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Make short flights safer Cold-weather use of turboprop aircraft needs tough review by federal agencies

Flight 3407 should be the case that settles the matter.

Do turboprop aircraft belong in the skies over Buffalo, or anywhere that ice is likely to form on their wings? Will such flights be made acceptably safe with new de-icing techniques? And why can't the experts agree on when to turn off the autopilot?

The conflicting information that has emerged in the wake of the loss of Continental Express Flight 3407 last Thursday, and the deaths of 50 people, only heightens the sense of loss and the feeling that someone, somewhere, is to blame.

The facts will take a long time to unfold, and a longer time to be understood. But what we have come to know already -- what the passengers, and perhaps even the crew, of that doomed flight did not know before they took off from Newark -- raises significant concern.

Given the number of commercial and private aircraft in the skies at any one time, all day, every day, the number of accidents and deaths is quite small. At Buffalo Niagara International Airport alone, on the day that one airplane fell short of the runway, dozens of others landed safely and took off unimpeded.

But the crash has given new urgency to expert voices who have long questioned the safety record of turboprop aircraft, the family that includes the doomed Dash 8 Q400 that went down so violently.

Such aircraft come and go in icy conditions day after day. But, of the planes that have crashed due to confirmed or suspected problems with ice forming on craft's control surfaces, turboprops have represented more than their share.

In addition to Flight 3407, such planes lost in such circumstances include an American Eagle flight in 1994 at Roselawn, Ind., and a Comair aircraft near Detroit in 1997. American Eagle has since reassigned all of its turboprop aircraft to places where they will not encounter cold weather. Comair has gotten out of the turboprop business altogether.

Charges that Continental Express and other carriers hang on to their turboprop fleet out of greed, because they are thought to be more fuel efficient at the low speeds used in shorter flights, are far from proven but reasonable enough to justify a straight answer from the National Transportation Safety Board. Some experts argue that turboprops, because they fly slower and lower than jet-engined craft, are more vulnerable to the kind of ice-up that is consistent with the loss of Flight 3407.

There are also the maddening disconnects between the NTSB, which springs into action when an aircraft crashes, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates air travel day-to-day and is accused by some of being toocozy with the airlines it regulates.

The NTSB thinks turboprop airplanes need new ways of melting the ice off their wings. The FAA, so far, doesn't. The NTSB says pilots flying in icy conditions should turn off their autopilots, to get a better feel for how the aircraft is behaving. The FAA says keep it on, so as to better deal with the blizzards of information pilots have to process.

What's a pilot to do? Or a passenger?

Demand that all the federal agencies with some jurisdiction over the matter make up their minds on what airlines should do, that's what. And demand they do it.

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