NEW YORK — Tuesday evening's crash of an American Eagle propjet on a short flight from Greensboro to Raleigh, N.C., is the latest in a series of setbacks for the newly beleaguered commuter airline industry.
The last two months have not been good ones for a segment of the transportation industry that until recently has enjoyed spectacular growth with deregulation. Last year, commuter planes carried some 50 million customers.
But just Friday the Federal Aviation Administration effectively grounded a good part of the fleets, ruling that the more than 150 French-made ATR airliners operated by nine U.S. regional carriers could not fly in icy weather.
The FAA said new tests after the Oct. 31 crash of an American Eagle ATR-72 in Indiana, killing all 68 aboard, had shown that ice buildups on the ATR wings could cause the aircraft to suddenly roll out of control.
Just three weeks earlier the FAA had balked at the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation for such a ban.
Last month an airline passenger group said smaller commuter planes pose a risk to travelers.
"Commuter aircraft with under 31 seats are the real hazard," said David Stempler, executive director of the 110,000-member International Airline Passengers Assn.
Based on statistics showing that regional airliners with less than 31 seats had 29 fatal accidents over 15 years compared with only one fatal accident for a regional plane with more than 31 seats, Stempler's organization said travelers should avoid the smaller planes.
The industry accused the group of "needlessly frightening the public" and FAA Administrator David R. Hinson responded that commuter airlines "have achieved and sustained a high level of safety."
But last week the FAA said it hoped to put their crews under the same training requirements of those flying the larger planes by the end of 1995. The proposed changes also would tighten safety inspections of the smaller aircraft.