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Regional airline carriers need better oversight

Bemidji Regional Airport Executive Director Harold Van Leeuwen talks about regional air carrier safety and pending airport improvement projects Tuesday morning at a meeting of the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club. At right is Rob Harper, Chippewa National Forest Supervisor and club member. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

A tired and inexperienced regional carrier pilot poses more potential problems than bird strikes, says the director of Bemidji's airport.

"Birds are a natural occurrence -- they're not going to bring that airplane down, except under extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary circumstances," Harold Van Leeuwen, Bemidji Regional Airport executive director, said Tuesday morning.

"Quite literally, we've had aircraft ... pilots and first officers making less than a taxicab driver at MSP, flying regional jets" he said, referring to Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.

Airlines seeking cost-cutting measures have two main costs -- labor and fuel -- Van Leeuwen said, with airlines turning flight crews into a commodity function. "You've got to minimize your labor costs, and they do that by flying the daylights out of the crews, and then by offloading costs to the regional carriers."

In Washington, D.C., this week meetings were held between the Federal Aviation Administration and regional carrier executives to discuss improved safety, in light of the Feb. 12 crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that claimed 50 lives. Both pilots were tired, with a first officer with little experience and the pilot having failed five previous check flights without the carrier knowing.

And that comes on top of this winter's safe landing in the Hudson River after a commercial flight struck a flight of birds.

Van Leeuwen talked about both topics at the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club meeting Tuesday morning at the Hampton Inn & Suites, as well as outlining some $24 million in completed and pending airport improvement projects that get underway this year.

The commercial industry faces a wave of retirements, Van Leeuwen, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, said. And the pool that commercial airlines used to dip into for experience -- USAF pilots -- is also diminishing as the military branch plans to graduate only 214 pilots this year.

"We don't need more, and we're not letting them go -- they're staying," he said of the new military pilots. "So there's no source of pilot coming out that way. Then the source becomes UND."

He spoke of the aeronautics program at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. "UND kids become commercial pilots with about 250 hours, and he goes out and ends up in the right seat (first officer) of a regional (aircraft) building hours. That's what happened in Buffalo."

Van Leeuwen said when he was flying, airlines wouldn't even talk to a prospective flight engineer unless they had 2,500 to 3,000 hours in the air.

"We compensate for that by putting into place very strict operational rules," he said. "And we've suffered under that."

Van Leeuwen said at times in inclement weather, Northwest Airlink has been grounded because the pilot lacked hours of flight experience, while Bemidji Aviation with experienced pilots continue to fly.

"They're high minimum, low time pilots, and their minimums (ceilings) for approaches are much higher than what our system is capable of doing safely," he said. "That's one of the ways airlines provide safety, and safety is important."

Randy Babbitt, new chief of the FAA, said Monday the agency would seek stricter enforcement of uniform training and flight hour restrictions for both major and regional carriers.

And Van Leeuwen said much media attention has been focused on birds striking aircraft, and it is really a rare occurrence.

It's happened twice in six years in Bemidji Regional Airport airspace, he said. One was a night flight in 2003 with the first CRJ regional jet to come into Bemidji, when a hawk bounced off the cockpit window over Lake Bemidji. There was no damage to the plane, Van Leeuwen said.

The second was last year when a Saab turboprop traveling to Thief River Falls hit a bird at 12,000 feet, he said.

"Geese go up to 20,000 feet," he said. "They're going to hit. You're not going to do anything about that."

When jets first starting making commercial flights, airports were plagued with flocks of starlings, Van Leeuwen remembers. "We got rid of those -- that we could deal with. We don't hit airplanes on approaches or departures anymore. Now we're hitting them en route."

The Hudson River ditching was en route, he said, miles away from the plane's airport departure. "They were going down the river when they hit the birds. That's normal migration."

The airport director said the economy has affected local enplanements, but they will return when the economy turns. Enplanements have hit a low of 23,000 annually in recent years, but the future projections call for about 35,000 by 2012, down from 48,000 to 50,000 in the airport master plan.

"It will stay flat for another year or year and a half, and then will incrementally grow," he said. "A lot of that is driven by the economy, but one of the players that was not calculated was the event center. That event center is going to change the number of people who come and go."

Bemidji State's possible entry into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association could also play a role, he said, as Delta is more flexible to schedule larger planes to transport hockey teams to and from Bemidji. The former Northwest didn't, with teams having to bus to and from MSP.

Van Leeuwen said about $16 million in federal money has been spent to expand and rebuild runways, as well as a $1.3 million project to replace the airport's total electrical system.

Much was done with a matching program of 95 percent federal and 5 percent local, he said.

Next spring will see an expansion and renovation of the terminal, and a jet bridge to the terminal, at $6.6 million. Later, parking lot and entryway renovations will cost $1.5 million.

Airlines are reducing flights because of the economy, and Van Leeuwen expects Bemidji to lose capacity in flights but not in available seats.

Turboprops are used in the winter, and the regional jets in the summer, he said. His guess that three roundtrip flights a day to be maintained.

About 145 seats a day are available to and from the Twin Cities.