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updated 10/28/2010 2:23:19 PM ET 2010-10-28T18:23:19

The U.S. regional airline industry says safety is its top priority, in part because accidents are bad for business. But pilot unions and the families of air crash victims say safety has been sacrificed to cost-cutting at some carriers.

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The Federal Aviation Administration says it holds all airlines, large and small, to the same standards. But a coalition representing corporate travel managers says business travelers don't believe regional carriers are as safe as larger airlines, and many travelers don't want to fly them.

Those were some of the sometimes contradictory messages presented at a two-day National Transportation Safety Board forum that began Tuesday. The board is examining the safety implications of "code sharing" agreements that allow major carriers to sell seats to passengers on smaller, regional carriers that operate one leg of a flight.

Video: Branding of regional flights probed (on this page)

By working together, major and regional carriers benefit from money-saving efficiencies in flight connection times, integrated baggage handling, gate locations and marketing.

Major carriers, ticket agents, and online ticketing websites are supposed to tell passengers before they buy a ticket that a portion of the flight will be operated by another carrier. But in practice, passengers are often unaware that the airline they buy a ticket from isn't the operator of the entire flight, witnesses told the board.

The issue is an important one for anyone who flies in different parts of the United States. Regional airlines now account for half of domestic departures and a quarter of all passengers on domestic flights. For more than 400 communities, they provide the only scheduled service.

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The last six fatal domestic airline crashes all involved regional airlines. Pilot performance has been cited as a factor in four of those.

"Regional airlines can no longer be considered the minor leagues. They are major players in the airline industry and they are here to stay," Deborah Hersman, the board chairman, said.

Continental chief executive Jeffrey Smisek told a congressional hearing in June that his airline does not have the resources to oversee safety at all of its code-sharing partners. That responsibility, he said, belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration.

John Kausner told the safety board he was outraged by Smisek's remarks. He said his daughter, Elly Kausner, a 24-year-old Florida law student, had no idea when she bought a ticket online from Continental Airlines to fly home to western New York that the last leg of the flight would be on an airline she had never heard of — Colgan Air. Her e-mail confirmation ended with a cheery "Thank you for flying Continental."

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Elly Kausner, along with 48 other passengers and crew members, and one person on the ground, was killed last year when Continental Connection flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo, New York. NTSB cited errors by the flight's two pilots.

Even if his daughter had known part of her flight was operated by Colgan, she couldn't be expected to make an informed determination of whether a small airline she was unfamiliar with was safe, Kausner said. Continental should have ensured Colgan was employing pilots that were as competent as the pilots employed at the larger carrier, but that wasn't the case, he said.

Instead, Continental, Colgan and FAA "passed the buck," he said.

After the accident, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said he would look at whether the FAA has the authority to review code-sharing agreements with regard to safety oversight by major carriers.

However, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said Monday the agency does not plan to review the agreements. She said all carriers — large and small — are held to the same safety standards laid out in FAA regulations.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: NTSB investigating regional air safety gaps

  1. Closed captioning of: NTSB investigating regional air safety gaps

    >>> there are also some shocking safety gaps with the nation's regional airline system that are under investigation. the government is taking a closer look at the partnerships between major and regional carriers, glaring problems were revealed with last year's deadly crash of flight 3407 near buffalo. all 50 people on board were killed. the investigation revealed the pilot had failed three exams for his license and then failed again after getting hired by colgan air . i'm now joined by scott mauer, who lost his 30-year-old daughter, lauren, in the crash. thank you so much for being with us and bravo for you for taking this on, in your daughter's memory. i know you were on capitol hill yesterday. there was a congressional hearing . what's your message to congress and the american people ?

    >> well, my message to the american people is very, very clear. most of you do not know who is flying the plane that you're climbing on. greater than 50% -- actually, 53% of the flights, takeoffs and landings today are now on regional aircraft , most of which have the mainline carrier's paint on that plane. people get on the plane and think they're flying with couldn't nen continental, like my daughter did, and clearly are not flying with that carrier.

    >> especially as it relates to pilots from the big carriers and the small regional carriers.

    >> thank you, chris. the most important thing that the american public needs to know is that there's a huge step down in pilot experience and qualification qualifications. the regional pilots can be hired with as little as 250 hours of flight experience. a mainline carrier won't entertain an application unless a pilot has thousands of hours. the recent legislation passed by senator obama on august 1, hopefully, will change that and increase both pilots to have atp, air transport pilot license and raise that up to a minimum of 1,500 hours. that said, the faa and the industry is fighting us hard to try to water down that piece of legislation.

    >> how optimistic are you, based on your conversations yesterday? i'm sure you were in washington, not just to testify before congress. did you have some meetings with officials who could make some difference?

    >> we did have some meetings with officials, but this is the election time of the year and most of the people that we want to work with are currently home, campaigning. but we will be back in november. the most important thing is that the families of 3407 will not go away. we do have some meetings planned for november and we're going to continue to champion our cause.

    >> finally, i know i group of you got together who lost loved ones in this crash. there are the photos of your loved ones and i see lorin's picture is on your lapel. you have beautiful pictures and a website dedicated to her. i just wanted to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about lorin.

    >> well, every day i get up, i'm reminded of the loss that my wife and i are suffering. lorin was a beautiful 30-year-old girl and she had just fallen in love. her aspirations were to be a division i athletic director and she was well on her way to doing that. most recently, working at princeton university . but we miss her every day and to honor her, i have to -- i just must continue to champion the cause, because folks like yourself and others who have children, you don't want to live the life i'm living today.

    >> without a doubt. again, applause to you for trying to make the system better and safer for everyone who flies. and our sympathies to you. i know it's been a while, but it never goes away and your work is certainly so laudible in her memory. thank you, scott maurer.

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