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Bankruptcy means closer scrutiny for Pinnacle, FAA safety chief says

Federal aviation safety inspectors are paying closer attention to Pinnacle Airlines now that the struggling regional carrier has filed for bankruptcy, the Federal Aviation Administration's top safety official said Wednesday.

The FAA routinely beefs up safety inspections once any passenger airline enters bankruptcy, Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's associate administrator for safety, said at a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing.

"We enhance our oversight to focus on any changes they may have to make as they downsize," Gilligan said.

Gilligan's comments came in response to a question from the panel's chairman, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., who cited the Pinnacle bankruptcy when asking: "Are people cutting corners because of their financial situation?"

In response, Gilligan not only pointed to the FAA's increased oversight of bankrupt carriers, but also said: "It's clear that the industry thinks that an investment in safety is an important business investment."

The hearing was a wide-ranging look at aviation safety three years and two months after the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, which claimed 50 lives. A commuter airline owned by Pinnacle, Colgan Air, operated Flight 3407.

As usual at such Capitol Hill sessions, a red-clad group from the Families of Continental Flight 3407 attended the hearing, where lawmakers reviewed the FAA's progress in implementing the sweeping aviation safety law the families pushed to passage two years ago.

That proposal will require commercial airline co-pilots to have an air transport license by August 2013. That means many regional airline pilots will have to undergo additional training and amass 1,500 hours of experience to qualify.

At two regional airlines studied by the Department of Transportation's inspector general, 75 percent of the co-pilots did not have an air transport license -- and the airlines had no plan to help them get one, said Jeffrey B. Guzzetti, assistant inspector general.

Members of the families group said they were concerned about the problems that regional airlines might have in complying with those new requirements. But they also said they were concerned that a new rule on pilot fatigue, which requires commercial airline pilots to get more rest, will not apply to pilots who fly for cargo airlines.

The families back legislation authored by Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., and Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., that would extend the tougher rest standards to cargo pilots.

But that proposal met stiff opposition from Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who lost a battle with the Flight 3407 families last spring in which he tried to make it harder for the FAA to impose new regulations.

"Are we going to get to the point where we have sleep or rest police, or a camera in a pilot's room?" Shuster asked in questioning the need for increased pilot rest requirements.

Shuster's comments did not sit well with the Flight 3407 families, given that pilot error led to that crash and that neither pilot had proper bed rest the night before the accident.

"Let's see how he feels about this if some cargo planes lands on some of the homes in his district," said Kenneth Mellett, whose son Coleman was killed in the crash.