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Pinnacle aims to ease pilot error policy
Bankrupt parent of Flight 3407 carrier wants review after 2nd training failure, not 1st

In hopes of saving money under bankruptcy, Pinnacle Airlines -- which owns the regional carrier that operated the plane that crashed in Clarence Center in 2009 due to pilot error -- is hoping to cut back on its reviews of pilots who make mistakes in training.

In a document filed with U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York last week, Pinnacle asked the court to approve a plan that would set up a review board to evaluate a pilot's problems after his or her second failure during training.

The previous policy -- and the industry standard, according to the Flight Safety Foundation -- is to set up a Pilot Training Review Board after a pilot's first training failure.

"It's a concern," said William R. Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. "You want to be as proactive as possible on any training problem."

Susan Bourque, one of the leading members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, which plummeted to the ground after the crew incorrectly programmed the plane's computer and mishandled the response to a stall warning, agreed.

"The change for convening the Pilot Training Review Board from the first failure to the second is an action that seems to directly undermine safety," said Bourque, whose sister Beverly Eckert, a 9/1 1 activist, was among the 50 people who died in the February 2009 crash. "The impact on the overall safety and safety culture of the airline could be compromised."

At issue is something that is not required by law but that virtually all airlines do: review the pilots' performance in the continual training they receive throughout their careers, as well as the airline's training programs themselves.

Aviation industry sources said airlines routinely convene Pilot Training Review Boards after a pilot fails a test flight or another portion of a training regimen.

The idea is to find out why the pilot failed -- was it poor training, a personal issue or something else that caused the problem? -- as well as to discover how the airline's pilot training programs can be improved.

"Absolutely, it's the industry standard to convene a [Pilot Training Review Board] after the first failure," Voss said. "It would be unusual to do so only after the second."

Waiting for a pilot's second failure could delay correcting a serious problem with the pilot's skills or the airline's training program, Voss said.

Pinnacle spokesman Joe F. Williams said the industry standard for convening the review board was to do so after a pilot's second failure in training.

"We have found the present rule to be unnecessary and potentially disruptive to the training program because pulling one of the pilots out of a pairing impacts the continuity of training," Williams said in a statement.

"The vast majority of pilots who have a problem early in training get additional training, pass and go on their way. By handling it this way, the continuity of training remains intact."

Williams' statement did not respond to a request to comment on the cost savings of the change in policy for pilots who fail in training.

But Voss found it odd that Pinnacle felt it needed to cut back on a safety policy that isn't frequently invoked.

"How much could this cost?" he asked. "It's not like this sort of thing happens all the time."

There's no doubt that Pinnacle needs to cut costs.

The company filed for bankruptcy in early April, telling its employees that it would run out of cash by the middle of that month without the cost-cutting moves it announced in its first Bankruptcy Court filings.

And in the submission to the court last week where Pinnacle noted its shift on pilot training, the company also asked the Air Line Pilots Association for steep concessions.

In negotiations with the union, the company will seek a 5.8 percent pay cut from most pilots and to replace its comprehensive health care plan with something more like catastrophic coverage, with annual deductibles of at least $1,000 for single pilots and $2,000 for those with families.

The typical Pinnacle captain makes between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, but the average co-pilot earns $30,000, with a base salary of about $28,000 -- far greater than the $16,000 that the co-pilot of Flight 3407 was paid.

"The concessions we are seeking are fair and reasonable, and we plan to have all work groups -- union and non-union, front-line and management -- participate in cost reduction efforts," Williams said.

Still, the company's attempt to cut salaries and benefits could have a negative impact, Bourque said.

"What I suspect is, an increase in the pilots' contributions for their health insurance and short and long-term disability coverage would add financial stress to their lives, too," she said.

But the attempt to cut back on reviews for pilots who fail during training prompted the most concern among flight safety advocates, including Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst.

"The crash of Continental Flight 3407 demonstrated the tragic consequences of inadequate pilot training," said Hochul, whose district includes the crash site. "As the parent company of Colgan Air, the operator of Flight 3407, I expect Pinnacle would now aim to meet or exceed industry training standards, not lag behind them."

Voss was equally perplexed by the company's move, which it revealed in a two-line reference in a 29-page document that focused mainly on its request for concessions from the pilot union.

"They probably didn't expect anyone to read it," Voss said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com