WASHINGTON — Congress is taking steps to toughen regulations on pilot training, qualifications and hours in response to accidents involving regional airlines, including a February crash in upstate New York that killed 50 people.
Lawmakers want to raise the minimum number of flight hours required to become an airline pilot from the current 250 to 1,500 and give air carriers greater access to the past training records of pilots they’re considering hiring. Revising the rules governing how many hours pilots can be required to work before they’re given rest also is being considered.
The bipartisan proposals are contained in a House bill introduced Wednesday by key members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The committee is expected to vote Thursday to send the bill to the full House for action.
“Our bill is a comprehensive effort to consolidate what we know industrywide about aviation safety to improve safety performance going forward,” said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the aviation subcommittee.
The impetus for the bill was Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed on Feb. 12 as it prepared to land at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, killing all 49 aboard and one man in a house below.
Testimony at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in May indicated the flight’s captain and first officer made a series of critical errors leading up to the accident, possibly because they were fatigued or unwell. The flight was operated for Continental by Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va.
Documents released by NTSB show the 24-year-old co-pilot earned less than $16,000 the previous year, which was her first year working for the regional air carrier. On the day of the crash she said she felt sick, but didn’t want to pull out of the flight because she’d have to pay for a hotel room.
The flight’s captain didn’t have hands-on training on a key piece of safety equipment that played a critical role in the last seconds of the flight. He also had failed several tests of his piloting skills before coming to Colgan.
The last six U.S. airline crashes have all involved regional air carriers, and pilot performance was a factor in three of those cases.
Other provisions in the bill would:
_ Require airlines to take a new approach to scheduling pilots that has been long advocated by fatigue experts. Airlines would have to take into account that some kinds of flying — such as shorter flights with more frequent takeoffs and landings — are more tiring than other types of flying, and adjust schedules accordingly.
_ Direct the National Academy of Science to study how commuting by pilots contributes to fatigue and provide preliminary results after four months to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a co-sponsor of the bill, said the bill contains provisions opposed by both labor unions and airlines, “who will probably raise some Cain over this.”
The bill is H.R. 3371.