Congress OKs bill to make commuter airlines safer

New safety legislation calls for experienced pilots, increased training and scheduling changes to prevent fatigue

Published July 30, 2010 3:46PM (EDT)

Congress on Friday approved far-reaching aviation safety legislation that was developed in response to a deadly commuter airline crash in western New York last year.

The Senate approved the measure without debate, following similar action by the House late Thursday night. That sends it to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The safety measures are an attempt to force airlines to hire more experienced pilots, investigate pilots' previous employment more thoroughly and train them better. The legislation requires a major overhaul of rules governing pilot work schedules to prevent fatigue.

The impetus for the safety measures was the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo-Niagara International Airport on Feb. 12, 2009. All 49 people aboard and one man in a house were killed. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation faulted actions by the flight's pilots and deficiencies in pilot hiring and training by Colgan Air, the regional carrier that operated the flight for Continental Airlines.

All of the past six fatal airline accidents in the U.S. involved regional carriers. Pilot performance was a contributing factor in four of those cases.

Major airlines are increasingly outsourcing short-haul flights to regional carriers, which now account for more than half of all domestic flights.

As they prepared to pass the bill, House lawmakers praised the friends and family members of the victims of Flight 3407. They have lobbied relentlessly over the past 17 months for the safety measures.

Standing on the House floor, but addressing his remarks to family members in the visitors' gallery, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said it's not possible to bring back their loved ones, but their efforts have helped to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to someone else.

"We are now at a point of making an extraordinary difference to aviation safety," said Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The bill was approved in the House by a voice vote. Among other things, it would:

-- Require the FAA to propose new regulations limiting pilots' work schedules to reflect modern research on sleep and fatigue. The NTSB has been urging the FAA for two decades to update the rules. The agency is already working on new rules, but progress has been slow.

-- Boost the minimum flight experience required to be a first officer from 250 hours to 1,500 hours -- the same level as captains. That could force regional airlines to hire more experienced pilots and indirectly lead to higher salaries. Most first officers at major carriers already exceed that threshold.

-- Require the FAA to strengthen regulations governing pilot training programs at airlines. The NTSB has urged airlines to provide remedial training for pilots who make errors or have difficulty on tests of their flying.

-- Give the FAA three years to impose new regulations requiring airlines to establish pilot mentoring programs and professional development committees, as well as modify existing training programs to include leadership and command training.

-- Require websites that sell airline tickets to state on their first page the name of the carrier operating each segment of the flight. Regional carriers often fly under names that sound similar to their major airline partners.

The bill also extends authority for Federal Aviation Administration programs through the end of the budget year on Sept. 30. Without the extension, FAA programs other than air traffic control would shutdown on Sunday.

By Joan Lowy


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