WASHINGTON - Since a deadly airline crash in 2009, the government hasn't kept its promise to ensure that major airlines are holding their smaller partners to the same safety standards, a federal watchdog says.
The Transportation Department's inspector general faults the Federal Aviation Administration for not taking steps to encourage the big airlines "to consistently share safety information and best practices" with regional airlines that operate flights under contract for them.
That business link is known as code-sharing, by which one airline sells tickets for seats on a flight operated by another airline - United and United Express, for example.
In this Feb. 12, 2009, file photo smoke rises from a burning Continental Express commuter plane after it crashed into a home in suburban Buffalo, killing 50 people. Federal regulators haven't lived up to promises made after the crash to see that major airlines ensure the smaller airlines who operate flights under contract for them meet the same safety standards, according to a report by the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General.
More than half of all airline flights in the U.S. are operated by regional airlines using names such as United Express, Delta Connection, American Connection and US Airways Express under code-sharing arrangements.
A flight operated by regional carrier Colgan Air for Continental Airlines under the name Continental Express crashed in February 2009 near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people. After that crash, officials at the department and the FAA said they would begin reviewing code-share contracts to see if they impinged on safety.
Investigators cited pilot training lapses by Colgan as a factor. Colgan ended flying in September as part of its parent company's restructuring.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation and congressional hearings after the Colgan crash pointed out the differences in safety cultures that sometimes occur between the two types of airlines.
For example, at that time, some regional carriers were hiring pilots with as few as 250 hours of flight experience, which FAA rules allow. Major airlines typically hired pilots with about 10 times that much experience.
After the crash, pilot unions and safety advocates said regional carriers were driven to cut corners on safety, including hiring inexperienced pilots at low wages, in part to meet performance goals required under the code-sharing contracts. Airlines that met their goals often earned more money under the agreements, while those that failed to meet such goals were sometimes penalized.
The FAA, despite earlier promises, isn't reviewing any code-share contracts for their safety implications, and the Transportation Department reviews only a small share for their potential economic impact, not safety, the report said.
"As a result, most domestic code-share agreements go into effect without being reviewed by any (federal) regulatory entity," the report said.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report before its public release.
The FAA also doesn't have procedures in place "to advance the agency's commitment to ensure the same level of safety between mainline air carriers and their code-share partners," the report said.
Responding to the report, Robert Rivkin, the Transportation Department's general counsel, said the FAA "believes that all carriers ... meet an appropriate level of safety" regardless of whether they are in a code-share agreement.