Crash victims' group assails White House stance on airline safety

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009; 6:48 PM

The family group that formed after the deadly Continental Airlines commuter plane crash in February is sharply criticizing the Obama administration's stance on airline safety.

In a statement, Families of Continental Flight 3407 said it "strongly condemned" remarks by J. Randolph Babbitt, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, who spoke Thursday before the Senate aviation subcommittee.

The group said Babbitt is standing in the way of legislation that would mandate higher flight-time requirements for airline pilots. They pointed to comments from Babbitt that the FAA is considering ways to enhance its existing pilot certificate system instead of supporting stronger requirements.

"On one hand, I guess it is good that the lip service is over and everything is finally out in the clear," said Scott Maurer of Moore, S.C., who lost his daughter Lorin in the crash. "But after listening to the rhetoric from the [Transportation Department] all summer that this administration was going to put the passenger first and that cost would not be allowed to come in the way of safety, how can you not be devastated by this when you think of the price we have all paid?"

In October, the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to improve regional air carrier safety, a direct response to the Feb. 12 crash, which killed 50 people near Buffalo. The National Transportation Safety Board has called the crash the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years.

A provision of the House bill would push the FAA to mandate that airline pilots obtain licenses requiring 1,500 hours of flight time. Now, entry-level pilots typically need 250 hours.

The Senate has yet to take up corresponding legislation partly because of its focus on health-care reform.

In his Senate testimony, Babbitt said he the number of flight-time hours alone might not improve the flying proficiency of pilots. Babbitt said he was more interested in beefing up FAA rules on pilot training and in "discrete training" of pilots who seek to fly large commercial airliners.

After the hearing, representatives of the family group are expected to meet with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is sponsoring a stand-alone bill that would require all commercial pilots to obtain the 1,500-hour flight-time license. The family group also plans to meet with Babbitt and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday.

The flight involved in the crash was operated by regional carrier Colgan Air, formerly based in Manassas. Colgan operates as a feeder airline service for Continental Airlines flights.

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

Last week, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of his chamber's aviation subcommittee, criticized the FAA for delaying long-awaited federal rules designed to combat pilot fatigue. Dorgan said the lawmakers were "just out of patience here."

Relatives of victims of the Buffalo crash who attended the hearing last week said they were concerned about the pace of action in Washington.

"It feels like they are going slow," said Margie Brandquist, a Leesburg resident who lost her 50-year-old sister, Mary "Belle" Pettys, on the Buffalo flight.

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