US regionals face sharp cost rises if new safety rules come into effect. The Federal Aviation Administration is overhauling the rules governing US commuter operators in response to recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The recommendations made in mid-November mean that aircraft with 20 or more passenger seats will be required to follow the same regulations that now apply to aircraft with at least 31 seats. In addition, the Board called for aircraft with 10 to 19 passenger seats to be operated under the rules that govern larger aircraft whenever possible.

'An airline passenger deserves the same level of safety no matter what airline he or she gets on,' says the NTSB. 'We basically are saying that the rules should be the same for all commercial passenger aircraft having 10 seats or more.'

Two recent US airline disasters have heightened public interest in passenger safety issues. Both the USAir B737 that crashed in September and the American Eagle ATR72 that went down a month later were large aircraft already covered by the stricter rules.

Nevertheless, publicity surrounding the American Eagle accident called attention to the fact that commuter airlines are not required to follow the same set of rules as their larger counterparts.

To ease public concern, the FAA plans to establish a single safety standard for large and small aircraft, although it may take more than a year for all the rules related to commuter airline operations to be rewritten, says the FAA.

Under the new standard, regional carriers may be compelled to hire licensed dispatchers to forecast weather conditions and fuel requirements. Additional pilot training and tighter restrictions on the number of hours pilots can fly are also anticipated.

Neither the FAA nor the Regional Airlines Association (RAA) has conducted an analysis of how the expected regulatory changes will translate in cost terms. 'There could be some significant costs,' admits Walt Coleman, RAA president. 'It depends on how the rules are written.'

For example, the NTSB recommends that all airports offering scheduled passenger service comply with rules that govern airports served by the larger airlines. If that recommendation is adopted, an estimated 100 US airports served exclusively by regional airlines would be forced to invest in fire trucks, ambulances, additional facilities and personnel. The crash and rescue equipment alone might cost up to $300,000.

If this cost is transferred to a small commuter airline as higher landing fees it would become prohibitively expensive, says Coleman. This would come on top of additional personnel costs at the carrier. The smaller the carrier, the more difficult absorbing the cost will be. 'If the markets are marginal and the carriers have to pass a lot of costs along to passengers, it will be tough for them to stay in business,' he adds.

Mesa Airlines, one of the largest US regional carriers, anticipates little change as a result of the new safety standards, says its marketing vice president, Sarah Sproul. But Lone Star Airlines with 10 turboprops may need to hire pilots and licensed dispat ch ers, says Ed Tavender, marketing vice president.

The new safety rules will affect 130 US regional airlines which operate around 778 aircraft with 10 to 19 seats and 271 aircraft with 20 to 30 seats, according to the RAA.

Source: Airline Business