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Wing and a Prayer: How Safe is My Next Regional Plane Flight?

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I just flew on a regional jet from Los Angeles to Monterey, California. After watching the National Transportation Safety Board hearings in Washington this week investigating the crash of the Continental commuter plane near Buffalo, I confess that I was very focused on the pilots and the airplane.

When I poked my head into the cockpit, I was relieved to learn that the captain had more than 18,000 hours in the air, including military service, while the First Officer had more than 7,000 hours. I only had a few moments up front, so I ran through my checklist: Did the two men look awake? (Yes). Did they seem focused on their work? (Yes). Did they flunk any previous flying proficiency tests? (Couldn't tell). Did they pull all-nighters to get to their job? (Couldn't tell).

The last questions may sound strange, but they're entirely justified after what we learned this week about the Continental tragedy. Minutes before the fiery crash in Clarence Center on February 12, Capt. Marvin Renslow (47) and First Officer Rebecca Shaw (24) chatted about the icy weather. "You know, I'd have freaked out," Shaw said. "I'd have, like, seen this much ice and thought, oh my gosh, we were going to crash."

The crew kept yakking about their careers and non-flight-related matters (a violation of FAA rules below a certain altitude), unaware their plane had slowed to a dangerous speed. When the stick shaker alarm went off, warning of the airspeed problem, the pilot did all the wrong things, pulling up instead of pushing the nose down to gain speed and recover. Continental Connection Flight 3407 experienced a preventable aerodynamic stall and fifty people perished.

"I think this crew went from complacency to catastrophe in 20 seconds," said NTSB board member Debbie Hersman.

It turns out that Capt. Renslow had flunked three "check rides" - the flying equivalent of driver proficiency tests. It turns out Renslow worked stacking shelves in Tampa, Florida before being hired by Colgan Air, the regional carrier that operated Flight 3407 for Continental. Colgan says Renslow only disclosed one of his check ride failures and wouldn't have hired him if it had known about the other two. It turns out that both pilots were probably fatigued after commuting long distances, sleeping on couches or in staff lounges the night before their flight. Officer Shaw, who earned around $16,000 a year and worked a second job in a coffee shop, pulled an all-nighter to fly across country to her base in Newark.

When I took my seat in 4B of a regional jet this morning, I asked the same questions many other air travelers are pondering What are my chances on this flight? How safe are smaller, regional carriers. And what should I do in the unlikely event of a crash?

1. What are my chances on my next regional flight?

Whether you like it or not - and whether you even realize it or not - you're bound to fly on a regional airline sooner or later. Half of the flights in the US involve these smaller carrier, ferrying nearly one-quarter of the passengers who travel every day. When you buy your ticket with a major carrier - say Continental - you often end up flying with a subcontractor - say Colgan Air - which handles smaller routes (with all the markings and uniforms of the bigger carrier). Regional airlines provide the only scheduled service at 74 percent of the airports in the US. In baseball terms, these airlines are the equivalent of minor league teams where pilots and crew put in long hours (at lower wages) as they work their way into the majors. Over the last 14 years, this regional business has doubled.

If you keep track of airplane accidents, you probably know that the recent pattern doesn't look good for regional carriers: They were involved in seven of the last eight fatal commercial crashes in the US.

For the absolute latest on the risk of death on a regional carrier, I checked with Arnold Barnett, a brilliant MIT professor who happens to be afraid of flying and who specializes in statistics on aviation safety.

Barnett points out that all the news this week about the Continental crash and safety questions about regional carriers have blurred an important distinction between jet and propeller aircraft.

"Historically, the safety record for piston and prop-jet aircraft has not been as good as that for pure jets," Barnett says. "US regional jet flights have a splendid safety record," he goes on. "They have suffered only one fatal crash in the past two decades. "

According to Barnett's analysis, your risk of death on your next regional jet flight in the US is 1 in 30 million. In other words, you can travel every day for the next 82,191 years - on average - before you will die on a regional jet. (For comparison, your chance of dying on your next trip on a major carrier - one of the big airlines - is 1 in 60 million).

Prop-jets - planes with propellers driven by turbo-jet engines - are a different story, Barnett points out. Your risk of death on your next prop-jet flight, he says, is 1 in five million. Yes, the risk is greater than a jet flight, but you can still fly every day for a very very very long time before you run into a problem.

In 1997, after a series of commuter crashes, new rules took creating more stringent requirements for regional planes. Smaller carriers now must follow the same rules as the biggies. But safety experts say the Continental crash proves that some regional airlines aren't doing enough about hiring, training, pay and fatigue.

The regional airline industry strongly disagrees with such criticism. "There is no difference between regional and major airlines when it comes to safety of our passengers and crews, the number-one priority of all airlines," writes Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, a trade group representing 30 airlines. "Regional airlines and our 60,000 airline professionals are proud of our performance serving 160 million passengers every year, and especially of our commitment to transport them safely."

"This is all one industry," Cohen insists. "One level of safety. And that's something the industry is committed to 24-7."

2. What can I do to improve my survival chances in a crash?

If you're like most people and don't have a choice about what kind of plane you get to fly, what can you do to improve your chances in the extremely unlikely event of an accident?

It turns out: Quite a lot. Yes, some terrible crashes like Continental 3407 aren't survivable. There's simply nothing anyone can do. But in most crashes, according to the NTSB, people can (and do) survive. Indeed, in a study of the most serious crashes, the NTSB found that 76 percent of the passengers made it out alive. Other experts say that up to 40 percent of the people who perished could have lived if they had known what to do and took action.

So what should you know? After going through the FAA's plane crash survival school in Oklahoma City and interviewing many experts and plane crash survivors, here are the essentials:

> Listen to the safety briefing and read the information card. (60 percent of fliers don't bother to pay attention -- at their own peril).
> Try to sit within five rows of any exit (where you have better chances of escaping).
> Pick an aisle seat where you have more mobility and options.
> Make a mental note of your primary exit and backup exit and count how many rows you'll have to move in an emergency.
> Pay extra attention during the first three and last eight minutes of flight (when 80 percent of accidents happen).
> Be ready to act without any instructions from the pilot or flight attendants (40 percent of the time, they're incapacitated).

To learn more about surviving plane crashes and all kinds of life-changing challenges, please visit TheSurvivorsClub.org.