Congress set to pass aviation safety bill
2009 N.Y. crash is impetus for latest measure
WASHINGTON — Congress is getting ready to pass tough new aviation safety measures that were developed in response to a deadly commuter plane crash in western New York in early 2009, a key lawmaker said yesterday.
Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview that he was introducing a bill with the safety improvements yesterday. He said he expects House passage today and Senate passage soon afterward.
Besides the safety measures, the bill extends authority for Federal Aviation Administration programs through Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year. Without that extension, the FAA would have to shutdown on Sunday when current program authority expires.
There is strong support in Congress for the safety measures, which were added to a broader aviation bill that lawmakers have been struggling for nearly four years to pass. With that bill stalled over disagreements involving other issues, House and Senate lawmakers have reached a consensus that the safety provisions should be passed separately from the broader measure, Oberstar said.
The impetus for the safety measures was the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. All 49 people aboard and one man in a house were killed. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation faulted errors by the flight’s two pilots and deficiencies in pilot hiring and training by Colgan Air Inc., the regional carrier that operated the flight for Continental Airlines.
The investigation also revealed the accident was the byproduct of a financially strapped industry seeking to cut costs by farming out short-haul flights to regional carriers. Those carriers often hire inexperienced pilots at low wages, assign them exhausting schedules, and look the other way when they commute long distances to work because they can’t afford to live in the cities where they are based.
The last six airline accidents in the United States all involved regional air carriers.
Friends and family members of the victims of the Colgan crash have been lobbying Congress relentlessly for passage of the safety provisions.
As a group, they have made more than 30 lobbying trips to Washington at their own expense over the past 17 months.
They’ve met with dozens of senators and House members, and attended every congressional hearing with any connection to aviation safety. They’ve also pressed their case in private meetings with President Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and FAA administrator Randy Babbitt.
The safety measures Congress is preparing to pass are “everything we asked for,’’ said Kevin Kuwik, a spokesman for the families who lost his girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, in the accident.
The bill would require that the minimum flight experience for first officers be raised from 250 hours to 1,500 hours — the same level as captains. That could force regional airlines to hire more experienced pilots and indirectly raise salaries.