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Bill would require more pilot training

By Associated Press
March 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Senate is pushing to strengthen pilot training and hiring requirements in an effort to improve the safety of regional airlines, a problem highlighted by a crash last year that killed 50 people.

Debate began this week on a two-year, $34 billion bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration while imposing a host of safety and consumer measures.

The bill would require airlines to look at all of a pilot’s records, including previous tests of flying skills, before the pilot is hired. The FAA would also be required to perform surprise inspections of regional airlines at least once a year.

Over the past decade, major airlines have increasingly outsourced their short-haul flights to low-cost regional airlines. Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009, was operated by regional carrier Colgan Air Inc. for Continental Airlines.

Regional airlines now account for over half of domestic departures and a quarter of all passengers. Major US air carriers, suffering from the economic downturn, lost over $8 billion in 2009, but regional airlines recorded $200 million in profits, according to the FAA.

An investigation pinned the cause of the Flight 3407 crash on a mistake by the flight’s captain, but the investigation also found that pilots weren’t being sufficiently trained.

Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, will offer an amendment to require airline copilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight experience. Captains are already required to have that much, but copilots can have just 250 hours. Most major airlines already require more than 1,500 hours for both pilots, but regional carriers often hire less-experienced pilots and pay them lower wages. The bill also would require twice-a-year inspections of foreign repair stations that work on US planes, instead of annual checks.