Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pinnacle to Colgan: Your name is mud

An airline’s pilots are its most public representatives, so when a captain makes headlines as a collector of child pornography of record-breaking size, that’s a public relations problem. What I’m hearing is that when it comes to Colgan Airlines it may be insurmountable. 
The arrest of Colgan captain Todd Ewanko in Harris County, Texas on charges of possessing “millions and millions” of sexually explicit photos and videos of children came the same day that executives of Pinnacle Airlines Corp were holding a press conference to announce the purchase of Mesaba Airlines from Delta Airlines at a price of $62 million.
In a press release, executives made it clear that Colgan would eventually be phased out as Mesaba becomes the turbo prop carrier and Pinnacle the operator of regional jets. But I’m told that Pinnacle wants the Colgan name gone “as soon as possible” and the scandal of Capt. Ewanko is the nail in Colgan’s coffin.
That the name Colgan has become synonymous with deadly crashes, a lax attitude about safety, badly trained pilots and now, one extremely badly behaved captain, is a shame, considering that the company name is also a family one. Chuck Colgan is a Virginia politician. Michael Colgan works there, Shannon Colgan was a friend on the Facebook page of the alleged kiddy porn collector Capt. Ewanko (as are other Colgan employees but the number is diminishing day by day).
But as one knowledgeable airline pilot told me with some regret and a nod to the “really good people” who work there, “Colgan gets what they pay for.”
To its credit, Colgan's parent, Pinnacle Airlines reacted quickly to the Ewanko scandal; cooperating with Texas authorities who are looking into whether the pilot used his access to free travel to facilitate his collection. The day after Ewanko appeared in court, Pinnacle spokesman Joe Williams sent me an email saying that the airline had “terminated” Ewanko’s employment. He would not elaborate on what prompted the decision but did add that “we have no evidence that the suspect used company computer equipment for this purpose.” But of course, Capt. Ewanko’s use of company computers is not the issue. Pilots don’t have desk jobs.
As I wrote in a previous blog it is Ewanko’s travels that have authorities concerned. This could “lead to access to child porn because it’s much more prevalent in other countries than it is here in the United States,” said Dave Townsend, a specialist in internet crime. In a chilling description, Mr. Townsend explained that after a while, users of child pornography get tired of sitting behind their computers and “want to experience it firsthand.”
But even the bizarre case of Todd Ewanko, might have been survivable had the airline not been found responsible for so many lapses in safety leading to the crash of flight 3407 in Buffalo in 2009 and even before. 

 Its hiring, training and supervision of pilots was criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board. Testimony at the probable cause hearing showed the gap between Colgan’s safety policies and it safety practices was wide enough to fly a 747 through. PBS produced a documentary Flying Cheap, in which former Colgan employees provide details.

 Over the past seven years, Colgan Air ­ which flies under contract for Delta, Continental, United Airlines and USAirways ­ has been cited six times by the FAA for maintenance or operational violations, including failing to follow proper repair practices.  In 2003, Colgan mechanics and pilots made mistakes that resulted in an accident in Hyannis. Both pilots were killed, there were no passengers on the airplane.

 So it is no wonder executives want the name Colgan to “evaporate.” But just getting rid of a name does not a safe airline make. I call your attention to a Pinnacle Airlines Northwest Airlink pilot induced aerodynamic stall on October 2004.

This was a repositioning flight on which the pilots “decided to have a little fun” and take the Bombardier CRJ up to its flight ceiling of 41,000 feet.  After a double flame out, the pilots were unable to restart the engines and the plane crashed into a residential area near Jefferson City, Missouri, killing the pilots but thankfully no one on the ground. You can read the details here.

But my point is that problems are not isolated within the Virginia confines of Colgan Air. Pinnacle may retire the name Colgan in hopes of achieving a better public profile, but it must take to heart the recommendations made following each of the three fatal accidents under the Pinnacle umbrella over the last 7 years if it really wants to do the right thing.


Steve C. said...

So it would seem that Pinnacle management clearly understands the distinction between brand equity and brand liability. Question is, then: What are they willing to pay for? I suppose we'll see.

Christine, when you renamed this blog, I wasn't sure I understood why you did so. Now I think I get it, and a most elegant choice of names it is...

Founder said...

Hey Christine,

The pilots at are with you!

Telling it like it is!