Do commuter pilots flying from BWI to Newark or other short-hop destinations know what they're doing? Do they make more than, say, a fry cook at Fuddruckers?
Are they as seemingly clueless and careless as the pilots who crashed Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Buffalo, killing themselves and 48 others?
The airlines and their flacks are full of reassurance. I'm not reassured. Regional-airline regulations, like rules for subprime mortgages, need an overhaul.
The companies that operated the Buffalo flight and paid co-pilot Rebecca Shaw $16,254 a year handled more than 100,000 passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport during the 12 months ending in March.
Wearing a Continental label, Colgan Air flew from BWI to Newark until January. Flight 3407, the subject of stunning hearings in Washington this week, was a Colgan plane. As recently as March, Colgan parent Pinnacle Airlines flew BWI passengers to Memphis for Northwest and to Atlanta for Delta.
Neither company now flies from BWI, said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean.
But the Flight 3407 revelations cast a cloud on all regional airlines, which serve a million BWI passengers a year. That's about 5 percent of the traffic.
Pilot Marvin Renslow failed three Federal Aviation Administration competence tests before Colgan hired him, several newspapers reported. Nearing Buffalo three months ago, he and co-pilot Shaw gabbed about how little experience they had, breaking federal rules about extraneous conversation before landing and takeoff.
"I've never seen icing conditions," Shaw said, as ice grew on the wings, according to a cockpit recorder transcript. "I've never de-iced. I've never seen any- I've never experienced any of that."
The 24-year-old was landing a plane in Buffalo. In February. When first hired by Colgan she worked part time in a coffee shop to support herself, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Renslow told her he had only 625 hours of flying experience when Colgan hired him. "That's not much," she replied.
At the crucial moment, when the turboprop was losing speed and needed to nose down to regain lift, Renslow did the opposite, pulling back on the stick, pitching the nose up and crashing into a neighborhood.
Don't worry, says Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association.
"There has been speculation that the training, experience and pay of regional pilots are not in line with that of pilots at major airlines and that such disparities were factors in the crash," he wrote in The Buffalo News after the accident. "These perceived differences between regional and major airlines are not accurate, so it's important to check the facts."
I asked Cohen: Where are the statistics showing regional pilots have the same experience and pay as those flying the big jets? He didn't have any.
"I didn't say they were equivalent," he said.
Asked for salary details for commuter pilots serving BWI, the Air Line Pilots Association union referred me to its Web site, which says pilots everywhere generally start at about $18,000. That's below the federal poverty level for a family of three, and Shaw made less.
"We don't disclose our contracts," says Kristy Nicholas, spokeswoman for ExpressJet, which flies regionals from BWI under the Continental label. "We don't really give salary ranges publicly."
Unlike Pinnacle, ExpressJet does not outsource its pilot training, she said, and most ExpressJet pilots start with at least 1,400 hours of flying experience.
Comair, which handles puddle jumping for parent Delta, is BWI's biggest commuter carrier, with a quarter-million passengers a year. The company didn't return my phone calls.
Commuter pilots rise quickly in pay and make $50,000 or so when they make captain, the industry emphasizes. (Pilots for major airlines can make over $200,000.) But the government should set minimum salaries even for new pilots so they don't have to live with relatives and fly red-eyes to get to their assignments, as Shaw did.
Regulators know they have a problem. After a fatal regional airplane crash a few years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended new safety standards. Two years later, nine out of 10 regional carriers were still ignoring them, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said in a speech in October.
"Doesn't [a] passenger deserve the same level of safety while traveling on the regional airline portion of the flight as they receive on the portion flown by the major airline?" Sumwalt wondered out loud. "I'm not convinced they always receive it."
Until the regionals upgrade pay, improve disclosure and stop blowing smoke about their standards being "in line" with the majors, you shouldn't be convinced, either.