Federal Air Safety Initiatives Run Into Opposition

An aerial view of the scene of a fatal regional plane crash outside Buffalo.
An aerial view of the scene of a fatal regional plane crash outside Buffalo. (By Derek Gee -- Associated Press)
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

Federal efforts to improve U.S. aviation safety after a deadly regional plane crash in February have hit major obstacles, sapping momentum for a reform effort that enjoyed broad political support earlier this year.

A number of aviation safety proposals have been filed in Congress this year in response to the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 outside Buffalo. The crash killed 50 people, making it the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years.

In preliminary hearings and reports, the National Transportation Safety Board has exposed a number of safety issues, including lax pilot hiring practices, problems related to training and fatigue and superficial regulatory oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In three days of hearings in March, the NTSB released cockpit voice transcripts from the accident, and the plane's co-pilot can be heard expressing fears about poor training and her inadequacies as an entry-level pilot. The safety board's revelations were followed by a wave of news conferences, news releases and congressional hearings in which lawmakers demanded action.

Action appears to have been stymied on a number of fronts, however. Objections from U.S. aviation colleges have slowed House legislation intended to improve safety. The schools are fighting a provision that would require all airline pilots to obtain airline transport pilot certificates from the FAA, substantially boosting the flight time of entry-level pilots. Under current regulations, only senior pilots must have the certificates, which require 1,500 hours of flight time.

The flight time requirement is a big problem for the colleges, which tend to graduate pilots who have 250 to 350 hours. Pilots from the schools have been able to move quickly to entry-level jobs at regional airlines as junior pilots. The new rule would force graduates to spend an additional year or more acquiring the required flight hours.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the country's largest aviation school, has emerged in recent weeks as a major opponent of the provision. The school's Daytona Beach campus is in the district of Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees aviation.

Tim Brady, dean of Embry-Riddle's College of Aviation, and other aviation educators said the provision would spur aspiring airline pilots to fulfill the flying time requirement by piloting crop-dusters and towing banners.

Staff members in Mica's office have been working on a compromise with FAA officials and committee Democrats.

Jim Berard, a spokesman for the House transportation committee, said he is confident that the group could reach "an amicable solution." But a compromise could alienate other House Democrats, families of crash victims and pilot union members who back reforms.

"Any attempt to decrease the qualifications below the level of an airline transport pilot license is watering it down," said Capt. James Ray, media chairman of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, which represents 5,200 US Airways pilots and has been a strong backer of the bill.

Meanwhile, other efforts to improve aviation safety have foundered. In the Senate, action on aviation safety legislation has taken a back seat as key lawmakers grapple with health-care reform.

Separately, an FAA initiative to extract voluntary commitments from the aviation industry to improve safety has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats. In June, FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt wrote dozens of airlines and eight labor unions asking them to upgrade safety practices and report back to him on their progress.

Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, credited Babbitt with starting a rulemaking process aimed at addressing pilot fatigue this year. But Costello said that the FAA had failed to impose firm deadlines and that data from the voluntary initiative are "raw and incomplete."

The FAA has said 69 of 98 airlines and three of eight aviation unions have responded. Babbitt vowed last week to publicize the names of unresponsive airlines and unions.

"While we haven't heard from everyone at this point," Babbitt said at the hearing, "I will use my bully pulpit going forward."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company