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McLean Family Behind Airline Safety Effort

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When the House Transportation Committee gavels to order its second hearing Wednesday into the crash of Continental Airlines Flight 3407, dozens of family members representing victims will be in the audience. Among them will be the Mellett family of McLean, who lost a son, noted jazz musician Coleman T. Mellett.

Seven months after the Feb. 12 crash that killed 50 people near Buffalo and exposed troubling safety lapses among regional carriers, the Melletts will be keenly watching every step as the federal government pushes for reform.

"We're all just one mistake away from another airline disaster," said Kenneth Mellett, Coleman's father. "It could be a mistake in bringing in the wrong people as pilots, a mistake in not training that person effectively, a mistake in execution or operating the aircraft because somebody was either overwhelmed, tired or fatigued."

The Mellett family's conviction was born in a small meeting room at the Hotel Indigo in Buffalo. In the room, government crash investigators would arrive from the crash site, sometimes with mud on their boots, to brief family members about what was happening.

On the third day, Kenneth Mellett called for a families-only meeting and suggested that the people in the room should get to know each other and "start to pull ourselves together." He suggested that they put photos of their loved ones on the wall.

"The first two days were so raw," said Mary Ellen Mellett, mother of Coleman, who was 34. "It was so hard to believe what was happening. It took almost three days for us to recognize the people who were sitting next to us -- you can't believe you're there."

Federal investigators have called the crash the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years. Although Mellett bought a ticket from Continental Airlines, the plane was operated by regional carrier Colgan Air. Regional airlines account for about half of all scheduled commercial flights in the country, but regulators question whether they have adequate safety controls.

Government investigators have uncovered significant safety lapses in the Buffalo crash. Among the revelations is evidence that the flight's captain was able to conceal failed flight tests in his work history, and a cockpit recorder transcript that showed the co-pilot complaining about her inadequate level of flight training in icy conditions. In Senate testimony in August, airline executives said they rarely, if ever, participate in safety inspections of the regional carriers they enlist to fly millions of customers.

The Melletts are among a tight-knit group of 35 families who have organized Families of Continental Flight 3407. They have emerged as an influential, albeit low-key, lobbying force.

Kevin Kuwik, who lost his longtime girlfriend Lorin Maurer, 30, in the crash, said family members were trying to avoid the mistakes of other groups that have formed after accidents. He said he reached out to those groups for help, but found that they had achieved little success.

"They had no contacts," Kuwik said. "They just had a lot of frustration."

In a shift, the families are mostly relying on Congress to pass laws that force changes rather than targeting the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA rule-making process can move slowly and be dominated by the interests of pilots and airlines.

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