT to EWR on Continental usually says ExpressJet. This isn’t rocket science, it says right when you’re booking and also on the tickets/boarding passes.

    Also, the Frontline episode aired sometime last year and the flight was on approach to Buffalo.

  10. NumberSix says:

    Domestic Fights? What now we have to go to thunder dome before we can board?

  11. dwtomek says:

    Looks like some people are missing the point of the article. It isn’t to point out that regional flights are handled by regional carriers. It’s to highlight the that regional carriers are operating under looser ideas of safety protocol.

  12. fs2k2isfun says:

    Old news…

  13. WorkingDad says:

    I find myself in the ranks of the “old news” commenters.

    What happened to the promise to inform us about “issues of the day”?

  14. Tim says:

    I’m not necessarily trying to advocate for the airlines here, but regional airlines and their contracts with the major airlines are what allows relatively cheap flying. And I’d say at least half of the airports in this country only have commercial service because of regional airlines.

    The worst part is that the Frontline story doesn’t propose a solution to the problem.

  15. James says:

    Didn’t this air over a year ago? I watched it last spring via their website.. While traveling.

  16. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    For those who like checking out what the NTSB investigations say/determine, you can check month by month and year by year here:

  17. Bob Lu says:

    Hmm I am having some problem playing the embedded video so can someone tell me is there anything new since the “Regional” Pilots Make Little Money……” post?

  18. Big Mama Pain says:

    Hey, you get what you pay for. Our demands for ever increasing cheap flights are what is causing these cutbacks in safety and experience. You think a highly experienced pilot would fly a pissant puddle jumper for a secondary carrier?

    And the “you get what you pay for” in no way implies that I think the people on that flight deserved to die or something. I actually didn’t realize that Continental outsources a lot of its routes until I found myself getting on one of these little planes-now I spring for direct flights. I don’t care how far I have to drive to and from the airports.

  19. NeverLetMeDown says:

    Flying with a regional carrier is still radically safer than driving.

  20. Urgleglurk says:

    Notanignoramus is correct. It’s gotten worse in recent years, Many of these small carriers were around under different names in the 1970’s. They were bought up or contracted into the various trunk carrier’s programs like United Express, Delta Connection, Northwest Airlink, etc.
    The thing is, they are following the laws. They are (at least) meeting the minimums for flight time and training. I this is to change, the CFR’s covering the regional airlines need to be changed.

  21. zeiche says:

    A ticket purchased for a Continental flight is a Continental flight regardless of the logo on the plane. If that plane crashes and there is even a single Continental passenger aboard, it counts against them as much as the regional carrier, in this case Colgan air. If a major carrier put their faith and trust into a regional carrier, then their safety record will reflect that fact. See more at .

  22. AllanG54 says:

    Look, major airlines have accidents too. Trust me, the pilot doesn’t want to crash because his life is on the line as well as yours. But, unfortunately they all have to start somewhere. If you remember the Air Florida accident back around 1982 when the plane crashed into the Potomac that was a major regional airline but again, the pilots had very little experience with adverse weather conditions.