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Congress expected to act this year on tougher airline safety rules

Congress is likely to significantly strengthen airline safety regulations by the end of the year -- but it is unlikely to deal with the issue of some regional airline co-pilots earning less than $20,000 a year.

That was the message top congressional staffers delivered Friday at a panel discussion on upcoming aviation legislation at the Federal Aviation Administration's annual International Aviation Safety Forum.

The staff acknowledged that the safety reforms, which stem from February's crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, are currently stuck in the Senate Finance Committee -- which insists on completing work on health care reform legislation first.

But the staff members said they are not concerned that the delay will be a long or deadly one for the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, which will include those safety reforms.

"We're very hopeful for and very optimistic about getting the bill done this year," said Gael Sullivan, a Democratic staff member at the Senate Commerce Committee.

The safety provisions in the bill include tougher rules on pilot fatigue and working hours, better access to the records of pilots who are up for jobs at commercial airlines and additional safety oversight programs.

But those provisions are not the reason the legislation has been delayed, added Jarrod Thompson, Sullivan's Republican counterpart on the Commerce Committee.

"We're in the queue to go" at the Finance Committee, which must draw up provisions of the bill funding airline regulation, Thompson said. "We just need that one more component."

The staff members agreed that February's crash in Clarence Center, which claimed 50 lives, had a major impact on the safety provisions in the legislation.

And they acknowledged that the crash raised the issue of pilot pay at regional airlines -- given that Colgan Air, the Continental subcontractor that ran Flight 3407, paid the co-pilot less than $20,000 a year in her first year on the job.

"We've raised the profile of the issue," Sullivan said.

But the congressional aides said they don't expect Congress to deal with that issue.

"I think it's something we want to continue to look at, but how you get to a good resolution on that, to me, at this point, it's not clear," Sullivan said.

"Obviously, this is a very difficult issue," he added. "You're talking about getting into reregulating portions of the aviation industry."

And that is something Congress would be reluctant to do, Thompson said.

"I don't think this is something Congress would be involved with," Thompson said. "These are contracts between unions and management. There is a private-sector process in place. I don't think we should be involved in it."

Asked if he saw any correlation between aviation safety and the low pay for pilots and co-pilots at regional airlines, Thompson said: "I don't think there is a correlation. There is a general professional responsibility, no matter how much you are paid."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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