Pilots' low pay, long commutes investigated in N.Y. crash

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / May 14, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The copilot in an airline crash that killed 50 people in upstate New York was paid a salary so low she lived with her parents near Seattle and commuted across the country to her job, a combination of long travel and little money a safety official called a "recipe for an accident."

The second day of a three-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing yesterday focused on whether Captain Marvin Renslow and copilot Rebecca Shaw were fatigued on the wintry night of Feb. 12 when they apparently made a series of critical errors as Continental Connection Flight 3407 approached Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, a twin-engine turboprop, experienced an aerodynamic stall, rolling back and forth before plunging into a house below. All 49 people aboard and one on the ground were killed in the worst US air crash in seven years.

Board member Kitty Higgins said fatigue has been a factor in other crashes and is a major concern for the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that the crew rooms aren't supposed to be used [for sleeping] but are being used - I think it's a recipe for an accident, and that's what we have here," Higgins said.

Shaw, 24, made $16,254 a year, although she could have earned more if she worked extra hours, said Roger Cox, an NTSB aviation safety specialist. In questioning officials for Colgan Air of Manassas, Va., he suggested Shaw was commuting from her home near Seattle because she couldn't afford to live in the New York metropolitan area on her salary.

Colgan operated the flight for Continental.

The night before the accident, Shaw flew overnight as a passenger from Seattle, changing planes in Memphis, to report to work at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. She also complained about congestion and may have been suffering from a cold. Shaw had worked for Colgan for 13 months.

Renslow, 47, commuted to Newark from his home near Tampa, Fla. It is unclear where Renslow, who was in the middle of a two-day assignment, slept the night before the trip, but he logged into a computer from Colgan's crew room in Newark at 3 a.m. the night before, according to NTSB documents.