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Bill to tighten airline safety

Recent discoveries of differing standards for commercial airline crews and regional carrier crews prompted U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar to introduce airline safety legislation.

Oberstar, DFL-8th District, introduced Wednesday bipartisan legislation to enhance airline safety by setting new training and service standards for commercial pilots.

"This legislation will go a long way to improve aviation safety by increasing pilot training requirements, addressing pilot fatigue, making pilot records easier to obtain, and strengthening FAA's safety programs," Oberstar said in a statement. "We must maintain constant vigilance over airline safety to ensure there is one level of safety across the industry."

The bill follows from hearings held by the Aviation Subcommittee on pilot issues and their relationship to aviation incidents. The subcommittee is part of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which Oberstar chairs.

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. Recently, it was discovered the 24-year-old co-pilot was ill, and contemplated calling in sick.

USA Today reported last month 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.

Oberstar and ranking Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida were joined by Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., and subcommittee ranking Republican Rep. Thomas Petri of Wisconsin in introducing H.R. 3371, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009. 

"Despite an excellent overall aviation safety record, we have a responsibility to make sure that every aspect of our aviation system is as safe as it can be," said Mica. "Unfortunately, most of our recent commercial aviation crashes have involved commuter aircraft. It is essential that Congress act to ensure the safety of the flying public, and the bipartisan measures adopted in this bill will address some of the safety issues that have been raised."

The U.S. Department of Transportation is now seven months late with its annual National Safety Transportation Board Most-Wanted Recommendations Report, Mica said. "This is an unacceptable failure, and the bill emphasizes the importance of these reports by requiring an annual DOT report on NTSB's commercial airline safety recommendations."

The bill:

- Requires the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that pilots are trained on stall recovery, upset recovery and that airlines provide remedial training.

- Requires airline pilots to hold an FAA Airline Transport Pilot license (1,500 minimum flight hours required).

- Establishes comprehensive pre-employment screening of prospective pilots including an assessment of a pilot's skills, aptitudes, airmanship and suitability for functioning in the airline's operational environment.

- Requires airlines to establish pilot mentoring program, create pilot professional development committees, modify training to accommodate new-hire pilots with different levels and types of flight experience, and provide leadership and command training to pilots in command.

- Creates a pilot records database to provide airlines with fast, electronic, secure access to a pilot's comprehensive record. Information will include pilot's licenses, aircraft ratings, check rides, Notices of Disapproval and other flight proficiency tests.

- Directs FAA to update and implement a new pilot flight and duty time rule and fatigue risk management plans to more adequately track scientific research in the field of fatigue. It also requires air carriers to create fatigue risk management systems approved by FAA.

The bill also requires DOT's inspector general to study and report to Congress whether the number and experience level of safety inspectors assigned to regional airlines is on par with that of commercial airlines.

As a consumer help, the bill requires that the first page of an Internet Web site that sells airline tickets disclose the air carrier that operates each segment of the flight. It also directs a National Academy of Sciences study on pilot commuting and fatigue.

"The Buffalo crash and the subsequent Aviation Subcommittee hearing revealed some troubling questions in terms of training, development and the working environment of pilots - particularly at regional airlines," said Petri.

"Our bill is a comprehensive effort to consolidate what we know industry-wide about aviation safety to improve safety performance going forward," said Costello. "The more we looked at these issues, the more it became apparent that information about pilot training and safety programs is not readily available."

The House joins the Senate in offering bills, including that of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn. A Senate Commerce Committee panel held hearings in June.

"Many Minnesotans rely on regional jets to connect them to each other and to the world," Klobuchar said then. "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 Senate 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 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.