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13 May 2009

Risk, Safety, and the Plane Crash in Buffalo

Yesterday, the NTSB began its public hearings into the 12 February 2009 crash of a Continental Connection Dash 8 near Buffalo, NY. One of the issues that is of interest to the media is the safety of feeder airlines like Colgan Air which operated the Continental Connection accident aircraft. While the aircraft had "Continental" painted on the side, and may have a similar paint scheme as Continental, the fact is that the aircraft was not operated by Continental Airlines.

One common question that gets about this situation is whether the feeder airline is just as safe. When I was contacted by the Wall Street Journal on the day the hearing again, in my quote that appeared in an article the paper the next day, my point was that safety is a subjective concept, and different people can have different ideas on whether an activity is safe or unsafe. I gave the example of skydiving. While sky divers believe the activity is safe, most other people would think that it was an excessively risky activity.

This brings out a more important point, that safety and risk are not the same concept and and not substitutes for one another. As explained in some detail on, risk, typically an unwanted outcome combined with the likelihood of that outcome, is something that can be defined explicitly and be measured objectively. Given the same definitions and data, different people should come to the same conclusion about how much risk exists in a situation.

By comparison, safety, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and does not have to be associated with anything measurable. For example, the FAA requires that any US airline operating an airliner with the capacity for 10 or more passenger seats operate under the same set of regulations. However, an aircraft that is designed to seat 10 passengers will have FAA design requirements that are very different, and in some ways less strict, than the design requirements for an aircraft that can seat 300 passengers.

The different design requirements imply that different potential risks are dealt with in different ways depending on the size of the aircraft. These differences mean that the risks of flying on these two types of aircraft are not the same. However, the FAA allows both aircraft to operate under the same safety regulations.

Risk and safety questions can come up in other ways during an accident investigation. During the first day of the public hearings, it was revealed that shortly before the crash, a specific warning system was activated, but the crew apparently reacted to the warning in ways that made the situation worse and led to the aircraft departing from controlled flight.

Even more revealing were media reports that prior to the accident, Colgan pilots were no required by the airline to have hands-on simulator experience that would show them how to respond to this kind of warning. To the average passenger, allowing pilots to fly a plane without having adequate training in how to respond to critical warning systems is both unsafe and too risky. It will be months before the public finds out if the NTSB agrees.


  1. Oi. Parabéns por seu excelente blog. Gostaria de lhe convidar para visitar meu blog e conhecer alguma coisa sobre o Brasil. Abração

  2. The plain truth is commuter pilots, as a whole, have a lot fewer hours than main line pilots. In this case time equals experience. The experience level on this particular aircraft, on this night, with these conditions was too low and they and their passengers paid the price. The cockpit voice recorder says it all. The fact that commuter airlines don't even pay a living wage for first year pilots is a crime. But don't expect the public to get too outraged. All they want is a cheap fare and could care less what the true cost of that ticket is.

  3. There was at least one article in which it was stated that the pilot of the ill-fated flight had failed five "check ride" tests. It would be interesting to know exactly what these failed tests involved for a pilot with 3500+ hours of flight time, and two of the failed tests were since he was hired by Colgan Air.

  4. Nosetjetter....I agree totally with
    jetjohn. That said, in my memory there were a number of small commuter
    planes that did not make it. That is
    why we choose to fly only Continental
    Boeings. We noted every discounted
    flight on our next planned vacation
    involved commuter connections. Direct
    flights were a $600 difference. Solution? We opted to cut our vacation by a day in order to get a
    reasonable direct Continental flight. In our view, safety is worth it!