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Get airline reforms done <br> Congress must recover from stall caused by unrelated disputes

If you know anybody who lives in Duluth, Grand Rapids or International Falls, Minn., tell them they need to call or e-mail their congressman. Right now.

Rep. James L. Oberstar is a Democrat who represents the 8th District of Minnesota. The folks there have elected him to that post 17 times now, so presumably they feel he's doing a good job for them. But to the people of Western New York, and to the people all over the country who fly on commuter airlines, Oberstar is a keen disappointment.

The rest of us care because, in addition to being a gentleman from Minnesota, Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. And, in that role, Oberstar has been a primary roadblock on the road to winning congressional approval of some needed reforms of the way airlines screen, hire and train their pilots.

But the rest of us don't matter much. We don't live in his district. And the e-mail connection on the congressman's Web site -- oberstar.house.gov -- won't take messages from non-district addresses.

The House and Senate have each passed their annual authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. Both bills contain provisions that respond to the lessons of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed 16 months ago in Clarence and killed 50 people.

Those improvements include significant increases in the number of flight hours pilots must have logged before they can be hired to guide paying passengers through sleet, snow and gloom of night. The bills also direct the FAA to set up a new database airlines would use to review the qualifications and records of those seeking jobs as pilots.

All of those provisions are the obvious and proper conclusions reached simultaneously by experts and by the organization called Families of Continental Flight 3407. But the bill still hasn't become law and, unless Congress gets its legislative act together, may not be approved at all.

It's not that Oberstar is trying to stop these specific reforms. It's because of disputes over other issues that are also part of the bill, or that some lawmakers want to be part of the bill, that have little to do with passenger safety.

Oberstar, for example, wants the bill to include language that would make it easier for Federal Express drivers to form their own labor union, wording that would change the rules for foreign aircraft-repair stations and a move to sunset the anti-trust exemptions that airlines have been using to forge alliances with overseas partners.

Oberstar is powerful enough to get those bits included in the House version of the bill. But senators involved are opposed, and are not likely to budge. That means that the bill has been hung up for weeks and, with summer recess and fall campaigns approaching, may never see the light of day.

Members of New York's congressional delegation, notably Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, have been pushing to get the improved airline safety provisions adopted. They think it is important, in large part, because their constituents do.

Oberstar's constituents, on the other hand, don't seem to care very much. After all, nobody's dropped an airplane on them recently.

Maybe we should explain to them how high the risk of that happening is, and how high it will remain until Congress acts.

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