Commuter and Large Air Carriers:
Is It Time For One Level of Safety?
J. Glen Moore
Specialist in Science and Technology
Science Policy Research Division
March 6, 1995
COMMUTER AND LARGE AIR CARRIERS:
IS IT TIME FOR ONE LEVEL OF SAFETY?
Under current Federal Aviation Regulations, small aircraft with 30 or fewer
seats used primarily by commuter airlines are regulated under one set of rules,
while larger aircraft used by some regional and all major airlines are regulated
under another. The Part 135 rules for small aircraft are in some ways less
stringent than the Part 121 rules for larger aircraft.' In the 1960s when the
rules were evolving, commuter airlines were only a small part of the industry
and needed less stringent equipment and operating rules to stay viable. Today,
commuter and regional airlines are the fastest growing segment of the industry,
with small carriers rapidly replacing the major airlines in many small and
medium markets. As a consequence, more and more passengers are exposed to
the generally lower safety standards of Part 135. In view of the expected future
growth in the commuter airline industry, many: including the National
Transportation Safety Board, say it is time for "one level of safety" with
commuter airlines held to the same safety standards as Part 121 carriers. The
Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have
accepted this call and pledged quick rulemaking action to close the regulatory
gap. A bill to achieve a single level of safety in commercial aviation has been
introduced (H.R. 590).
Two issues of possible congressional concern are identified: 1. New
procedures expected to result from the reform of the Federal regulatory process
may delay commuter safety rulemaking and could make it easier for opponents
to block new rules. 2. The cost of more stringent safety rules could force some
commuter airlines to reduce service or to go out of business. I n turn, service to
some small communities could be reduced or lost.
As the "one level of safety" initiative moves forward, congressional oversight
may be needed both to keep the process moving and to ensure that new safety
rules for commuter airlines are commensurate with the safety risk they pose.
'Code of Federal Regulations. Title 14, Part 135, Air Taxi Operators and
Commercial Operators; and Title 14; Part 121, Certification and Operations:
Domestic. Flag. and Supplemental Air Carriers and Commercial Operators of
COMMUTER AND LARGE AIR CARRIERS:
IS IT TIME FOR ONE LEVEL OF SAFETY?
Public concerns about commuter airline safety rose in 1994 following five
fatal commuter or regional airline accidents in a one-year span. The record has
drawn attention to the need for additional safety improvements in areas such
as pilot training and experience, flight crew coordination, aircraft maintenance
and inspection, airline management oversight, and FAA surveillance. To address
these issues, the Kational Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called on the
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to hold commuter airlines to the same
basic safety standards as large air carriers. The Department of Transportation
(DOT) and the FAA have accepted this call and pledged quick rulemaking action
to bring commuter aircraft safety regulations up to the standards of large
airliners. A bill to achieve uniformity in the regulation of large and small
carriers was introduced on January 19, 1995, and referred to the House
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (H.R. 590).
THE COMMUTER AIRLINE INDUSTRY
The reason for separate Federal rules covering commuter airlines and large
air carriers is rooted in economics and the early makeup of the airline industry.
Regulations for small aircraft were developed in the 1960s and primarily aimed
at unscheduled, "on-demand air taxi operators. Commuter airlines were not a
significant part of the industry. Service to small communities was provided by
large carriers and subsidized by passengers flying between major cities. Because
of their limited role, commuter airlines were lumped into the "miscellaneous"
Part 135 category used to regulate unscheduled air taxis.
Following the airline industry's deregulation in 1978, the major carriers
largely abandoned service to smaller, short-haul markets, concentrating instead
on the more lucrative long-distance, major city pairs. Commuter and regional
carriers quickly moved in to fill the void, and today nearly 70 percent of the U.S.
communities having scheduled air service depend exclusively on these airlines
as the originating or terminating source of transportation.
