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Winter skies no place for turboprops

They stood around the baggage carousel Monday night, grabbing luggage and heading into a light snow on a frigid, windy Buffalo night. It was 10 o'clock, the plane had been delayed for more than an hour, and the passengers of Continental Flight 3411, Newark to Buffalo -- a Dash 8 turboprop -- were anxious to get home.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It is the same model of plane, flying between the same cities, with the same scheduled arrival time as Continental Flight 3407, which went down in Clarence Center 13 days ago.

Continental calls it Flight 3411 now. This is what an airline company does, after a plane goes down. They fly the same route, with the same type of plane -- but they change the flight number.

From everything I have seen and heard over the last 13 days, they need to change more than the flight number. Continental and US Airways, which also flies turboprops here, need to stop flying these planes in Buffalo and other cold-weather climates. They need to stop flying them, at least until safety officials figure out why the ice-afflicted plane crashed in Clarence Center, ending 50 lives.

At least one passenger on Monday's flight had the Clarence crash in mind. I asked Frank Varisco if he was concerned about flying in a turboprop.

"Hell, yeah," he replied. "It was shaky on the way down."

The Lockport man demonstrated by holding his hand flat, then moving it from side to side.

The great majority of turboprops flying in cold weather do not crash. But Flight 3407 was likely the third major ice-related turboprop crash in the United States in the last 15 years. We have no idea how many close calls there have been.

Jets are safer in cold climates than turboprops, but more expensive to buy and fly. The Federal Aviation Administration does not -- despite years of pleas from safety officials -- require airlines to fly jets. The industry has muscle in Washington, and times are tough.

So the planes keep flying, even though experts say ice-laden turboprops are hard to control. The planes keep flying, even though American Airlines/American Eagle and Delta/Comair stopped flying turboprops in cold climates after ice-related crashes with its planes in 1994 and 1997 claimed 97 lives.

"The prudent thing to do is discontinue [turboprops] in cold climates until the NTSB clarifies what happened and modifications are made to the aircraft or with crew training that eliminate the problems and confusion that might lead to another tragedy," said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Turboprops de-ice wings with old-school hydraulic "boots," inferior to the heated-wing technology on jets. They fly at low altitudes, making them prone to ice buildup. Reliance on autopilot masks control problems. Pilots of commuter airlines lack the training and experience of commercial jet pilots.

Flight 3407, tragically, gave us 50 more reasons to ground these planes.

"This accident," Hall said, "needs to end the question of whether these type of aircraft can be operated in these weather conditions on a safe basis."

In response to Hall's call to suspend turboprop flights, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told The Buffalo News, "I don't think we have any information that would cause us to ground the aircraft."

Fifty dead in Clarence. A history of ice-related disasters. That sounds to me like a lot of information.

I was glad to see Frank Varisco and the rest of the turboprop passengers on Continental Flight 3411, Newark to Buffalo, get home safely Monday night.

I do not know about you, but it is not a winter trip that I am going to take.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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