Senators Press Commuter Flight Safety

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Federal Aviation Administration has failed to act on 450 recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board for improvements in commercial air safety, one of a number of safety concerns highlighted by a Senate aviation panel yesterday.

The hearing was prompted by the Feb. 12 crash of a twin-engine turboprop into a residential area as it made its descent near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The ongoing investigation of the crash, which killed 50 people, has raised questions about safety practices of the nation's system of commuter airlines. Fifty percent of all U.S. flights involve commuter airlines.

Senators challenged FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt with questions about the government's supervision of regional carriers. The Buffalo plane was flown by Manassas-based Colgan Air, a unit of Pinnacle Airlines.

Preliminary evidence from the Buffalo investigation has raised questions about the safety practices of regional airlines. Revelations included transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder in which Rebecca Shaw, the doomed flight's co-pilot, complained about her inexperience flying in icy weather conditions. The NTSB also found the flight's captain failed multiple flight examinations, some of which he was able to conceal from his employers.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) also asked Babbitt whether multiple failed flight tests would be grounds for terminating a pilot. Babbitt responded that "people are human" and that he had seen situations where pilots could have a bad day.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), whose father U.S. Rep. Nick Begich was declared dead after a plane he was in disappeared in 1972, also tangled with Babbitt. He said he was surprised to learn that Shaw made as little as $23,000 a year as a regional pilot. Babbitt responded: "It might surprise you that there are major carriers that start at that level."

Begich said: "It does surprise me."

At the hearing, Babbit pledged to implement a new system to track open NTSB recommendations.

Babbitt was joined on the panel by Calvin L. Scovel III, the transportation department's inspector general. In a preliminary report that he summarized at the hearing, Scovel faulted the FAA for failing to design an inspection system tailored for regional airlines, and for failing to oversee repair stations where regional airplanes increasingly go for maintenance.

The report also criticized the FAA for not playing a role in the approval or oversight of contracts between major carriers and regional airlines.

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