The size and sophistication of commuter aircraft, and the size and number
of commuter airlines, has changed dramatically since deregulation. Whereas the
earlier fleet consisted primarily of smaller, general aviation-type aircraft, today's
fleet is made up of increasingly larger, more sophisticated aircraft. The average
number of seats per aircraft has grown from 11.9 in 1980 to 23.4 in 1992, and
the commuter-regional fleet of 2,200 aircraft now includes over 500 aircraft with
more than 30 seats operating under Part 121 rules. Due to market forces, the
number of commuter-regional airlines in the United States has dropped from
about 250 in 1978, t o approximately 140 today. Of these, the ten largest carry
half of the commuter traff~cand the 50 largest carry 98 percent.
Commuter-regional airlines have burgeoned into a significant segment of
the airline industry. In 1993, they handled 53 million enplanements, or 12
percent of the total passenger trips in this country. The major carriers have
come to rely on these carriers for feeds to and from smaller communities. The
largest commuter airlines all have affiliations with major airlines through
outright ownership, substantial investment, or strong marketing or scheduling
ties. A typical commuter passenger flies on an aircraft with the logo and livery
of a large airline, and his or her ticket is marketed and sold through a computer
reservation system of a major airline.
I. F l i g h t C r e w l ' r a i n i n g . Compared to Part 121 trainingmguiations. Part 135 regulations do not
provide a balanced mix of trainingand checking. Part 121 regulations stipulate a set number af hours
that apilot must receive for ground, flight and recurrent training. Under Part 135, training program
houm are not specified, pilots are trained la ~ r o f i c i e ~ cwhich
m e u s that the only requirement is
for successful completion of the applicable lest or check flight. Part 121 allows pilot training in flight
~ i m ~ l ~ t aPart
m ; 136 has no counterpart, although simulator training may be conducted through an
exemption granted by the FAA. Psrt 112 requil-s recunent training and apmficiency checkevery six
months. Psrt 135 requires only aproficiency cheek every sixmonths and hasno firm requirement for
2. F l i g h t aod D u t y Time Limitations. Bath Parts I35 and 121 establish the maximum number
of houm pilots cen be on duty a t a single stmtch, a week. a month, and a year. Part 135 generally
permita more flying than is permitted under P a r t 121.
3. F l i g h t C r e w Experience. While not s regulatoryissue, experience levels of commuter pilotson average lower than air carrier pilots. Commuters are often the starting point in the caner of a
pilol, and e place to gain the ezperiencerequired to meet the employment standards of a large carrier.
4. D i s p a t c h R e q u i r e m e n t s . Part 121 flights operate nnder thejoint authority of the pilot and a
licensed flight dispatcher who -sixis the pilot in planning the flight. Once e flight has begun, the
dispatcher slays in radio contact with the aircraft to advise the pilot of weelher and other factors that
may .Net the outcame of the flight. Part 135 does not r e q u i ~ edispatchem. Responsibility for fligllt
planning, weather brirfiu@ and other aspects of the flight rests salely ou the commuter pilot.
Consequently, commuter flights can occur with the pilot uor being fully apprised of all of the
b i t s the duty time for maintenanoe personnel to 24 mnsecutive hours off duty during any 7
onsecutive days of duty. There are no duly limits for Part 136 maintenance personnel.
6. Aircraft D e i d n g . Part 121 airlines must (1) have training programs for employees who
deicing fluids, (2) identify responsible employees and their duties, and (3) establish standards for
implementing deicing p d u r e s . For Part 136, only the flight cmw is required to be trained in
deicing, not the gmund c,=w.
'For more information on Part 136 and Part 121 standards. see: U.S. Congress. House. Committee
on Public Works and T-portstion.
Submmmitlee on Aviation. Adequacy of commuter airline d e l y
repletions. Hearin@, 103d Cong., 2nd S e a , Feb. 9, 1994. 166 p.
Non-military aviation is regulated by the FAA in accordance with the
Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Every commuter: regional and major
airline is certificated by the FAA to be in compliance with the FA% applicable
to its operation. The FARs set out the "minimum"requirements an airline must
meet to ensure safe operations. Although they are not required to do so, most
airlines, including commuters, operate above these minimums, giving the
aviation system an extra "margin" of safety.
