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Improve airline safety Debate over health care reform doesn't excuse lack of action

Message to Congress: If you people can't do two things at the same time, you don't belong in office. You can't use health care reform as the excuse to shove everything else aside -- especially when "everything else" includes the crucial matter of air travel safety.

The importance of this issue was driven home in tragic fashion earlier this year in Erie County. Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed into a house in Clarence Center in February, killing all 49 people on board and a man inside the house. In the ensuing investigation, critical issues of pilot training, pay scales, fatigue and adherence to in-flight policies all arose. All require attention.

The matter is before Congress, but it is being held up in the Senate Finance Committee, gatekeeper for reforms to both both health care and air safety. And while Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a committee member, and a committee aide both offered reassurances that the air safety effort won't get lost in the shuffle, so far it has. That's a hard thing to accept for people who lost loved ones in the crash, and for anyone else who flies, especially those who must use regional airlines.

It's not that advocates of air safety deny the importance of other issues. As the boyfriend of one victim bluntly acknowledged, health reform is "a big deal." The need and the ramifications are both great. Congress needs to pay close attention and get it right.

But Congress needs to do many things, and it cannot allow other important matters to languish for lack of attention. The Feb. 12 crash of Flight 3407 was a wake-up call about practices among regional airlines, an inadequately monitored but significant part of the aviation industry. Regional airlines fly into many markets, and while winter weather poses special challenges in the north, the overall issues affect every place these airlines do business.

By all means, pay attention to health care reform. The system is creaking and it cannot last. But Americans also need to know that when a crash like February's raises serious safety questions about air travel that the matter won't be brushed aside. And, just as important, they need to know that their Congress can do more than one thing at a time.

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