(CNN) — A commuter jet was seconds away from landing at a regional airport in Illinois last March when the pilots realized they’d made a potentially fatal mistake: They were aimed at the wrong runway.
Had the plane not diverted at the last second, there was a “high probability” the plane would not have had room to stop, an inspector later concluded, which would have been a “potentially catastrophic situation.”
This close call is one of multiple instances of alleged pilot error included in a Federal Aviation Administration warning to Envoy Air, the largest regional carrier for American Airlines.
An FAA document detailing the agency’s findings dated from January and obtained exclusively by CNN describes “consistent evidence showing potential lack of airmanship,” unsafe and poor piloting by multiple Envoy Air flight crews over the past two years. The incidents raise concerns, some experts say, that some regional services — generally contracted operators or sister companies to the big airlines — are still not operating at the same safety level of mainline carriers.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told CNN in an interview that the probe is “based on data that we have been able to glean by working with the operator to identify where there might be areas of emerging risk that they need to focus on.” He said the goal is to ensure Envoy Air is “not only compliant but operating safely.”
Envoy Air is not a household name, but it is owned by American Airlines and its planes connect smaller cities nationwide with American’s hubs including Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, and Miami. It flies 185 American Eagle-branded aircraft on 1,000 daily flights to over 150 destinations in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Unseasoned fliers may not even notice that a flight is operated by Envoy Air and not an American crew. Besides checking the itinerary for a regional name such as American Eagle, passengers can look for a smaller plane — generally 100 seats or less — or tighter seating configurations, like only one or two seats on either side of the aisle.
The company told CNN it has been working with the FAA and pilot union “to transparently and collaboratively examine the root cause of each potential issue and take any necessary corrective actions if needed.”
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers and employees,” Envoy spokeswoman Minnette Vélez-Conty said in a statement. “If issues are raised — either internally by our team or by the FAA — we work to address them immediately.”
The document is a letter from an FAA inspector to Envoy Air CEO Pedro Fábregas detailing nine concerning incidents in 2019 and 2020.
The FAA wrote it will work with the airline to develop an “action plan” to resolve the “unsafe operational trends.”
The FAA declined to provide further information or share the plan citing the “pending investigation,” and the airline did not provide any records to document that it had resolved the concerns.
Dickson did not specify whether the FAA is also probing other regional carriers. But he said that one of the agency’s teams has “identified a number of safety elements for airlines and other aviation safety stakeholders to examine,” including the qualification standards for pilots and whether skills degraded during pandemic-related downtime.
A passenger on at least one of the flights captured the incident on camera.
It was a November 2019 Envoy Air flight landing at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and the plane slid on the snowy runway. One passenger later told reporters in the airport that it was the plane’s second attempt at a landing.
“We’re sliding, we’re sliding,” someone in the cabin is heard saying as the plane veers to the side. “No, no, no,” another person calls out.
The FAA concluded that air traffic controllers had not provided updated weather information,, and it ultimately announced a $1.6 million fine against the Chicago Department of Aviation for “failing to ensure safe airline operations during snowy and wet runway conditions” that day.
But it also found that other flight crews had realized the poor conditions and aborted their plans to land.
“Perhaps more experience for this crew would have prevented this incident,” the FAA inspector wrote.
Last June, an Envoy Air crew attempting to leave Dallas Fort Worth were stopped by a warning from the plane’s computer. When it alerted them of an incorrect setting, they realized they had not actually completed the mandatory checklist to prepare for takeoff, according to the documents CNN obtained.
“Not doing your preflight checklist for takeoff is a potentially fatal mistake that cannot be overlooked,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director at the National Transportation Safety Board and a CNN aviation analyst.
Lingering safety questions
The FAA raised concerns with systematic issues, rather than identifying the problems as solely the fault of particular crewmembers.
“These events are representative of the more serious operational events that evidence poor airmanship trends, among other issues,” the FAA wrote to Envoy Air. “Collectively, these narratives point to issues that are deeper than what spot training or counseling have been able to resolve.”
The document described one unnamed pilot who challenged the results of a failed a flight proficiency test as someone who “truly lacked knowledge concerning what is acceptable.”
The airline said several of the incidents identified in the FAA letter were identified by its safety program, which includes weekly meetings between Envoy and the FAA.
“We regularly share this data with the FAA to enhance the overall safety of our airline and the industry, and will continue to do so,” the airline said.
The documents come more than a decade after sweeping reforms were put in place to tighten piloting qualifications and training at airlines.
The 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, which killed 50 people, led the FAA to change regulations including increasing the amount of experience required to fly for an airline. There has not been a fatal airline crash in the US since.
“The FAA is cracking down on Envoy, but you wonder if the other regionals are facing similar problems,” said Goelz, the former NTSB official.
A series of incidents led the FAA in the mid-1990s to re-write its rules and start holding regional and mainline carriers to the same safety standards. The standards, for example, now require the same minimum number of flight hours to work for both a regional and mainline airline.
“These documents show there’s a still a long way to go and that the FAA needs to double down on the oversight of regional carriers, particularly during times of financial stress,” Goelz said.
The Air Line Pilots Association, representing nearly 60,000 members at 35 carriers, said safety practices in the industry have “proven an effective safeguard to detect any circumstances that could affect safety.”
“The airline piloting profession in North America is one of the most highly scrutinized careers, and airline pilots’ professionalism has contributed to making air transportation the safest form of transport for passengers and air cargo shippers,” the group said in a statement.
Regional carriers including Envoy Air play a critical role in the US aviation industry, serving both to connect smaller airports with larger cities and hubs, and as a launching pad for young pilots to start their airline careers
The pay is lower than at the mainline carriers, and competition between the regionals for contracts with the mainline carriers is fierce.
Four regional carriers closed during the pandemic — including ExpressJet, which in early 2020 announced it would expand its fleet to serve United Airlines. Within a few months, United needed fewer regional seats and rival CommutAir won the bidding war.
Regional carriers operate about 40% of scheduled passenger flights, according to the Regional Airline Association. The group says about 6-in-10 US airports are served only by regional carriers, rather than mainline service.
Pilot skills and safety are coming into the spotlight again. Carriers are calling back crews who were sidelined during the pandemic — and some admit not flying in weeks or months. After a hiatus from the cockpit last year, one pilot highlighted the issue in a government report: “We definitely need to be more aware of how much our proficiency decreases as we are flying less.”
Dickson acknowledged the data-driven safety approach to aviation has been partly thrown off by the pandemic, including parked planes and sidelined crews.
“Covid has introduced a whole new set of risks,” he said. “We need to be a little bit circumspect and understand that there’s been a lot of turnover. … And so we need to be extra vigilant as the system ramps up.”