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Crash leaves ex-safety chief frustrated

He has seen this before. That is what makes it so painful. That is what makes it so personal.

The infuriating aspect of the tragedy that took 50 lives is there is a good chance, in Jim Hall's mind, that it did not have to happen.

The story of Continental Flight 3407 is a familiar one to Hall. The names, dates and places are different. But the plot seems the same: Propeller-powered aircraft with ice on its wings loses control and crashes as it prepares to land.

Hall, a white-haired Tennessean with a syrupy drawl, used to head the National Transportation Safety Board. He ran it when ice-laden turboprops crashed in 1994 and 1997, claiming 97 lives.

Afterward, the NTSB questioned if turboprops should fly in cold climates. It said these planes should have heated wings instead of old-school, ice-busting "boots." It said the autopilot should be turned off when ice forms on wings. It said pilots should be trained to regain control of ice-afflicted planes. Despite the NTSB's push, the Federal Aviation Administration -- which makes the rules -- shuffled its feet.

"I cannot understand why the FAA [has] failed to act on the recommendations of the NTSB," Hall said by phone from California, as he prepared to board a flight, "[including] eliminating any crew confusion in terms of what to do [with] airplane operations in icing conditions."

His tone was a mix of frustration and anger. He is hardly alone. NTSB officials investigating the crash here noted the agency's prior warnings. The more I hear about the alarms, the more infuriated I get. When unforeseen forces cause a tragedy, it is an accident. When warning flares have gone up for years, it is an outrage.

The FAA's ice-related edicts over the past decade are long on studies and proposals and short on actions.

"Had [FAA] attention been given to the NTSB's core recommendations," Hall said, "I feel that there is a strong possibility that this tragedy and the sadness it brought to the Buffalo community could have been averted."

An FAA spokesperson disagreed, telling The News that the agency's push the past 15 years has "reduced significantly" ice-related accidents.

It will be at least a year until we get the NTSB's report on what caused this crash. Ice on the wings and/or tail was likely a factor, and possibly the pilot's response to the loss of control it caused.

Hall has seen it before. He blamed FAA inaction on layers of bureaucracy and pressure from an industry that, in recent years, has been bleeding dollars. Jets cost more than turboprops. Heated-wing technology costs more than ice-breaking "boots." Pilots of commuter planes are paid less, and have less training, than pilots of commercial jets.

But we are not talking about standards for, say, brooms or bottle caps. Profits do not matter more than people. The bottom line is human beings, not bank balances.

"Regulators have a difficult job," Hall said. "But it is a process in which it sometimes seems that everyone but the public is represented."

Except, of course, when the plane goes down. Then the public is fully represented, on the casualty list.

American Eagle and Comair stopped flying turboprops in cold weather after its planes went down in the 1994 and 1997 disasters. It is time for every other airline to follow that lead, before there is more blood on the ground.

Nothing we can do will bring back these 50 people. But we can honor their memories in a meaningful way: by making sure there are no more casualties.


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