Cost issues may delay new pilot training rules

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Apr. 29--WASHINGTON -- The federal government's attempt to write new rules aimed at limiting pilot fatigue has hit a snag, and the group Families of Flight 3407 said Wednesday it is outraged about it.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which is writing the new rules, is informally consulting with the Office of Management and Budget about them -- and sources close to the talks said that some at OMB are concerned the FAA will write a proposal that will cost the airlines too much money.

The concerns mean that the new rules -- which were due out this spring -- could be delayed several months.

"It is extremely disappointing to hear that a cost-benefit analysis is getting in the way of such a crucial safety reform," said Susan Bourque of East Aurora, who lost her sister, 9/11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the February 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center.

"And they can't blame the airlines or the pilots for this holdup; this falls squarely on the shoulders of the Obama administration," Bourque added.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, Tom Gavin, said the FAA has not yet submitted a formal proposal to the budget office, which reviews all proposed federal regulations for their cost impact. "I think it would be more apt to say that there have been some very early discussions" about the rule, Gavin said.

Meanwhile, FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown issued a statement that did not estimate how long it might take to finalize the new rules guiding how much pilots can fly and how much time they can spend on duty. "The flight and duty proposal is under administration review," the statement said. "Our main priority is completing a rule that will help pilots avoid fatigue and keep air travelers safe. This is a complex issue, and we want this done right."

The apparent delay comes only a month after FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt met with the 3407 families and local lawmakers and assured them the new fatigue rules were on track.

"We've asked for this process to be expedited, and I'm optimistic that we'll still have it [completed] in the spring," although it is possible the review could take as long as six months, Babbitt said at the time.

Hearing that the rules may have been delayed, Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, said he had contacted the OMB seeking an explanation.

"It's the typical Washington bureaucracy," Lee said. "The families have run out of patience, as have I."

The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing the new fatigue rules as one of its top safety recommendations since 1995. An attempt to draw up new rules in the 1990s collapsed amid industry opposition, and the issue remained largely dormant until after the crash of Flight 3407.

Neither the pilot nor co-pilot of that flight slept in a bed the night before the crash, which claimed 50 lives and which the safety board blamed largely on pilot error. The board did not, however, list fatigue as one of the central factors in the crash.

Nevertheless, the families group has pushed for the fatigue rules as well as improved pilot training, while the airline industry has pushed back because of cost concerns.

"Frankly, I'm sick of listening to the airlines complaining that the sky is falling," said Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter, Lorin, in the crash. "Because of this crash, our sky has already fallen.

"How many dollars do these number crunchers in the White House estimate the life of one of these passengers to be worth?" Maurer added. "They can add as many zeroes to the end of that number as they want and I'll still tell you it doesn't come close to equaling what we lost with Lorin."

jzremski@buffnews.com

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