Senate weighs legislation to boost regional airline safety after crash exposed weaknesses

By Joan Lowy, AP
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Senate seeks to boost regional airline safety

WASHINGTON — The Senate is pushing to strengthen pilot training and hiring requirements in an effort to improve the safety of regional airlines, a problem exposed by an air crash last year that killed 50 people.

Debate began this week on a two-year, $34 billion bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration while imposing a host of safety and consumer measures.

Along the way, however, the bill ran into headwinds as senators sought to attach unrelated amendments on issues ranging from education to debt reduction. The bill is seen as a vehicle to pass measures unable to clear the Senate on their own.

The bill would require airlines to look at all of a pilot’s records, including previous tests of flying skills, before the pilot is hired. Another provision would require the FAA to beef up airlines’ pilot training programs.

The FAA administrator would also be required to perform surprise inspections of regional airlines at least once a year.

Over the past decade, major airlines have increasingly outsourced their short-haul flights to low-cost regional airlines, who often operate under a name similar to the major carrier. Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009, was operated by regional carrier Colgan Air Inc. for Continental Airlines.

Regional airlines now account for over half of domestic departures and a quarter of all passengers. They are the only scheduled service to more than 400 communities. Major U.S. air carriers, suffering from the economic downturn, lost over $8 billion in 2009, but regional airlines recorded $200 million in profits, according to FAA.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board pinned the cause of the crash of Flight 3407 on a mistake by the flight’s captain, who responded incorrectly to the activation of a key piece of safety equipment, causing the plane to stall. But the board’s investigation also found that pilots weren’t being sufficiently trained on how to recover from a full stall. The captain had also failed numerous tests of his piloting skills before and after being hired by Colgan, but was allowed to retake the tests, which he ultimately passed. Colgan officials said they were unaware of most of the previous failures at the time the captain was hired. The accident revealed a gap in the safety record of regional airlines and major carriers.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he will offer an amendment to require airline co-pilots have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight experience. Captains are already require to have that much experience, but co-pilots can have as few as 250 hours. The proposal is a priority for the family members of the victims of Flight 3407, who have made dozens of trips to Washington to lobby Congress. It’s opposed by the airline industry and flight schools, who fear it will cause students to bypass schools in an effort to earn flight hours as fast as they can.

Most major airlines already require more than 1,500 hours for both pilots, but regional carriers often hire less experienced pilots and pay them lower wages.

The bill doesn’t tackle all the safety issues raised by the Buffalo crash. Potentially fatigue-inducing long distance commutes, for example, are not addressed.

“A lot of questions have been raised. We don’t have a solution for all of them,” said Sen. Bryon Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate’s aviation panel.

Among other safety issues, the bill would ban pilots from using laptops and other personal electronic devices in the cockpit, a response to an October incident in which a Northwest Airlines plane carrying 144 passengers flew more than 100 miles past its destination of Minneapolis while the flight’s two pilots were working on their laptops.

The bill also would double the frequency of FAA inspections of all foreign aircraft repair and maintenance stations that work on U.S. planes, requiring them twice a year instead of annually.

Airlines used to perform nearly all the major maintenance and repair work using their own workers. Over the last two decades, they have increasingly outsourced the work to domestic and foreign repair stations that use cheaper, nonunion labor.

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