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Editorial: Keeping cockpits safe

It’s good that the legislatively mandated database of pilots is finally moving ahead but reprehensible that it took so long. The nine-year delay suggests that the Federal Aviation Administration is indifferent to air safety.

The law requiring creation of the database was enacted in 2010, a year after the errors of a poorly trained pilot led to the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence. Fifty people died.

The law broadly addressed the critical problem of pilot training, but it has been attacked ever since. The aviation industry and its congressional lackeys have repeatedly tried to undermine it. Only recently has the FAA seemed at all engaged.

But now the pilot database is finally moving ahead. The FAA has sent its proposal onto the Trump administration for final review. It’s a demonstrably important matter – one of life and death – even if Washington’s nine years of foot-dragging treated it as an annoyance.

Hearings into the disastrous crash of Feb. 12, 2009, showed that pilot Marvin Renslow didn’t belong in the cockpit. Not only was he poorly trained, but Colgan Air, the now-defunct airline that operated the Newark-to-Buffalo flight, didn’t know that he had failed three federal “check rides” before it hired him.

“Had we known what we know now, he would not have been in that seat,” Philip H. Trenary, president and chief executive officer of Pinnacle Airlines, which owned Colgan, testified during a Senate hearing.

But it did hire him, with disastrous consequences. When the propeller jet went into a stall in wintry weather, Renslow took the exact wrong action, sending the aircraft into a fatal plunge. All 49 people on board were killed along with one man in the house the plane struck.

A database would have saved those 50 lives, based on Trenary’s testimony. It could save others, still, once it is completed and airlines are able to check the records of pilots they consider hiring.

That fact, alone, makes the FAA’s stonewalling unconscionable, though hardly surprising. Since its passage, the aviation industry, which wields undue influence over the agency, has made a mission of undermining this law.

Fortunately, those efforts have failed as the law’s defenders have rallied. They include Buffalo’s congressmen, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and the Families of Flight 3407, survivors of those who died. They pushed hard for the law and, more than 10 years later, remain committed and vigilant.

It’s a good thing, too. The law’s enactment has coincided with the safest period ever for American civilian aviation. In the two decades before Congress passed this law, 1,186 people died in U.S. commercial plane crashes. Since its approval, one person has died, when a window on a Southwest Airlines jet shattered.

The law’s other components include an increase in the number of flight hours necessary before working as a commercial pilot. That, especially, has been a target of the industry. New rules were also implemented to require a minimum amount of uninterrupted rest for pilots and to limit the number of consecutive hours they can fly.

Things may finally be settling down. Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, reassured the families that the Trump administration will not try to weaken the law’s critical training requirements and would move ahead with the database.

Now, that is happening. It’s good news but no one should look away. It may seem strange that the airline industry would fight a law that makes it safer, but that has been its perverse objective for the past 10 years. It would be a mistake to think it has suddenly changed its mind.

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