Congress to toughen airline standards

In legislation to be introduced today, lawmakers aim to mandate safety programs.

ByAlan Levin, USA TODAY
July 28, 2009, 10:38 PM

WASHINGTON -- Safety standards for airlines and pilots would be dramatically toughened in legislation scheduled to be introduced Wednesday in Congress.

Prompted by the crash last February near Buffalo that has raised questions about pilot qualifications, training and fatigue, the "Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009" aims to find the most successful safety programs and mandate them for all airlines, said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee.

The bill would add tough new certification requirements for entry-level commercial pilots, require additional emergency training, improve availability of pilot records and mandate stricter rules to minimize pilot fatigue.

"Our bill is a serious effort to consolidate what we know industry-wide about aviation safety to improve safety performance going forward," Costello said in a statement.

The bill would:

• Require that all airline pilots obtain an Airline Transport Pilot license, which is currently only needed by captains. Pilots must have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours to obtain the license. Co-pilots may now be hired at airlines with as little as about 200 hours, though most begin airline work with more experience.

• Mandate that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) within 90 days set up a new database of pilot records so that airlines will have access to more information before they hire someone for the cockpit. The captain of the jet that crashed near Buffalo had failed several FAA-mandated tests of his piloting skills, but his airline did not know about all of them when it hired him.

• Direct the FAA within one year to rewrite the rules for how long pilots can work. Several attempts to rewrite the rules to make piloting less prone to fatigue have failed in recent decades. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt also has vowed to update the rules.

• Require airlines and travel websites when they sell tickets to disclose the name of the carrier operating the flight. About half of all flights are operated by regional airlines working under contract to major carriers, but those regionals almost never sell tickets directly to passengers. Most of the regional flights are flown with the name of the major carrier painted on their aircraft.

• Set up numerous studies and task forces to examine how best to train pilots, minimize pilot fatigue and run a safe airline.

The Air Transport Association, which represents large carriers, issued a statement saying that it would prefer that current efforts to improve safety begun earlier this year by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood be allowed to work before Congress passes legislation.

"We believe in that process, and we believe it should be allowed to proceed to a successful conclusion," said ATA President James May.

The Regional Airline Association said it welcomes changes that improve safety. Several parts of the bill are already contained in the association's safety initiative, it said in a statement.

The crash Feb. 12 of a Colgan Air turboprop, which killed 50 people, has raised numerous safety issues. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation has found that neither pilot may have gotten a full night's sleep. The pilots also reacted improperly to an emergency, raising questions about how well they were trained.

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