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Opinion varies widely on safety of turboprop commuter planes

Tommy Edwards was flying out of Buffalo this week on the same model of plane that crashed in Clarence last week, but he wasn't worried.

But John Frame said it'll be hard for him to get on a turboprop again.

And Pat Allington doesn't have to worry about the next time she gets on a turboprop because she said she never flies on commuter planes.

"I'm not a good flier to begin with. I wouldn't take it," Allington, a Toronto resident who works for an insurance company, said as she and her family gathered their luggage after returning from Orlando.

The Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 that crashed last week is a popular example of the small turboprop planes regularly used on short flights to and from the nation's regional airports.

About 15 percent of daily flights out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport are Dash 8 Q400s or other turboprops.

Passengers, industry observers and safety officials differ in their opinions on the safety and desirability of turboprops, which have come under scrutiny since the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407.

These turboprops are more susceptible to icing problems, but airlines have been relying on them more in recent years to save on fuel costs, said attorney David L. Fiol of San Francisco, who specializes in aviation wrongful-death and personal-injury cases. "It's a typical scene in the aviation industry -- safety versus efficiency and dollars and cents," Fiol said.

However, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board who is part of the crash investigation team said the Dash 8 isn't prone to problems when flown in wintry weather.

"This Dash 8 is a workhorse airplane. It's not real susceptible to ice. It flies in ice all the time," Steven R. Chealander has said. "I've talked to some Continental pilots . . . who fly it. That's not a concern."

Airlines use turboprops on commuter flights such as the Newark-to-Buffalo route covered by Flight 3407 because they're cheaper to operate and larger than the regional jets they had relied on, experts said.

Fuel is a big expense for cash-strapped airlines, and propeller aircraft require less fuel.

Flight 3407 was a next-generation Dash 8 Q400 licensed last April, a model billed by Bombardier as "the turboprop airliner for the 21st century."

The 220 Q400s that have been in the air since 2000 have 1 million cumulative flying hours over 1.5 million flights "virtually incident-free" before the Feb. 12 crash, said John Arnone, a spokesman for Bombardier Aerospace in Toronto, where the plane is assembled.

"Turboprops are highly fuel-efficient at low altitudes and are therefore preferable to pure jets on a lot of short-haul routes. But there is nothing quaint or unsafe about them," Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who has experience with the older model Dash 8, wrote on his "Ask the pilot" blog on Salon.com.

US Airways offers 12 turboprop flights out of the Buffalo airport each day, to airports in Rochester, Albany, New York City and Philadelphia. Continental flies five turboprops out to airports in Cleveland and Newark.

That's about 15 percent of the 110 daily flights out of Buffalo, and a number that has dropped only slightly in recent years.

However, sometimes it's difficult to avoid flying on a turboprop between Buffalo and certain regional airports unless a traveler is very flexible on flight times. Travelers checking earlier this week for an afternoon US Airways flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York said they weren't nervous about flying in a Dash 8 Q400.

"I'm not worried. It's part of the job. It's what I do," said David Tomowich, an Ancaster, Ont., resident who works in sales and travels frequently for his job. "I have a greater chance having an accident driving in the one hour it takes to get here than when I get on the plane."

Other travelers arriving at the airport said they'd had rough flights in the past on small commuter planes.

Angele Leonard said her connecting flight from Gulfport, Miss., to Atlanta was on a commuter plane.

"It was quite bad. It was nauseous. The pressure in your ears really affects you on those smaller planes," said Leonard, an executive assistant who was visiting a loved one in Ontario.

Frame, a bank auditor who was returning from a trip to Orlando, said he's flown turboprops into Newark and LaGuardia many times for work.

"It never bothered me before," the Fredonia resident said. "But I'll definitely, during the winter, think twice."

American Eagle and Comair stopped flying turboprops in icy weather after crashes similar to Flight 3407. But Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said the carriers replaced turboprops on wintry routes for reasons unrelated to safety concerns.

"This plane, more consistently than any regional, flies in winter weather," Cohen said. "It was built for this."

News Business Reporter Sharon Linstedt and Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this report.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com and bmeyer@buffnews.com

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