Crash prompts effort by Congress to reform airline pay and safety

Republicans joined Democrats on Thursday in calling for legislation to address pay, training and pilot-fatigue issues at regional airlines uncovered in the wake of the crash of Continental Flight 3407 outside of Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee members agreed that Congress may need to force regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to institute new safety reforms in response to the February crash, which killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground.

“We have got to stop this race to the bottom. We have an industry in distress,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). “We have been talking about this for a long time and now is the time for action.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill blame the FAA for not acting on recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to improve safety at regional airlines.

As the economy has worsened, lawmakers suspect that the major air carriers — brand names like Continental Airlines — have begun to shift more of their domestic flights to regional airliners that cost less to operate. Half of the flights in the United States are now operated by regional airlines. The airplane that crashed flew under the Continental name, but was actually operated by Colgan Air, a small regional airline.

 The shift to regional airlines raises safety concerns because regional airline pilots are not as well-trained as pilots who fly for major carriers, lawmakers said. These pilots also work long hours, which makes them more susceptible to fatigue and pilot error, lawmakers said.

The six scheduled passenger flights since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that have crashed have all been flown by regional airliners. Half of those crashes were the result of pilot error, according to the NTSB.

Lawmakers believe that the pilots flying Continental 3407 either had little sleep or were relatively inexperienced. The NTSB has not determined the cause of the crash yet.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the Aviation subcommittee, said he planned to draft legislation after Thursday’s hearing.

“We need to put some of these things into law so they are mandatory, not discretionary,” Costello said, referring to the safety recommendations not acted upon yet by the FAA.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, promised to work with Costello and others in drafting that legislation.

“We will join you if we have to take corrective action by legislation,” Mica said.

New legislation for tougher safety standards could face opposition from the major U.S. air carriers. Major airlines opposed previous efforts to adopt tougher safety standards, arguing they were unnecessary given the industry’s safety record and could raise their costs.

“We are committed to working with all stakeholders to develop solutions to improving what already is the safest air transportation system in the world, but until we see specific legislation, it would be inappropriate to comment,” said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the major U.S. airlines.

Lawmakers heard from several high-ranking administration officials who are investigating the airline crash. Despite the best efforts to institute “one level of safety” across all airlines, regulators said regional carriers have not always met industry standards.

“Clearly, the record tells us we are not there yet,” said Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, speaking before the House committee for the first time since his June 1 confirmation, said he has set up a meeting between industry leaders and government officials for next Monday to discuss new safety efforts.

But Babbitt said new standards for the airlines would have to be “voluntary” for now because it could take six months to a year before regulations could be finalized under an official rulemaking proceeding. In 1995, the FAA had proposed rules to shorten pilots’ work hours, but it eventually backed off under pressure from the airlines.

“I intend to use the bully pulpit of this job to the extent that I can,” Babbitt said.

But Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, implored Babbit to take a hard line with the air carriers and force them to institute new precautions.

“You have power. The airlines go against you at their peril and we will support you in that initiative,” Oberstar said. “We expect that kind of leadership.”