Far from being static, the FARs are constantly being changed to meet new
demands in aviation. The FAA, with the concurrence of DOT and other
agencies, revises the code frequently through a rule making procedure. In
anticipation of future growth in the commuter airline industry as a result of
airline deregulation, the FAA totally rewrote Part 135 in 1978. The revision
dramatically increased the safety requirements for commuter airlines, helping
to bridge the gap between Part 135 and Part 121 regulations. Each commuter
airline was then recertificated by the FAA to assure that it met the upgraded
Although the 1978 upgrade raised the level of safety in commuter airlines,
it did not raise it to the same level enjoyed by passengers and flight crews of the
Part 121 carriers. To further close the gap, the FAA has issued approximately
40 new Part 135 rule changes since 1978. Among these are requirements for:
deicingprocedures and training, ground proximity warning systems, exit seating,
collision avoidance systems, minimum equipment list standards, drug and
alcohol testing, and cockpit voice and flight data recorders. It should be noted,
however, that while each new requirement has enhanced commuter airline
safety, the new standards are not in every case equivalent to the Part 121
COMMUTER SAFETY STATISTICS
The Part 135 rule changes instituted by the FAA over the past 15 years
have been an important factor in the long-term improvement in the commuter
safety record. In 1978: scheduled commuter airlines had one fatal accident in
every 92,000 hours of aircraft operation; last year, they had one fatal accident
in every 775,000 hours flown - more than an 8-fold improvement. Under any
measure, and despite occasional spikes in a given year that occur due to the
generally low numbers of accidents overall, the commuter safety record has
shown steady improvement. On average throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the
commuter fatal accident rate has been about twice that of the large carriers. In
1994, the fatal accident rate for Part 135 scheduled airlines declined for the
third straight year. Despite this, the rate was four times higher than the large
air carrier rate.' Five commuter and regional airline accidents in 1994 and late
1993 have heightened concerns about the safety of the commuter airline
industry and the adequacy of Part 135 regulations.
?In 1994, Part 121 carriers had one fatal accident in every 3,305,000 hours
ONE LEVEL OF SAFETY
The NTSB, among other aviation safety groups, believes that the higher
accident rate for commuter airlines can be traced in part to the regulatory
differences between Part 135 and Part 121. In November 1994, the Board
released a commuter safety study which called on the FAA to revise the FARs
such that all scheduled passenger service conducted in aircraft with 10 or more
seats be conducted in accordance with Part 121 of the FARs, or its functional
. ~ all, it made 10 recommendations covering the
equivalent, wherever p ~ s s i b l e In
areas of aircraft dispatch, pilot flight and duty time, pilot training, training
centers, flight simulators, flight attendant training, internal safety programs,
qualifications and training of FAA air carrier inspectors, airport standards for
commuter airline service, and oversight of commuter airlines by code-sharing
In announcing its recommendations, the Board stated that airline safety
should be based on the characteristics of the flight operations, not the seating
capacity of the aircraft. It also said that passengers on commuter airlines
should be afforded the same regulatory safety protection granted to passengers
flying on Part 121 airlines. The Board indicated that the recommended changes:
in combination with the FAA's anticipated revisions of the commuter flight crew
training rules, will raise the safety of commuter airline operations to a level
equivalent to Part 121 standards.
DOT AND FAA ACTIONS
On December 13, 1994, an American Eagle commuter plane crashed while
attempting to land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, killing 15 of the
20 people on board. It was the fifth commercial aviation accident in the United
States in 1994 and the fourth involving a commuter or regional airline. In
response to this and the other accidents, DOT ordered an unusually tight 100day deadline to begin rulemaking to require commuter airlines to maintain the
same safety and operational standards as the major carriers. Central to this
goal is a new rule - already in the pipeline - t o require pilots of Part 135 aircraft
to meet the same proficiency training standards, and to undergo the same crew
coordination training, as pilots of larger aircrafL4 The FAA is also finalizing
new rules to reduce pilot flight and duty time and to prevent two inexperienced
pilots from being assigned to the same flight. And it is considering a new rule
to require commuter airlines to employ licensed dispatchers to help flight crews
prepare for and carry out safe flights.
