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Lawmakers say regional airlines need more pilot scrutiny

Pilot testing for regional airlines needs more scrutiny, say North Dakota and Minnesota senators.

A U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee heard this week from federal regulators, and they heard from senators.

"I am concerned about the airlines' and FAA's ability to prevent inexperienced pilots from flying planes they are unfamiliar with or in icy weather if they haven't been thoroughly trained," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the panel on aviation operations, safety and security.

"We are supposed to have 'one level of safety' for both the regional and major carriers," he during Wednesday's hearing. He sought whether the Federal Aviation Administration "has kept up with changes in the industry and is able to ensure one level of safety."

The issue rose as a priority after the Feb. 12 crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people. The pilot of the turboprop that lost control in icy conditions had earlier failed five pilot check rides, but the regional carrier, Colgan Air, know only about two of them.

USA Today reported earlier this week that at least one of the pilots involved in eight of the nine regional air carrier major crashes in the past 10 years had previously failed multiple check rides.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., called Wednesday for legislation to tighten air safety rules "and bring an end to the cozy relationship that has developed between airlines and the FAA," she said in a statement.

"Many Minnesotans rely on regional jets to connect them to each other and to the world," said Klobuchar. "And these passengers should be as safe on a regional carrier going from Minneapolis to Bemidji or to Duluth as they would be on a Boeing 767 flying from Los Angeles to New York."

At the hearing, a number of safety issues were raised, including poor FAA oversight, pilot fatigue, inadequate pilot training, low pilot compensation and non-essential talk between pilots during takeoffs and landings, Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar said that the FAA needs to enforce safety regulations to ensure compliance of both regional airlines and the major carriers. The hearing examined federal regulations governing aviation safety, the FAA's role in the oversight and enforcement of safety standards, and specific safety issues that may have been factors in the Colgan Air crash.

Randy Babbitt, the newly appointed head of the FAA, said on Jan. 12 the agency issued notice that it was proposing new rules to upgrade training standards for pilots, flight attendants and dispatchers.

"While aviation has incorporated many technologies over the years to prevent accidents by addressing findings from NTSB (National Safety Transportation Board) accident investigations, human factors remain a source of risk," Babbitt testified. "Improving human performance is a central element to improving safety."

The FAA continues to monitor pilot safety issues, and will continue to make adjustments, he said.

"We continue our vigilance in assessing the safety of our system and taking the appropriate steps to improve that," Babbitt said. "While we are in an extremely safe period in aviation history, the Colgan Air accident and the loss of Air France 447 remind us that we cannot rest on our laurels, that we must remain alert and aware of the challenges in our aviation system, and that we must continue to work to enhance the safety of the system. This is a business where one mistake is one too many."

Klobuchar called on the Senate to pass the Aviation Inspection Safety Act, which she authored with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to toughen airline safety rules.

Last year, FAA inspectors disclosed that Southwest Airlines had continued flying airplanes even though critical safety checks involving cracks in aircraft fuselages had not been performed on some 50 jets, the Democrat said.

That same year, American Airlines canceled nearly 2,000 flights in order to catch up on inspections of aircraft wiring -- inspections that should have been performed previously under its agreement with the FAA, Klobuchar said.

The Senate Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday will hear testimony from regional carrier executives.