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Senate approves air safety measure
Schumer lauds families of Flight 3407 victims

WASHINGTON -- If the fight to improve aviation safety were akin to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, you might say the Families of Continental Flight 3407 reached the Final Four by winning their Monday game by a score of 93-0.

That was the vote by which the Senate approved a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that includes safety measures the families have been pushing for 10 months.

Given that the families won their last effort -- passage of a House air safety bill including many of the same measures -- by a score of 409-11, you might say the team is on quite a run.

Now the families are only two wins away from their goal. Once the House and Senate merge their respective FAA bills, both houses will have to approve the legislation again.

If you ask the guy who serves as the team's coach -- Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. -- it's only a matter of time before the finished bill goes to President Obama for his signature.

"It's a done deal!" Schumer said as threw his arms around some of the family members in the visitor's gallery above the Senate floor after the vote. "You did this. I was just the vessel."

What the families did is to prod Congress into passing provisions that aim to fix the problems that brought down the plane that carried their loved ones.

Fifty people died when Continental Connection Flight 3407 plummeted into a home in Clarence 13 months ago, and the subsequent federal investigation found that an inadequately trained crew that had barely slept was at fault.

Most notably, the bill includes a provision authored by Schumer that would require new co-pilots to have 800 hours of flight experience under specific, rigorous conditions. That's short of the 1,500 hours the families were seeking -- which is the level in the House bill -- but up significantly from the current 250 hours of general experience.

Like the House bill, the Senate measure also includes a proposal from Schumer that requires travel Web sites to say clearly which airline is flying each flight. In other words, Web sites would have to specify when major airlines outsource flights to regional carriers, which generally hire less experienced pilots and pay them far less than the big operators do.

What's more, the bill also:

*Directs the FAA to establish and maintain a pilot employment, training, and testing database that would allow airlines to assess pilot flight records while making hiring decisions.

*Forces the agency to develop new rules to govern how long pilots can fly and how much rest they must get.

*Requires the FAA to re-evaluate flight crew training, testing and certification regulations -- and to also establish new safety standards for training programs.

*Requires the FAA to set up a team to conduct random reviews of the agency's oversight of air carriers.

*Establishes within the FAA an Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office.

*Bars pilots from using electronic devices in the cockpit.

The Senate bill was stuck behind health care on the Senate's agenda for months, and there were times the families wondered if it would ever come to the floor for a vote.

Now, though -- after 21 lobbying trips to the Capitol -- the four most active members of the group see victory coming ever closer.

"I think the most special thing was that the vote was 93-0," said Susan Bourque, who lost her sister, Beverly Eckert, in the crash.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, the Senate's top aviation specialist and the senator who brought the safety changes to the floor, said the families deserve a lot of credit for what happened.

"They have pushed and prodded and asked the right questions," said Dorgan, D-N.D.

Not that it was easy. After fending off various side issues that almost kept the bill off the Senate floor, several of the family members subjected themselves to upwards of six days of watching the U.S. Senate in action.

During what was supposed to be a debate on a bill setting federal aviation policy and funding for several years, the families endured endless oratory.

Two of the family group's big four -- Bourque's sister Karen Eckert and Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter Lorin in the crash -- could not be there for the Senate vote.

Much to everyone's surprise, the fourth big player in the family group -- Kevin Kuwik, who was Lorin Maurer's boyfriend -- appeared just as the Senate started voting.

It was a shock to see Kuwik because he is deeply involved in the real NCAA men's basketball tournament. He's video coordinator for the Ohio State team that moved on to the Sweet Sixteen.

"We had a day off today, so I bought a plane ticket at midnight last night," he said Monday. "It killed me not being here last week."

The families' trips to Washington are not over yet, either. Kuwik noted that several key aviation issues still need to be worked out as the bill moves to a conference committee, although most of the safety provisions in the two bills are identical or close to it.

Schumer said he expects the two houses to work out their differences on the FAA legislation by early May.

The families aren't taking anything for granted, though, as they move toward their biggest effort yet. They vowed to keep working so they could end their season just like the NCAA champs do: with a trip to the White House.

"We have been pushing for this bill since last summer," Eckert said, "and we are not going to stop until we are standing there as President Obama signs this bill into law."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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