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FAA sued for ignoring airplane icing issues

A group advocating airline safety has sued the federal government for failing to take action on suggested runway improvements and airplane icing -- one of the suspected causes of Flight 3407's crash in Clarence Center on Feb. 12.

It said the Federal Aviation Administration is too close to the airline industry and airplane manufacturers and has ignored years of recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The group of safety experts, victims' families and former government officials announced its lawsuit in Newark on Tuesday and will discuss its concerns in Buffalo this afternoon after a morning news conference in Washington, D.C.

Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation and aviation expert who wrote the book "Flying Blind, Flying Safe," is among those who will be in Buffalo.

She said the FAA is obligated to act on recommendations, not study them forever.

"Look, 10 years in some cases is too long," Schiavo said in a phone interview from Washington after she filed the lawsuit.

The lawsuit cites the NTSB's recommendations following previous turboprop crashes and the FAA's 15 years of not responding to the safety board's recommendations.

"Statutory duty says you shall act on the recommendations," she said of the FAA. "It doesn't say you have to adopt them, but you have to act on them."

Schiavo, an attorney and aviator who represented families of those aboard the planes that crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, criticized the FAA for being too close to the industry it's designed to oversee.

"They take their cues from industry and manufacturers," she said.

In her book, Schiavo dubbed the FAA the "Tombstone Agency" because she said it only makes changes after victims' tombstones stack up.

The NTSB's recent edition of its most-wanted safety recommendations, before Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed and claimed 50 lives, stated: "Before another accident or serious incident occurs, the FAA should evaluate all existing turbo propeller-driven airplanes in service using the new information available" about freezing rain.

The NTSB labeled the FAA's inaction as "unacceptable."

During the 15 years the FAA has studied icing, Schiavo's group said, there have been three turboprop air crashes and more than 100 casualties, including the crash in Clarence.

Schiavo, on the day after the Clarence crash, was quoted on WCSC-TV in Charleston, S.C., that she suspected icing and said the signs indicated either a wing stall or a tail stall.

She said Tuesday that she still holds to that suspicion after more information was developed by the NTSB investigators.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, was brought on behalf of Gail Dunham, executive director of the National Air Disaster Alliance, a group formed to safeguard the flying public and force action on safety issues.

Included in the group coming to Buffalo are Matt Ziemkiewicz, president of the alliance; Bob Monetti, whose daughter died in the December 1988 crash of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; Jack and Alice Murphy, whose pilot son died in a turboprop crash; and Donald McCune, a retired commercial airline pilot.

An FAA spokeswoman, responding to a story in Monday's Buffalo News citing the same concerns about the FAA's failure to act, said the agency had issued more than 100 airworthiness directives on icing issues since 1994.

"That's apples and oranges," Schiavo said. She said the FAA has an obligation to act on the NTSB's recommendations and those by the General Accounting Office on runway safety.

She said the FAA studies the proposals but takes years to act.

Schiavo also said that her group is calling for a thorough investigation into Flight 3407 and said that too often in the past, air crashes have initially been falsely blamed on pilot error.

Schiavo said her group would fly to Buffalo from Washington on a private plane.

"We aren't getting on a Q400 to Buffalo," she said of the turboprop plane that went down in Clarence Center.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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