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FAA botched its chance

Among the more disturbing revelations coming out of the crash of Colgan Air’s Continental Connection Flight 3407 has to be the story told by Dan Morgan, the former vice president of safety and compliance for the regional airline.

As reported by News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski, Morgan outlined in detail the missteps and missed opportunities by both Colgan Air and the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency had ample evidence of safety shortcomings at the airline, but failed to follow through on a number of threats to crack down on Colgan. Those threats came after Colgan had amply demonstrated a culture in which finances far outweighed attention to training and safety.

Shocked lawmakers and family members of Flight 3407 victims say Morgan’s account should prompt the FAA to enact the tough new pilot training and experience regulations that it has promised to finalize this year.

The report that the FAA warned the airline about safety issues a full six months before the crash is gut-wrenching.

According to Morgan, Nick Scarpinato, director of the FAA’s flight standards office in Herndon, Va., sounded the alarm about safety problems at Colgan. The alarmed FAA wanted the airline to stop everything except daily operations and immediately bring everyone in from the regional airline to discuss the safety issues.

The FAA confirms that it had threatened disciplinary action against Colgan in August 2008. But it did not follow through on those threats, opting instead to give the airline what amounted to a pass.

Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center on Feb. 12, 2009. Fifty people died. Now, to hear from someone at the top levels of the airline that the FAA had such serious misgivings about safety that it barked up a storm, but then backed down, is an outrage.

Morgan told a story of a regional airline that pinched every penny possible as it lived on the financial edge, an airline that worked its inexperienced, poorly paid pilots like rented mules, if not ferrying passengers then repositioning empty planes.

It’s almost impossible to believe that the FAA’s concerns about safety could have been treated so lightly. Yet not only was little done, the airline was rapidly expanding at the time, putting further strains on its weak pilot training.

The only nod Colgan made to Scarpinato’s safety concerns was to create a PowerPoint presentation for executives to use in meetings with employees all across the country. The response by the FAA’s principal operations inspector for Colgan was a shockingly bland: “OK, thanks.”

Could the FAA really believe, as a spokeswoman told The News, that the agency’s August 2008 meeting with Colgan’s executives had its intended effect?

Legislation passed in the aftermath of the crash has already led to tougher rules aimed at curbing pilot fatigue. The pending rules will boost pilot training and experience requirements.

Beyond those new rules, Morgan’s account is another example of why the FAA needs to closely monitor shoestring airlines in particular in order to discourage the temptation to put the bottom line before passenger safety.