Congress ready to pass aviation safety measures

WASHINGTON — Congress is getting ready to pass tough new aviation safety measures that were developed in response to a deadly commuter plane crash in western New York in early 2009, a key lawmaker said Wednesday. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said in an interview that he was introducing a bill with the safety improvements on Wednesday. He said he expects House passage on Thursday and Senate passage soon afterward.

Besides the safety measures, the bill extends authority for Federal Aviation Administration programs through Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year. Without that extension, the FAA would have to shutdown on Sunday when current program authority expires. There is strong support in Congress for the safety measures, which were added to a broader aviation bill that lawmakers have been struggling for nearly four years to pass. With that bill stalled over disagreements involving other issues, House and Senate lawmakers have reached a consensus that the safety provisions should be passed separately from the broader measure, Oberstar said.

The impetus for the safety measures was the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. All 49 people aboard and one man in a house were killed. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation faulted errors by the flight's two pilots and deficiencies in pilot hiring and training by Colgan Air Inc., the regional carrier that operated the flight for Continental Airlines. The investigation also revealed the accident was the byproduct of a financially strapped industry seeking to cut costs by farming out short-haul flights to regional carriers. Those carriers often hire inexperienced pilots at low wages, assign them exhausting schedules and look the other way when they commute long distances to work because they can't afford to live in the cities where they are based. The last six airline accidents in the United States all involved regional air carriers.

Friends and family members of the victims of the Colgan crash have been lobbying Congress relentlessly for passage of the safety provisions. As a group, they have made more than 30 lobbying trips to Washington at their own expense over the past 17 months. They've met with dozens of senators and House members or their staffs, and attended every congressional hearing with any connection to aviation safety. They've also pressed their case in private meetings with President Barack Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. The safety measures Congress is preparing to pass are "everything we asked for," said Kevin Kuwik, a spokesman for the families who lost his girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, in the accident. "The bill cuts right to the core of what caused Flight 3407 to crash."

The bill would require that the minimum flight experience for first officers be raised from 250 hours to 1,500 hours — the same level as captains. That could force regional airlines to hire more experienced pilots and indirectly raise salaries. FAA would also be required to update rules governing how many hours airlines may require a pilot to fly before the pilot is permitted rest, and airlines would have to put in place fatigue risk management plans — programs that use scientific research on fatigue to assess pilot hours and alert airlines to schedules that are likely to induce fatigue.

Other provisions address pre-employment screening of pilots, create mentoring programs between experienced pilots and newly hired pilots and provide remedial training for pilots who have performed poorly on skills tests. Sen. Bryon Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate aviation panel, made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to persuade senators to pass the broader aviation bill, including the safety measures, before the end of the week. The heart of the bill is a blueprint for FAA's $40 billion program to modernize the nation's air traffic control system.

The key issue holding up the bill, Dorgan said, is whether airlines should be allowed to fly an additional 16 flights a day from Reagan National Airport near Washington to destinations beyond a 1,200-mile "perimeter" imposed years ago to reduce airport noise and encourage development at the larger Dulles International Airport, which is farther away from the city and less convenient for lawmakers. "I've just had a bellyful of the intransigence that exists in this chamber," Dorgan said in a speech on the Senate floor. "It's just fine to represent your interest and your region, but it's ... just not fine to block this bill."

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