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Senators seek probe of regional airlines' safety

Four senators, including the chairman of the Senate's aviation panel, have asked a government watchdog to investigate safety enforcement at regional airlines.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Four senators, including the chairman of the Senate's aviation panel, have asked a government watchdog to investigate safety enforcement at regional airlines.

In a letter released Tuesday, the senators told Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel that the circumstances of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo in February raised questions about the Federal Aviation Administration's enforcement of regulations related to pilot training and crew rest at regional carriers

"Adequate pilot training and rest is a basic prerequisite to make certain the air transportation system achieves a high level of safety," the letter said. "Such regulations, however, must be paired with vigorous FAA oversight of airline compliance to have a credible effect."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-.N.D., chairman of the commerce committee's aviation subcommittee, also raised the issue with Randy Babbitt, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to head the FAA at a confirmation hearing Tuesday. Dorgan said he was "just furious" about testimony during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing last week suggesting that flaws in pilot hiring and training, as well as fatigue, may have contributed to the crash, which killed all 49 people aboard and one man on the ground.

Dorgan asked Babbitt if the same safety standards that apply to larger airlines also apply to regional carriers.

Babbitt, a former Air Line Pilots Association president and one time Eastern Airlines pilot, said there once were less rigorous standards for regional carriers, but changes he helped develop in the early 1990s were supposed to bring regional airlines up to the same safety standards as larger carriers.

Dorgan said he plans to hold a hearing June 10 on safety at regional airlines.

Other senators signing the letter were Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; the committee's senior Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and the aviation subcommittee's senior Republican, Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who met privately with Babbitt just before the confirmation hearing, said he received assurances from Babbitt that he will look into FAA's regulation of pilot work hours at regional airlines to see if they lead to fatigue.

"I told him it seems to me they underpay and overwork their pilots," Schumer said in an interview. "He talked to me about how horrible it is. ... He talked about how if you're tired because you've flown across country, that's the wrong thing. He said he would look at it all. He said he was passionate about pilot fatigue."

Executives for regional airlines, meeting in Salt Lake City on Tuesday for an industry convention, defended the experience and professionalism of their pilots, saying the NTSB hearing had skewed public perception.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," said Joseph D. Randell, president and CEO of Air Canada Jazz. "Anybody with an agenda will use it."

Members of Congress said they were stunned by the salaries of the Flight 3407 pilots, who were employees of commuter airline Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va., which operated the flight for Continental.

NTSB investigators calculated that co-pilot Rebecca Shaw was paid just over $16,000. Colgan officials testified that captains such as pilot Marvin Renslow earn about $55,000 a year. The company later said Shaw's salary was $23,900 and that captains earn about $67,000.

The twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall as it neared Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Testimony and documents indicate Renslow and Shaw made a series of critical errors.

Shaw lived with her parents near Seattle and commuted across the country the night before the crash to report to work at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The pilots may have tried to snatch sleep before the flight in an airport crew lounge, which is against company policy.