The Brancatelli File

joe THE 'SAFE'


March 1, 1995 -- When Washington bureaucrats abruptly grounded a Carolina-based airline called Leisure Air for safety violations, the big losers were several hundred San Francisco travelers who had planned to celebrate an idyllic Thanksgiving in Hawaii.

Probably unbeknownst to those travelers, Leisure Air was the charter airline that provided the transportation for vacation packages sold by a San Jose company called SunTrips. When Leisure Air temporarily lost its wings, many Bay Area residents were stranded in paradise while SunTrips scrambled to find alternate transportation home. Those who hadn't yet left for the islands had their Hawaiian holiday delayed or cancelled.

Federal grounding of airlines or aircraft for real or imagined safety concerns was unprecedented when it happened to Leisure Air last November. But then it happened twice more before the end of the year: American Eagle, the commuter carrier affiliated with American Airlines, halted service in dozens of cities after regulators essentially grounded two types of propeller-driven planes. And Kiwi International, the award-winning jet airline based in Newark, was grounded for a day just before Christmas due to a paperwork snafu.

How can a traveler avoid being stranded by an airline embroiled in a safety dispute with government regulators? Here are some tips:

Charter flights Desperate to shore up confidence in the nation's air-transportation system, the federal government has promised a rigorous and comprehensive safety audit of all the nation's scheduled and chartered airlines. Cynics believe the pronouncement is shameless grandstanding on the part of federal regulators, yet even a perfunctory review may turn up record-keeping violations at smaller charter airlines. Given the regulators' current desire to appear tough on safety issues, it's not unreasonable to expect several more groundings.

The best advice: avoid charter flights for the next several months. Flights operated by major scheduled carriers often cost only a few dollars more, so why take the chance of being caught between a grounded charter flight and a regulator's hard ass?

Travel packages Heed the experience of the SunTrips travelers. Many tour packages, especially those sold at rockbottom prices, include charter flights. Be sure to ask before buying. And if you plan to purchase a tour package in the next several months, avoid those bundled with charter flights. Even when it costs more, book packages that include transportation on scheduled airlines.

Commuter flights Commuter airlines flying prop-driven planes always were held to less rigorous safety standards than the larger carriers flying jet aircraft, but now the government promises to address that inequity in several months. The stiffened regulatory environment may cause sporadic short-term groundings while some commuter airlines struggle to meet the new rules.

During this transitional period, avoid booking flights operated with prop planes, and construct itineraries using only jets. That often entails no more inconvenience than flying at a different time, but you also may have to fly into a larger airport that is further from your destination. If all else fails, consider driving on all or part of your itinerary.

The major jet airlines It's unlikely that any of the nation's largest airlines will be grounded for safety reasons. Optimists say that's because America's large airlines are uncommonly safe. Skeptics believe regulators wouldn't disrupt the nation's air-transport system by grounding one of the giants. And cynics note that Kiwi, with just 50 daily flights, was grounded even though it never has been involved in an accident, yet USAir, with thousands of daily flights, kept flying despite two fatal crashes last year.

Whatever the explanation, your best chance of flying without disruption in the coming months is by traveling with the big guys operating the big jets.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.