House Passes Airline Safety Bill

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

The House of Representatives passed far-reaching legislation Wednesday designed to boost the safety of the country's regional air carrier system, a response to a February crash that killed 50 people near Buffalo.

The bill, which passed the House 409 to 11, pushes the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that all airline pilots obtain airline transport pilot certificates, which require 1,500 hours of flight time. Currently, entry-level pilots typically need 250 hours.

The bill also seeks to ensure that pilots are fully trained to operate the safety gear in the planes they fly, and would close a loophole that has allowed pilots to conceal failed flight tests from potential employers.

Continental Connection Flight 3407, a two-engine turboprop, crashed into a house on Feb. 12, killing a man in the house and everyone on board. The flight was operated by regional carrier Colgan Air, formerly based in Manassas. The National Transportation Safety Board has called the crash the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years.

The NTSB, which investigates U.S. aviation accidents, has yet to issue findings in the case. However, preliminary board hearings this year have focused on the pilots' lack of experience in icing conditions and their possible misreading of a safety warning system.

NTSB and congressional hearings also exposed safety problems associated with difficult working conditions and lax government oversight of regional carriers. The carriers, which typically operate small aircraft under contract with larger airlines, handle half of the country's commercial flights.

Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who shepherded the bill, said it came as a direct result of the Buffalo crash.

"The accident serves as a reminder that we must maintain constant vigilance over airline safety," he said.

As the bill headed to the floor Wednesday, pilots groups fought against a last-minute attempt to water down the flight-time provision.

Major U.S. aviation colleges protested the requirement that all pilots obtain transport pilot certificates from the FAA. Under current regulations, only senior pilots must have the certificates.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the country's largest aviation school, emerged as a big opponent of the provision. The school's Daytona Beach campus is in the district of Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the transportation committee, which oversees aviation.

The Air Transport Association, the airline industry's leading Washington lobbying group, also stepped up its opposition to the flight-time requirement in recent days. On Tuesday, the association's chief executive, James C. May, sent a letter to the committee detailing industry objections.

In an apparent compromise, the question of how many air hours a flight college graduate must have has largely been left to the FAA to sort out in its rulemaking process.

"The bill is good, but you can't take out the meat of the bill," said Capt. Arnie Gentile, government affairs chairman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, which represents 5,200 US Airways pilots and has been a strong backer of the flight-time requirement.

"We're very concerned about a possible loophole that would allow academic training to take the place of flight experience," he said. "As the Buffalo tragedy demonstrated, flight experience is critical in the cockpit."

Corresponding air safety legislation in the Senate has been slowed because health-care reform has backed up the Finance Committee. The committee has yet to schedule votes or hearings on an FAA budget bill, currently the main vehicle for airline safety legislation in the chamber.

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