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Flight 3407 advocates buoyed by FAA action Factors in crash hasten timetable for new rules

Lawmakers and the families and friends of victims of the Continental Connection Flight 3407 crash said Thursday they were surprised and thrilled to see the Federal Aviation Administration quickly moving forward to try to boost safety at regional airlines.

Less than two weeks after announcing that it will develop new rules governing how much and when pilots can fly, the FAA said that it will set up a committee to develop those rules by July 15, with recommendations to be drawn up by Sept. 1.

"The FAA is making pilot fatigue a high priority and will work rapidly to develop and implement a new flight time and rest rule based on fatigue science and a review of international approaches to the issue," the agency said in a statement.

Also by July 15, FAA inspectors will review airline procedures for identifying and tracking pilots who fail test flights or demonstrate a repeated need for additional training.

In a letter dated Wednesday, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt urged all air carriers to immediately adopt a policy to ensure that they see all of a pilot's test flight records before making a hiring decision. Some carriers do not do that, citing privacy concerns.

FAA inspectors also will review airline training programs.

The crash of Flight 3407, which claimed 50 lives in Clarence Center on Feb. 12, is not the sole reason for the safety moves but was "a catalyst" for them, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

The agency's actions met with a widespread positive reaction.

"I'm astonished," said Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence. "It's nice to see the government moving quickly on something this important."

Kevin Kuwik, whose girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, died in the crash, agreed that the FAA seemed to be responding aggressively to the lessons of Flight 3407 with a comprehensive safety plan.

"It hits all the key areas -- hiring, fatigue, training," Kuwik said. "It's a thorough, comprehensive plan."

In another sign of the FAA's seriousness, Babbitt met with the Flight 3407 families for more than an hour and 15 minutes last week, Kuwik added.

And this week, Babbitt said he is committed to moving forward quickly.

"We know that the airline industry is committed to operate at the highest level of safety," he said. "Now is the time to push these initiatives forward."

Babbitt also said his agency expects all airlines that do not currently have Flight Operations Quality Assurance and Aviation Safety Action programs in place will implement them. Those programs, which have been voluntary, encourage the reporting of safety issues and the collection of aviation data that could reveal safety concerns.

The agency also expects airlines that outsource their flights to regional carriers to develop programs to share safety data and ensure that their partners have safety programs that mirror those of the major airlines.

"We will work closely with Congress on all of these actions and will provide any necessary technical assistance," Babbitt said. Following up on a "call to action" meeting with regional airlines last month, the FAA and the airline industry will hold at least 10 regional safety forums across the country starting next month, Babbitt added.

Brown said those meetings will take place near the headquarters of individual airlines. The agency does not plan to schedule such a forum in Buffalo.

"I think the Buffalo accident was sort of another example of a situation in which there were clearly issues with pilot performance," she said. "If this were the only accident where this was happening, I am not sure we would be taking as deep a look at this as we are doing now."

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the Clarence crash revealed that the pilot had failed test flights before his hiring -- and that he mishandled the plane's stall.

The investigation also showed that the co-pilot had taken a red-eye flight from her home on the West Coast before going to work.

Those findings have prompted an unprecedented government focus on the safety of regional airlines, lower-paying outfits that handle flights that would not be profitable in larger planes.

"Administrator Babbitt's announcement is encouraging, and the actions he proposes are much needed," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "We have seen the tragic result of lax regulation and insufficient training procedures, and we all know that stronger measures are needed to protect air passengers."

Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said his organization backed the FAA's moves.

"The RAA's goals mirror those of the FAA," he said, noting that the organization has embarked on a safety initiative of its own. "We look forward to working with the FAA, our mainline partners and our employees in this number-one priority effort."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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