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Senator favors liability by major air carrier in a regional crash

The plane that crashed in Clarence Center 16 months ago had the name "Continental" emblazoned on it -- and now some lawmakers are talking as if that ought to really mean something.

A day after Continental's chairman tried to deflect blame for a crash that claimed 50 lives, a key senator Thursday suggested that big airlines such as Continental should bear legal responsibility for what happens on the subcontracting airlines that run their regional flights.

"I believe that the liability ought to be assumed by the carrier whose name is on the plane," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the proposed merger between Continental and United Airlines.

Dorgan, who is chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, said that "there is no one level of safety" between major carriers such as Continental and the subcontractors they hire, such as Colgan Air, which ran Continental Connection Flight 3407, the plane that crashed in Clarence Center in February 2009.

"We've learned plenty from the Colgan crash, and much of it is very frightening," Dorgan said.

The idea of shifting legal liability to the deeper-pocketed major airlines surely must have been very frightening to Jeffery A. Smisek, the Continental chief executive officer, who told a House subcommittee Wednesday that Continental was not responsible for how subcontractors such as Colgan train their pilots.

Smisek sat stonily through Dorgan's remarks Thursday, never reverting to the sort of comments he made a day earlier, when he said he never knew that Colgan had failed to give its pilots hands-on training in a key component of 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.

Smisek's comments enraged members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, as well as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

"It was outrageous that Continental tried to wash their hands of airline safety," Schumer said. "The families deserve an apology."

Of course, airlines such as Continental might be a bit more aware of what their outsourcing partners were doing if the big airlines were legally responsible for a crash of a regional airliner bearing the major carrier's name.

But that idea isn't included in aviation safety legislation that's currently moving through Congress.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., first suggested shifting liability to the major airlines at a hearing in December.

By then, the safety legislation was already well on its way to being shaped, said Kevin Kuwik, one of the key members of the Families of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which has lobbied for the safety changes.

But if there's another crash of a regional, and another group of families forced to lobby for safety legislation, "this is definitely the kind of thing they ought to look at," Kuwik said of shifting the liability to the major carriers.

Then again, judging by Smisek's attitude, it's likely the major airlines would do everything they can to stop such a move.

"All the good things in life come from profitability," Smisek said during Thursday's hearing.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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