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Senators urge probe into regional airline oversight

Testimony on the deadly Continental Connection crash in New York prompts senior members of the aviation safety subcommittee to question FAA enforcement. A spokeswoman says the agency would cooperate.

May 20, 2009|Rebecca Cole

WASHINGTON — Prompted by testimony last week about the crash of a commuter plane near Buffalo, N.Y., four senior senators have called for an independent investigation into federal oversight of regional carriers.

In a letter released Tuesday, members of the Senate aviation safety subcommittee told the Transportation Department's inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, that evidence of inadequate training and crew fatigue in the fatal crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 raised broad concerns about the Federal Aviation Administration's enforcement of industry compliance.

"Adequate pilot training and rest is a basic prerequisite to make certain the air transportation system achieves a high level of safety," the letter said. "Such regulations, however, must be paired with vigorous FAA oversight of airline compliance to have a credible effect."

Led by subcommittee Chairman Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D), the bipartisan group of senators asked for a review of FAA certification standards, crew rest requirements and training policies, and what actions the agency takes with pilots who repeatedly fail training tests. Flight 3407's pilot, Capt. Marvin Renslow, failed five flight tests throughout his career. Fifty people, including one on the ground, died in the February crash.

The letter also asked for an examination into what warning technologies are included in flight simulator training versus classroom instruction.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency would "cooperate fully with the inspector general if he decides to conduct an investigation" into the issues the senators raised.

Dorgan said he planned to hold hearings in June to investigate the safety gaps in the airline industry. "The FAA has a responsibility to both impose and enforce the standards that will give the American air traveler confidence across all of our airline services," he said in a statement.

Mary Schiavo, who was Transportation inspector general for six years, said that she had "locked horns" with the FAA on many occasions during her tenure.

"We repeatedly asked the airlines to police the crew rest and the commuting issue, even the sterile cockpit rules," Schiavo said, referring to evidence that Renslow and his copilot, Rebecca Shaw, had engaged in idle chatter as they descended below 10,000 feet, a violation of FAA rules.

With two missions that appear to be at odds with one another -- safety and the promotion of the airline industry -- Schiavo said that at times, the FAA "gets lost" in carrying out both demands.

Other letter signers included Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.); Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the committee's ranking Republican; and the aviation subcommittee's senior Republican, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

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rcole@tribune.com

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