%ommuter Airline Safety.
NTSBISS-94/02. CNov.1 1994.
National Transportation Safety Board.
4Air carrier and commercial operator training programs. Notice of Proposed
Rulemaking. FAA, DOT. Federal Register, Dec. 13, 1994. p. 64272.
In addition to NTSB's recommendations, which dealt with operating
standards, the FAA will examine differences in certification standards for small
and large aircraft. Small aircraft with 19 or fewer seats are certified under Part
23 of the FARs; aircraft with 20 or more seats must meet the more stringent
Part 25. By the end of its 100-day review of commuter safety regulations, the
FAA will issue notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) to begin the process of
bringing Part 135 into regulatory uniformity with Part 121. The NPRMs will
be followed by a public comment period of perhaps 60 to 90 days. Final mles
might be expected by the end of 1995 to take effect beginning in 1996. Besides
the regulatory review and upgrade, DOT ordered a safety-procedures audit of all
regional airlines and convened an airline summit on January 9 and 10,1995, to
determine what can be done to improve airline safety. The recommendations of
the summit were released on Febmary 9,1995, in the form of a list of 173 safety
actions designed to enhance commercial air safety across the board. The actions
address a wide range of safety issues, including data collection, training of flight
and maintenance staff, and technology development. Some are new projects,
while others are existing programs which have been accelerated. Deadlines for
implementation have been set, with over 100 initiatives scheduled for completion
by September 30, 1995.
Aviation safety will be further enhanced in 1995 when the FAA adds 300
new inspectors to its ranks, bringing the total inspector work force to about
2,200. This number is well above the low water mark of about 1,400 inspectors
reached in the mid 1980s when the FAA work force was being cut. And, in a
reorganization announced in November 1994,the agency created a new top-level
system safety office, reporting directly to the administrator. The new office will
monitor all aspects of aviation safety in order to detect potentially dangerous
safety trends as they develop.
The Economic Effects of Higher Regulatory Standards. Regulatory
uniformity between Part 135 and Part 121 operations is not without economic
costs that potentially could ground some aircraft and put some commuter
airlines out of business. Any one rule-change might not be enough to close a
small airline; but a number of changes, even if phased in over several years, is
cause for concern in the commuter airline industry.
With any regulatory change, the FAA gives consideration to how much the
new regulation will cost the industry. The agency is required to do a costbenefit analysis for every "major" rule it proposes and may not propose a rule
unless the potential benefit outweighs the costs.' Even in safety matters, the
agency must show that a rule-change will have a positive economic benefit in
terms of lives saved. It assigns an economic value to the lives that potentially
'Executive Order 12291, issued on Feb. 17,1981, directs Federal agencies to
promulgate new regulations or modify existing regulations only if the potential
benefits to society for the regulatory change outweigh the potential costs.
will be saved and, in the case of a requirement for new equipment, weighs the
human life value against the installed cost and higher operating cost of the
An issue of potential interest to the 104th Congress is: how much more
regulation can or should be done to raise the level of safety of Part 135 airline
operations. The safety of these airlines is in question now, but commuter
airlines registered their third consecutive annual decline in accident rates in
1994 and are about an order of magnitude safer than they were 12 to 15 years
ago.' Given their current level of safety, it may be difficult for the FAA to
justify, on a cost basis, new equipment requirements or costly operational
changes. Even if a rule is found to have a positive cost benefit on commuter
operations as a whole, the expense could cause individual commuter airlines to
cut back on service: to eliminate some aircraft; or perhaps even to fail. In turn,
some communities could have their service reduced or could lose service
Remlatorv reform. Ongoing congressional efforts to reduce the burden of
Government regulation on business and the public may impact FAA efforts to
raise the safety standards of commuter airlines. Regulatory reform is expected
to impose new requirements on Federal regulators to ensure that the cost and
risks of new regulations do not outweigh their benefit. To bring the safety
standards of commuter airlines up to the large carriers, the FAA will have to
impose new, and in some cases, costly regulations on commuter carriers. As a
result of regulatory reform, the agency may have to perform cost-benefit and
risk analyses on new regulations which are expected to result in at least a $50
million cost: or if the Office of Management and Budget determines that further
analysis is needed."7 Under existing guidelines, only "major"regulations costing
at least $100 million have to be so analyzed.
