Al Kamen
Al Kamen
In the Loop

Still waiting for air safety improvements

Change comes slowly, very slowly, in Washington. Shortly after the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo in February 2009, Transporation Secretary Ray LaHood and incoming Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt promised swift action to remedy the likely culprits: pilot error, fatigue and inadequate training.

The safety board’s final report wasn’t in, but LaHood said his agency wasn’t going to be “just sitting on our hands for seven months waiting for the report to be finished.”

Al Kamen

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. He began his reporting career at the Rocky Mountain News and joined The Post in 1980. He has covered local and federal courts, the Supreme Court and the State Department. Follow him on Twitter.

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Babbitt, facing a very unhappy — and very bipartisan — Senate Commerce Committee, pledged “Safety will be my number one priority” and told Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that he would implement the safety board’s recommendations.

That was 21 / 2 years ago. And, despite constant pleas for action from the families of the 50 people killed in the crash, some new procedures have not been implemented. The FAA and the Transportation Department have sent to the Office of Management and Budget proposed rules on pilot fatigue and pilot qualifications and have been awaiting OMB approval. The FAA and DOT are also wrapping up work on a new pilot-training rule.

The airlines, especially the small carriers and others that fly under contract to the military, last month continued to oppose the pilot-fatigue rule, which would require substantial changes in flight crews’ hours, saying the “ill-conceived regulation” would kill as many as 400,000 jobs “at a time when unemployment persists above 9 percent.”

Could be a while longer before anything changes.

Don’t call us

When it comes to the Department of Homeland Security, not everything about public affairs is actually, well, public, our colleague Emily Heil reports.

Take the strange recent case of a Federal Times reporter who, frustrated with his inability to reach the public affairs folks at the department, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get their direct telephone numbers.

In response to the inquiry, the DHS provided a list of staff names and numbers in the Office of Public Affairs — only the numbers were blacked out.

Federal Times reporter Andrew Medici, who chronicled the caper last week on the newspaper’s FedLine blog, tells us he had tired of being told to channel his requests through the generic mediainquiry@dhs.gov e-mail address. Medici said that when he used that address, he never knew who would will be calling him back, when that might happen — or even whether there would be a call at all.

Hence the FOIA request.

In its reply, the DHS explained that it had blacked out the names under an exemption that protects “personal privacy.” (Who knew taxpayer-funded phones were private?)

DHS spokesman Matt Chandler notes that career workers in the department’s FOIA office, not the public affairs shop, make decisions about what information to provide — and what to redact — under such requests. And he insists that reaching members of the media team isn’t all that hard. “We work every day to be fair, transparent and accessible in our dealings with the press,” he says.

Black marks notwithstanding.

What’s in a name?

The UNESCO executive board, meeting Wednesday in Paris, has voted to delay until next spring a decision on whether to approve a “life sciences award” named in honor of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

UNESCO, as reported in the Spanish-language press, set up an 18-member “working group” to recommend a solution to a problem that’s divided the 58-member board — and caused an uproar among human rights groups — since Africa’s longest-serving dictator a few years ago pledged $3 million to establish the prize.

So like Dracula, the prize goes back to the secret crypt to rise again next year. Well, maybe by then Equatorial Guinea will have its own Arab Spring?

Doodling won’t be the same

Hill staffers are seeing red over the dearth of a particular brand of pen once widely available to their offices. Felt-tipped, smooth-writing and available in red, blue and black, the writing tool was the favorite of many who, even in an age of text messages and e-mails, used them for scrawling notes and dashing off missives.

And now that staffers have found they’re no longer available at the Capitol’s office-supply stores, the pens have taken on something of a cult status.

Hoarding has been rampant. But in recent weeks, even the largest stashes seem to have run out.

“I’ve been hanging on to my last two or three,” laments one House aide. “I’ve been keeping my last ones away from my kids,” says a Senate staffer.

A spokesman for the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer says the pen’s maker, Eberhard Faber, discontinued the line, though it was one of the Capitol’s top sellers. But he said the Paper Mate “porous felt tip pen” has a similarly smooth feel as the late, lamented pens.

Pushing the envelope

The campaign to spare the embattled U.S. Postal Service from the axes of Washington budget slashers is proof that the medium isn’t always the message.

As lawmakers ponder whether to trim the budget by closing post offices and halting Saturday mail delivery, missives by the thousands have been pouring into Capitol Hill offices. But there’s great irony to be found in the Save the Postal Service movement. Hill aides tell us that the vast majority of those rushing to defend the service aren’t actually using the system known affectionately to some as “snail mail.” Instead, they’re using another beloved mode of communication: e-mail.

The electronic pleas may not have the nostalgia factor of those delivered by workers affected by “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night,” but they sure are fast, cheap and easy to dash off.

One staffer estimated that among the pro-postal messages, the proportion of e-mails to dead-tree letters has been about 20 to 1. “Mail a letter?” asked another Hill staffer. “Why don’t I also play the latest record on my record player?”

That’s par for the course, according to data about how constituents communicate with Congress. Even though Congress gets a relatively large volume of mail, the Congressional Management Foundation estimates that between 75 and 90 percent of traffic coming into Hill offices is now via e-mail.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this column. Follow In the Loop on Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

 
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