FAA Gets Tough on Regional Airlines

New inspector focus on pilot training in advance of hearing on Capitol Hill.

June 9, 2009— -- Shocking revelations that emerged from the February plane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., which killed 50 people, might have appalled the traveling public, but many pilots didn't find them surprising.

National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the Colgan Air flight's Buffalo crash revealed a number of seemingly dangerous issues, including cockpit errors, pilots' lack of sleep and lack of training. But many pilots told ABC News they've seen them all before.

"The FAA doesn't require it -- so why do it?" Leonard Cobb, a former regional airline pilot, recently told ABC News. "That's the airlines' attitude: If it is not required by the FAA, we're going to do our training as cheap as possible."

Today the Federal Aviation Administration established a new norm.

Starting immediately, all regional airlines will be scrutinized by FAA inspectors for the training they offer to pilots, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA administrator Randy Babbitt announced Tuesday. FAA inspectors will examine whether regional airlines are following the letter of the law and offering adequate training programs to pilots.

The change comes a day before Congress examines the issue Wednesday, where it's likely the FAA and regional airlines alike are expecting to get grilled.

"I have no greater obligation than to ensure the safety of airline travelers in this country," LaHood said today in a statement.

The regional airlines voiced support 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."

Low Pay, Less Seasoned Pilots

In St. Louis, the wife of a regional pilot who asked that her name be withheld to protect her husband's privacy, said today that although she believes the regional airlines' training programs are adequate for pilots coming in with a significant amount of experience, they may not be enough for newer pilots right out of flight school who have logged fewer hours.

"My biggest problem is hiring people with minimal hours," she said. "That's where the airline training that they provide is maybe not adequate."

But she added that the less the airlines pay, the less likely they are to attract well-trained pilots with lots of hours in the air.

"I'm not suggesting airlines don't train pilots right, I'm just saying they may not hire the right caliber people. The right people walk away from $16,000 jobs."

Instead, those they hire "may be still living with their parents, just got out of flight school, maybe have fewer hours -- these are the guys the airlines resort to when they have no one else."

"Maybe they have a good day and they pass the first time around," she said. "They are still, in my opinion, a liability."

At the same time, the outlook is grim for frustrated, seasoned pilots at the regional carriers who have very little upward mobility.

"My husband has over 4,000 hours, but since the majors aren't hiring and since corporate jets are taken out of commission, there's nowhere else to go for him right now."

From Regional Airlines to Air France, Safety Takes Center Stage

The regional pilot training announcement is one of several changes under way this week -- all intended to make flying safer.

Federal officials today began three days of hearings on January's "Miracle on the Hudson" landing in which Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger gracefully landed a U.S. Airways flight on the river after hitting birds. The hearings will address how to address bird strikes like the one that put that plane in danger.

Also today, Air France pilots were told by their union not to fly Airbus A330 jetliners until new speed sensors are installed. Faulty sensors may have played a role in the crash of Air France flight 447 last week.

Next Monday, representatives of the major airlines and their regional partners, along with industry groups and others invested in the airline business, will meet with LaHood and Babbit to discuss how to make flying safer.

"It's clear to us in looking at the February Colgan Air crash in Buffalo that there are things we should be doing now," Babbit said. "My goal is to make sure that the entire industry -- from large commercial carriers to smaller, regional operators -- is meeting our safety standard."

Buffalo Crash Reveals Problems at Regional Airlines

The jury is technically still out on the cause the Buffalo crash in February. The NTSB has already held hearings on the accident but has not yet issued a final report.

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

The pilot of that flight, Capt. Marvin Renslow, had failed several flight checks when getting his pilot's license, but failed to disclose them all to Colgan Air on his application.

At the NTSB hearing, the airline's vice president of administration Mary Finnigan said the company followed standard industry practice in vetting new hires.

"I would not sign off on any pilot that I personally would not put my own family in the back of the aircraft, and I felt that we were doing the very best job that we could do," she said.

Colgan Air, a regional airline that operates commuter flights for Continental, US Airways and United, has made a number of changes since the accident. It is instituting a fatigue awareness program for its pilots and will put every pilot through a new program so they better understand and handle emergencies in the cockpit.

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