FAA Holds Regional Airline Safety Summit

After Buffalo crash, airlines, govt. gather to discuss how to boost safety.

June 15, 2009— -- When Federal Aviation Administration administrator Randy Babbitt listened to the tapes and poured over the information about February's deadly plane crash in Buffalo, N.Y, he, like much of the American public, had a strong reaction.

"When I went through and listened and read the transcripts of this accident, and saw what was going on, there was a breakdown in professionalism," Babbitt told ABC News Monday. "That wouldn't happen at some carriers because they would have been taught, they would have been mentored. It simply wouldn't have happened. I want to make sure it never happens again."

Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met in Washington, D.C., Monday with representatives from all corners of the airline business to focus on finding ways for airlines to voluntarily make flying safer.

Watch ABC News' full interview with FAA administrator Randy Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood here.

High on the group's agenda was crafting a manifesto to reassure travelers that airlines are doing all they can to ensure pilots are beyond prepared to fly passengers to their destinations, and to help more senior pilots mentor those with less experience.

Babbitt told airline companies today he expects them to do complete background checks on pilots before hiring them to fly passengers -- including getting permission from pilots to access all of their training records. Airlines are allowed to do that today but it became clear in wake of the Buffalo crash that not all of them do.

"There's a public perception out there, unfortunately, right now that pilots can repeatedly fail check rides and still keep their jobs," Babbitt said. "We want the passengers in this country to have absolutely no doubt about the qualifications of the person or crew flying their airplane."

"I want a recommendation today about asking Congress to expand the scope of the Pilot Records Improvement Act to give employers access to all of the records available in a pilot's file," Babbitt also said.

Though current law dictates that pilots must sign a release allowing potential employers access to their training records, the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday set new expectations and strongly recommended the airlines ask for access.

"We want to be innovative," Dan Morgan, vice president of Colgan Air's safety and regulatory compliance, said last week. "We're part of an industry that's highly regulated, but there's nothing that says that we can't try to do a few things that haven't been done before."

But not everyone thinks changes can happen without federal laws to support them.

"I don't think it's going to happen voluntarily," the captain for a regional carrier who asked to remain anonymous said Monday. "It's going to have to be mandatory. You know, the FAA is actually going to have to put this into law for these airlines to change because it's going to cost the airlines money to hire more crews and to work less, so it's probably going to have to be forced upon them."

The gathering comes after several recent high-profile plane crashes that have raised concerns about travelers' safety.

The February crash of a regional plane in Buffalo, N.Y., the June crash of a massive Airbus A330 over the Atlantic Ocean and the relief of a successful emergency landing over the Hudson River in January each reminded aviation experts it's important to keep their guard up.

Buffalo Crash Draws Attention to Regional Airline Safety

A total of 50 people died when Colgan Air Flight 3407 went down just short of the Buffalo airport in February.

"We follow all the requirements of the FAA, as does every other airline, and we generally exceed those requirements," Morgan said. "We have very stringent training programs. Something happened on a flight. That does not mean that the rest of this airline is a bad boy and is a poster child for the worst of all in this industry."

But even the government's top aviation officials admitted Monday that the Colgan crash is a wake-up call revealing serious safety problems with regional airlines that now fly half of the flights in the United States. The pilot of the Buffalo flight, Capt. Marvin Renslow, had failed several flight checks when getting his pilot's license, but had not disclosed them all to Colgan Air on his application.

"We must regain the public's trust," LaHood said Monday. "We must inspire confidence in every traveler every time he or she steps on a commercial aircraft or any size at any airport in our country."

"Some of the things that I have seen and heard about practices in the regional airline industry are not acceptable," Babbitt said. "Our job is to deliver and ensure safety, and recently we've seen some cracks in the system. We need to look more deeply into what's happening, but the last few months, quite frankly, are an indication that some things aren't right."

At its recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on the Buffalo accident, investigators honed in on the pilot and crew's training as well as issues of fatigue and possible cockpit errors.

But many pilots in turn said they'd seen it all before. Those who fly for regional carriers sent ABC News a deluge of e-mails about the safety shortcomings, punishing schedules, low pay and inexperience.

The regional pilot who spoke to ABC News today said "it all boils down to saving money."

"The regional airlines will definitely cut costs when it comes to training," he said. "I mean, they will give you the minimum amount of training that the FAA allows just to save money."

The money crunch also means regional pilots are working extremely long hours, often getting paid just $18,000 per year, he said. He said those factors taken together mean airlines are compromising quality and, ultimately, safety.

"If they continue with the hiring standards and working conditions, safety can be compromised," the pilot said. "So it's definitely a possibility there could be more accidents."

The FAA agreed today that work rules must be changed to reduce fatigue, but has not yet set a timetable on that issue.

"We're going to be very impatient about this and do what we can very immediately to assure the flying public that flying regional jets is safe -- that the pilots that are flying them are well-trained and well-rested," LaHood told ABC News Monday.

Inspector General Identifies Five Weaknesses in Airline Oversight

Lawmakers examined this year's plane crashes at a hearing just last week on Capitol Hill.

"We are a safe aviation country, but we should be now saying, 'Let's take another look. Let's see where we need to be more stringent and have more oversight just to assure we are doing everything possible,'" Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said at that meeting.

Just last week, Transportation Department inspector general Calvin Scovel said the FAA's system to oversee commercial airlines needs work, adding, "We have identified serious vulnerabilities in five critical FAA programs for oversight of the aviation industry."

Those weaknesses include "risk-based inspections, repair stations, aging aircraft, disclosures of safety violations made through the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) and whistleblower complaints," Scovel told the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce panel. Scovel plans to release a report on those issues later this year.

Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, called the recent incidents "chilling, horrific reminders that there is nothing more important in aviation than the safety of all passengers" in a statement prepared for the meeting.

Air Travel: One Level of Safety

Last Tuesday, Babbitt and LaHood announced that, starting immediately, pilot training at regional airlines will be scrutinized by FAA inspectors.

The regional airlines voiced support last week for the new emphasis on federal oversight of pilot training.

"Safety always has been and always will be our No. 1 priority," said Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen. "We support all steps DOT Secretary LaHood and FAA administrator Babbitt call for to make this happen."

"I would like to note that these issues are not relevant to regional airlines alone," NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker testified on Capitol Hill. "They are pertinent to every airline operation, major air carriers as well as regional air carriers."

After several commuter plane crashes in the early 1990s, rules took effect in 1997 that ensured regional carriers were required to follow the same rules as major carriers.

Pilots can be on duty 16 hours per day, which includes time not spent flying. They can fly only eight hours in a 24-hour period.

The FAA also requires 250 hours of flying time for pilot hires, though it says industry practice is usually higher, with many logging at least 500 hours.

In addition to private, commercial and air transport pilot certifications from the FAA, Babbitt said pilots get "initial and additional recurrent training through the air carriers for whom they work," which are also manned by the FAA.

Still, some have said the FAA is not doing enough.

In mid-May as NTSB investigators examined what went wrong in Buffalo, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to LaHood calling on the FAA to immediately rethink what is required of new pilots before they take to the skies.

"I believe that FAA must start by reevaluating what it requires of airline training curricula," Schumer wrote. "NTSB's hearings have indicated that lack of hands-on training of a stick-pusher may have played a role in the crash of Flight 3407, and I wonder what other important training exercises may be left of out of curricula."

"In the interest of cost cutting, the commuter airlines seem to be overworking and underpaying their pilots," Schumer later told ABC News. "The training doesn't seem to be full and adequate."

ABC News' Tom Shine contributed to this report.

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