Colgan Air crash reforms could rewrite rulebook for pilots

A new bill in Congress seeks to apply the lessons of the Air Colgan crash in Buffalo, N.Y., setting stricter rules for pilots. But it could result in increased fares.

Susan Walsh/AP
FAA administrator Randolph Babbitt testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

New policies to prevent pilot fatigue. More oversight of flight-crew behavior. Rules that mandate more pilot experience – even if that boosts fares for consumers.

Those are some of the ideas that emerged Wednesday in a congressional hearing focused on how to prevent the kind of tragedy that killed 50 people in a crash earlier this year near Buffalo, N.Y.

Some of the measures are already being pursued by the Federal Aviation Administration. But others may require legislation, aviation experts said at the hearing.

More than in the past, much of America’s air traffic consists of short routes flown by small regional carriers with less experienced pilots.

The Buffalo-area crash of Continental Flight 3407 in February, a flight operated by the regional carrier Colgan Air, brought some of the safety problems to national attention. An investigation found pilot error to be a leading factor in the crash.

The result is impetus for new safety measures, but those improvements could mean added expenses on airlines – and consumers.

"Economics and other factors have significantly eroded pilot morale and undermined the career," Capt. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Assocation, told a House transportation subcommittee. A bill under review, he said, "will make a profound difference in the selection, training, education and safety of future airline pilot professionals."

Rep. Jerry Costello (D) of Illinois, who chaired the transportation subcommittee hearing, has introduce a bill that would:

• Require the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that pilots are trained on stall recovery.

• Require pilots to hold an FAA Airline Transport Pilot license (1,500 minimum flight hours required). Today, some plane operators have as few as 250 hours.

• Establish a pre-employment screening regime.

• Require airlines to establish pilot mentoring programs.

• Create a Pilot Records Database so airlines can see a pilot’s comprehensive record.

• Directs the FAA to update and implement new scheduling rules to manage fatigue risk.

"We think we have a good bill ... to make certain that we improve the safety standards," Mr. Costello said at the hearing.
The FAA is already moving on its own toward a new policy on fatigue.

Randy Babbitt, the FAA administrator, said the policy will take into account that “flying six hours with eight landings is an entirely different scenario” from a pilot who makes one landing in eight hours.

Pilot-union representatives who spoke at the hearing suggested that the problems are partly embedded in the current economics of the industry. Airlines are so focused on cutting costs that experienced pilots are being pushed out.

“There is not now a shortage of qualified pilots, they just aren’t flying airliners,” said pilot Jeffrey Skiles.


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