Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lawmakers Weigh Stiffer Standards for Regional Airlines

Aug. 12, 2009 – 1:09 p.m.

Six months after the fatal crash of a Continental Connections regional jet in Buffalo, N.Y., lawmakers are still grappling with how best to deal with the aviation safety gaps exposed in the investigation.

The February crash, coupled with a string of other regional jet crashes in recent years, has elevated scrutiny of regional air carriers. Lawmakers are examining issues of pilot fatigue, training standards and the relationship between regional airlines and the large carriers that use regionals almost as a kind of subcontractor.

Byron L. Dorgan , D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Aviation Subcommittee, says half of today’s commercial flights are operated by regional carriers “who are paying less for their crews.” That, he adds, “just leads to an obvious question: Do we have the same standards if we have less experienced, lower-paid crews?”

The FAA says there are no differences between the training and operational standards that must be met by regional carriers and by the major airlines. But lawmakers say that they are different in practice, because big airlines typically hire pilots who have much more than the minimum required experience.

Representatives of both types of airlines appearing before Dorgan’s subcommittee last week sought to reassure the panel that although regional jet pilots may be young, they are still fully qualified professionals.

“The young people who come into our cockpits today have so much more to work with now than they did even a decade ago,” said Philip H. Trenary, president and chief executive officer of Pinnacle Airlines Corp., which owns two regional carriers, Colgan Air and Pinnacle Airlines.

But House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James L. Oberstar , D-Minn., has introduced a bill that would, among other things, dramatically increase the minimum flight hours needed to qualify for a commercial pilot’s license from 250 to 1,500.

It also would mandate the creation of a database to give airlines access to a pilot’s comprehensive record. Current law requires the release of information only for the previous five years.

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