With all of the concern over air safety, passengers are increasingly interested in the type of aircraft they fly in, how old these planes are and how well they are maintained.
But when passengers are flying on both major and smaller commuter airlines, which is more and more the situation under code-sharing arrangements between airlines under a variety of marketing alliances, they may fly on planes that are governed by different FAA-imposed safety standards.
Under a rule put into effect late last year by the Department of Transportation, airlines must verbally tell passengers at the point of sale when a flight will be on a different airline from the one whose code will be shown on the ticket. However, it's up to the passenger to follow up by asking questions about what kind of plane is involved, how big it is, if there is a no-smoking section, etc.
To Ease Confusion
This rule was intended to help ease confusion and troubling surprises, which included getting to the right departure gate on time (which can involve going to different buildings at some airports), and discovering that a smaller plane involved might not be as well-equipped as its larger brethren.
But this regulation doesn't require airlines to volunteer the name of the airline sharing the code unless the passenger asks. Moreover, the rule doesn't obligate travel agents to supply this information. Many agents, however, inform their clients orally and in the remarks sections of itinerary print-outs.
But even if you ask, you're not likely to find out what FAA maintenance/safety standards are involved, so here is a basic primer on the subject:
The FAA provides different operating certificates to airlines, depending on the size and configurations of the planes they use. A Part 135 certificate covers planes carrying 20 or fewer passengers. Jets carrying more than 20 passengers come under a Part 121 certificate. (The word Part is used because each rule is part of a larger body of regulations.)
It's quite possible for airlines to have planes that come under both Part 121 and Part 135 regulations. It's also possible for an airline to use both Part 121 and Part 135 planes on the same route, depending on the traffic booked on a particular flight.
Tougher safety and maintenance requirements are involved in getting and keeping a Part 121 certificate than a Part 135 certificate, but it's quite feasible, however, for a Part 135 airline to maintain safety standards that are equal to or even better than Part 121 carriers.
Critics have maintained that the impact of deregulation leading to the creation of more carriers, competition and economic tightenings that have extended to safety matters--as well as the understaffing of the FAA--have somewhat blurred the distinctions in handling the two certificates.
Therefore, critics contend, as long as both types of carriers are involved in such code-sharing flights, the requirements for Part 135 airlines should be the same as for Part 121 carriers.
Regulations governing the smaller planes under Part 135 have been upgraded since deregulation, but they're still not up to the Part 121 level.
Some examples of the more stringent requirements for the big boys are: A pilot flying a Part 121 plane can only fly 100 hours a month but is allowed 120 hours with a Part 135 plane. Similarly, pilots must have more rest time between flights with a Part 121 than with a Part 135 plane. Pilot licensing requirements are also stricter under Part 121 than Part 135.
The FAA allows airlines to draw up their own maintenance and safety manuals, but according to FAA guidelines. Airlines are mandated to carry out the provisions of these manuals, with the FAA making random checks and general surveillance.
"We lack the staff to observe every flight," said Allan R. Ashbury, manager-LAX Flight Standards, FAA. "We're not the traffic cops behind the billboards issuing tickets."
Carriers, however, are obliged to tell the FAA when they violate their own standards, Ashbury said. "And airlines do tell us of problems," he added. "We can handle an infraction on an administrative basis, without a fine, if the error was unintentional, non-safety related, involved no lack of competence, and the carrier has a good compliance attitude."
Otherwise, Ashbury said, airlines could be fined, as several carriers recently have been, and even have their operating certificates lifted.
The maintenance standards can vary, even for the same aircraft. "The type of use, such as the length of flights, has a bearing," Ashbury explained. "One carrier might use a DC-10 on a long-haul flight, with few or no stopovers. Another airline, or even the same one, might use a DC-10 on a shorter routing with several stopovers. The more stopovers and landings, the more wear and tear on the equipment and the more need for this equipment to be checked," Ashbury said.