A potential obstacle to commuter airline regulatory reform was averted
when the House of Representatives approved a last-minute, technical change in
the Regulatory Transition Act of 1995 (H.R. 450). Prior to its passage, there
was growing concern that the bill's one-year moratorium on rulemaking would
delay the rule changes needed to bring commuter airlines up to the safety level
of large carriers. The bill exempted health and safety rules from the
moratorium but only when an "imminent threat" to safety existed. After two
days of debate in the House of Representatives, a dispute still lingered over
whether rulemaking in such areas as commuter aviation regulation would be
permitted since it would be difficult to prove the existence of an imminent
'National Transportation Safety Board. News [release]. Sb-95-03. Airline
fatalities for 1994 climbed to five-year high. Jan. 19; 1995.
%ee: Debate on H.R. 926, the Regulatory Reform and Relief Act of 1995,
Reed amendment to raise the threshold for a "major" rule from $50 million to
$100 million. Congressional Record, Mar. 1, 1995: H2433.
threat to safety. The House put the matter to rest when it approved a technical
amendment exempting aviation safety rulemaking from the moratorium.'
The most likely effect of regulatory reform on new commuter safety rules
is delay. Rule changes that have merit and are cost-effective should still go
forward, but regulators may have to spend more time justifying them. In
addition, provisions allowing peer and judicial reviews, if enacted, could expose
new rules to greater scrutiny and challenge, making it easier for individuals or
interest groups to delay or block rules which they oppose.
FAA Privatization Initiative. Sometime in 1995 or 1996: Congress may be
asked to consider an Administration proposal to take the air traffic control
system out of the FAA and put it under the control of a wholly owned
Government corporation. The proposal was first offered in the 103d Congress
and resubmitted to the 104th Congress as part of the President's Fiscal Year
1996 budget. Under the proposal, the corporation would operate the air traffic
control system and may also be charged with its modernization. The FAA would
retain all of its current regulatory and aviation safety oversight responsibilities
and would have newly defined responsibilities with respect to oversight of the
corporation. At this time, there is no indication that the proposal to turn the
air traffic control system over to a semi-private corporation will have any effect
on FAA's airline regulation function. Rulemaking to bring commuter airlines
up to the safety standards of the major carriers should continue apace in the
FAA regardless of the outcome of air traffic control corporation proposal.
In conclusion, the FAA is facing a possible dilemma: it is under pressure
to restore public confidence in commuter flying by making commuter airlines
follow the same rules as the major carriers, but if it pushes too hard the cost of
more stringent safety rules could put some airlines out of business and cause
some communities to lose service. Such an adverse impact would be contrary
to the agency's dual mandate, which is to promote safety and foster the
development of air commerce.' Regulatory reform may make it more difficult
for the FAA to carry out rulemaking needed to bring commuter airlines up to
air carrier safety standards. Not only might the agency have a harder time
justifying new rules, but new procedures for peer and judicial review may make
it easier for opponents to block rules before they can be implemented. The
commuter airline industry generally supports uniform safety standards, but
opposition is likely from individual airlines threatened by rules that could put
them out of business. As the "one level of safety" initiative moves forward,
congressional oversight may be needed both to keep the process moving and to
ensure that any new safety rules for commuter airlines are commensurate with
the safety risk these airlines pose.
'Authorizing the Clerk to make a certain correction in engrossment of H.R.
450. A technical amendment offered by Representative Norman Mineta.
Congressional Record; Feb. 24, 1995: H2210.
'Public Law 85-726.