Regional Carrier Safety Reforms Lag A Year After New York Plane Crash

February 3, 2010

Key safety reforms haven’t been implemented nearly a year after 50 people died in the crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., despite promises of swift action from federal regulators and lawmakers.

On Tuesday, just 10 days shy of the one-year anniversary of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board prepared to cite the probable cause of the accident and make safety recommendations.

The crash is considered one of the most significant accidents in recent years, because it revealed a safety gap between major airlines and the regional carriers they increasingly use to handle short-haul flights. Concerns were raised during an NTSB hearing last May that pilots with low-fare airlines are vulnerable to fatigue, long-distance commutes and inadequate training.

Since then, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt has persuaded regional carriers and their major airline partners to make a series of voluntary safety improvements and increase inspections of their pilot training programs. But the FAA is still drafting regulations to address the most critical safety issues raised by the accident. Final action is at least months away, and perhaps even years.

Karen Eckert of Williamsville, N.Y., whose sister Beverly Eckert was killed in the crash, said the victims’ families are frustrated by the slow pace. She noted, for example, that an earlier version of the crew-training proposal gave airlines five years from the proposal’s effective date to comply.

“That’s a very long time when there are lives that can be lost,” she said.

On Capitol Hill, the House passed legislation aimed at forcing FAA to strengthen regulations. There’s no disagreement over the need for legislation, but action has been slowed in the Senate by unrelated disputes. It remains unclear when a bill might be enacted.

“Here we are, almost a year later, and fundamentally nothing has changed in terms of the conditions that caused that accident,” said former NTSB board member Kitty Higgins. “The only thing that has changed is public awareness.”

On Feb. 12, 2009, Continental Connection Flight 3407 was approaching Buffalo-Niagara International Airport when the twin-engine turboprop experienced an aerodynamic stall and dove into a house. All 49 people aboard and one man in the house were killed. Testimony at last May’s hearing indicated the flight’s two pilots made a series of critical errors leading up to the crash.

The flight’s captain, Marvin Renslow, didn’t have hands-on training on a piece of safety equipment that played a critical role in the last seconds of the flight. Renslow had also failed several piloting skill tests before coming to Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va., the regional carrier that operated the flight for Continental.

The first officer, Rebecca Shaw, 24, had earned less than $16,000 the previous year. She lived with her parents near Seattle and commuted across the country overnight to Newark, N.J., to make Flight 3407. She felt sick but didn’t want to pull out of the trip because she had already traveled so far, according to a cockpit voice recorder transcript.

It’s not clear how much sleep either pilot received the night before the flight.

The last six fatal domestic airline accidents involved regional carriers. The NTSB has cited pilot performance as a factor in three of those accidents.

Flight 3407 highlighted issues the airline industry has been struggling with for decades such as how to strengthen regulations on pilot fatigue and training. It also raised questions about whether there are two levels of safety _ one for major airlines and another for regional airlines.

“The Buffalo crash was clearly a watershed event in safety,” said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation of Alexandria, Va. “It made people concerned about the very structure of the industry.”

Babbitt said the agency plans to propose new regulations this spring to address pilot work schedules and improve crew training programs. The agency is also working on a regulation to increase the experience and training a first officer must have to fly for a commercial airline.

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