Officials of major U.S. airlines say they have started taking voluntary steps to improve the safety of their partner commuter air carriers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that industry representatives, in their most specific response yet to critics of commuter airline safety, have told the National Transportation Safety Board that large airlines increasingly are helping their regional partners make improvements. They pointed to strengthened outside audits, improved training and increased data-sharing.

A Delta Air Lines safety official, for example, told the safety board that all its commuter affiliates are required to collect and share information about events such as unstable approaches, ground-collision warnings and other dangerous incidents.

The assurances came during a two-day forum on partnerships between major and regional airlines held by the NTSB, the federal agency that investigates transportation accidents.

Such airline partnerships have come under fresh scrutiny since the February, 2009, crash near Buffalo, N.Y., of a flight operated by regional carrier Colgan Air, under the Continental name. Fifty people were killed. The NTSB later faulted pilot mistakes and safety lapses at Colgan.

Major airlines have been criticized for not doing enough to ensure proper safety programs on their regional partners. The regional  carriers, the Journal said, operate about half of domestic commercial airline flights in the U.S. According to NTSB data, all of the fatal commercial airline crashes since 2003 have been on regional airlines.

At the NTSB forum, airline pilots and family members of passengers who died in the Colgan Air crash said major airlines let their regional partners skimp on safety standards to save money.  Paul Rice, a senior safety official with the Air Line Pilots Association, expressed skepticism about the voluntary safety initiatives that the major airlines say they have started taking.

He suggested that Congress should “get the FAA to raise the bar to a higher level” by mandating commuter airlines to permanently lock in advanced safety programs.

One relative of a crash victim said major airlines operated a “shell game” by contracting out to smaller carriers, which may not have the same safety standards and pilot training as their larger counterparts, USA Today reports.

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