The chairman of Continental Airlines on Wednesday tried to wash his hands of responsibility for the February 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, but House lawmakers wouldn't let him get away with it.
Appearing before the House Aviation subcommittee to defend a proposed merger between Continental and United Airlines, Continental CEO Jeffery A. Smisek also found himself fending off tough questions about the Clarence Center crash, which claimed 50 lives.
Colgan Air, a regional airline that pays pilots far less than what Continental pays, handled that flight for the larger airline.
And despite the contractual arrangement between Colgan and Continental, the Continental chief said, he did not know that Colgan had not fully trained the flight's crew in the plane's stall-recovery system.
"We weren't aware of that training deficiency," Smisek said. "That's the responsibility of the FAA" -- the Federal Aviation Administration.
Hearing that, Rep. John Boccieri, D-Ohio, shot back: "That is your responsibility."
The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., agreed, saying that while pending legislation is likely to boost training requirements, "it's also your responsibility to make absolutely certain that the regional carriers are hiring pilots in excess of the minimum."
That long exchange about the Colgan flight, about halfway through a four-hour hearing on another matter, represented the first time since the crash that Continental's top executive was questioned about its responsibilities in the accident.
While insisting that Continental is "very focused on safety," Smisek said that it would be impossible for the airline to keep its eye on the details of training at every airline it partners with around the globe.
Doing that would be a task that's "too great for Continental Airlines," he said, noting that every country has regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring pilot training.
Rep. John R. Garamendi, D-Calif., was clearly shocked at Smisek's comments, saying: "That's the most astonishing thing I've heard in 34 years -- that at Continental, it is not your responsibility to ascertain the safety of the pilots of the carriers with whom you contract."
Smisek said that was not at all what he meant. "We do expect and we do require all our regional carriers to be safe," he said. "Colgan had a training failure that resulted in a terrible accident that we regret tremendously."
En route to Buffalo from Newark, N.J., Flight 3407 crashed five miles short of Buffalo Niagara International Airport. A federal safety investigation blamed the crash largely on pilot error.
Investigators found that the air crew had not received hands-on training in the plane's stick pusher, part of the stall-recovery system that was supposed to help automatically right the plane once it entered an aerodynamic stall.
The pilot of the ill-fated flight, Capt. Marvin D. Renslow, pulled back on the controls when the stick pusher activated, just as he had done when the stick shaker, an earlier stall-warning device, went off. That was exactly the opposite of what he should have done, federal safety investigators have said.
Lawmakers made it clear, though, that inadequate training was not the only issue facing regional airlines.
Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., noted that regional carriers such as Colgan pay their co-pilots as little as $18,000 to $20,000 a year.
And Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., noted that the cockpit voice recorder in the Clarence crash showed that Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca L. Shaw spent the crucial last minutes of the flight violating federal rules by chatting about issues that had nothing to do with the flight.
"Beyond the training issue was the lack of competence," said Ehlers, who, like Boccieri, is a trained pilot. "It made me shudder to read the pilots' conversation. They were totally preoccupied with personal issues."
In the audience for Wednesday's hearings were several members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who have waged a yearlong battle for pending legislation that boosts pilot-training requirements and includes several other safety measures.
"For the families, it was distressing to hear" Smisek trying to deflect responsibility, said Karen Eckert, who lost a sister, Sept. 11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the crash. "But it was not surprising."
Eckert said the families were happy to see the lawmakers pressing the Continental executive about the company's relationship with Colgan.
"I'm sorry, but it's their responsibility to know who they're contracting with," she said.