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House passes aviation safety bill

The House voted Wednesday to toughen regulations on pilot training, qualifications and work schedules, a response to a fatal crash in upstate New York in February and other accidents involving regional airlines.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House voted Wednesday to toughen regulations on pilot training, qualifications and work schedules, a response to a fatal crash in upstate New York in February and other accidents involving regional airlines.

The bill, which was approved 409-11, would require all pilots that fly for a passenger-carrying airline to have an Air Transport Pilot certificate, effectively raising the number of flying hours an entry-level airline pilot must have from the current 250 hours to 1,500 hours.

The bill allows the FAA to credit course work at specific flight training schools toward the requirements for receiving an Air Transport certificate. The schools had expressed concern that would-be pilots would skip the schooling to concentrate on accumulating flying time.

The sponsors of the bill, Reps. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Jerry Costello, D-Ill., have said that by boosting the experience required to become a pilot, they hope to indirectly increase the salaries of regional airline pilots. If airlines have to pay higher salaries to attract more experienced pilots, that will increase the overall caliber of pilots in the profession, they reasoned.

The bill also requires the Federal Aviation Administration to update rules governing how many hours airlines may require a pilot to fly before the pilot is permitted rest. Airlines would also have to put in place fatigue risk management plans — programs that use scientific research on fatigue to assess pilot hours and alert airlines to schedules that are likely to induce fatigue.

FAA would also be required to ensure airlines conduct comprehensive pre-employment screening of prospective pilots, create mentoring programs between experienced pilots and newly hired pilots, and provide remedial training for pilots who have performed poorly on skills tests.

Pilots would also have to be trained to recover from a full stall. Until recently, training at many airlines have emphasized avoiding conditions that lead to a stall, with little hands on experience in how to recover from one.

"This is the strongest aviation safety bill considered since the creation of the FAA in 1958," Costello said.

John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the bill "raises the safety bar for all U.S. airlines."

Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, which represents most major carriers, said FAA and airlines are already to working to address the issues covered in the bill. She said airlines would like to see "further refinements" in the bill.

A spokesman for the Regional Airlines Association didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The last six airline accidents in the United States all involved regional air carriers. The National Transportation Safety Board has cited pilot performance as a contributing factor in three of those accidents.

Pilot unions and such prominent pilots as Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the captain that guided US Airways Flight 1549 to an emergency landing in the Hudson River in January, have warned that lower pay and more difficult working conditions are driving better qualified pilots away from the profession, especially at regional airlines. Through increased partnerships with major carriers, regional airlines now account for half of domestic flights.

The impetus for the bill was Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed on Feb. 12 near Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. All 49 people aboard and one man in a house below were killed.

Testimony at a May hearing revealed the flight's captain and first officer made a series of critical errors leading up to the crash. The flight was operated for Continental Airlines by regional carrier Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va.

Documents released by NTSB show the 24-year-old co-pilot earned less than $16,000 the previous year, which was her first year working for the airline. On the day of the crash she said she felt sick but didn't want to pull out of the flight because she'd have to pay for a hotel room.

The flight's captain didn't have hands-on training on a key piece of safety equipment that played a critical role in the last seconds of the flight, when the plane experienced an aerodynamic stall. He also had failed several tests of his piloting skills before coming to Colgan.

A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.