Mainers set sights on flight safety

Posted June 21, 2009, at 8:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Among the most frequent of frequent fliers in Maine are members of the state’s congressional delegation, and they are concerned about reports that regional airlines are not meeting safety standards.

“I fully endorse the suggestions of the National Transportation Safety Board for strict oversight,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, a member of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee. “We have to insure the FAA eliminates the possibility that these terrible lapses that were uncovered in the Buffalo tragedy never reoccur.”

She said she has spoken with the new Federal Aviation Administration administrator, J. Randolph Babbitt, and urged that he make sure training for all commercial airline pilots meets the standards already in law.

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“We are very dependent on regional airline service in the state of Maine,” Snowe said. “It’s been a very good service. But most of the crashes that have occurred in recent years have been regional airlines.”

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Sen. Susan Collins agreed the federal government needs to make sure all pilots, whether they are flying a jumbo jet or a small turboprop serving small Maine communities, have the training to fly in all the weather conditions to which they may be assigned. She said the transcripts of the NTSB investigation of the deadly accident in February involving Continental Connection Flight 3407 underscore her concerns.

Continental Connection is operated by Colgan Air, which provides most of the commercial flights from Maine airports.

“There are questions about rest periods being adequate and whether training is adequate,” Collins said. “We Mainers have a very personal stake in ensuring the safety of commuter airlines.”

For example, she said all of the commercial flights from Presque Isle, Bar Harbor and Augusta are on regional airlines. The state’s two largest airports also rely heavily on commuter airlines with 79 percent of the flights out of Bangor and 71 percent of the flights out of Portland on the regional airlines.

“As far as commercial airlines go, all of the crashes since 2002 have been on commuter airlines,” she said. “That has to be a concern.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of the state’s 2nd District serves on the House Transportation Committee and said that panel has been holding a series of hearings on the safety of the regional airlines. With the geographically largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River, he frequently flies on commuter aircraft both in-state and to travel to Washington.

“We have taken a number of steps in the FAA authorization bill to improve safety,” he said. “We have actually increased [the number of] FAA aviation safety inspectors, which is very important, and we are calling for an independent aviation safety whistleblower office.”

Michaud acknowledged Congress will have to fund the positions in the appropriations bill for the agency, and he expects the funding will be approved.

“There is a lot of support for increasing oversight and improving airline safety,” he said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, representing Maine’s 1st District, said the NTSB preliminary report on the Buffalo crash is worrisome. She said it revealed the lack of adequate training of some of the crew members and highlighted the need for greater oversight by the FAA.

“People need to be assured that safety is adequate on any airplane they board,” she said, “and that the crew is properly trained.”

The FAA has promised additional inspections, even though the accident rate for the commercial airline industry is down. The overall accident rate over the last decade has dropped to one fatal accident a year for every 10 million hours of flight. That is down from about three fatal accidents annually in the preceding 10 years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

In testimony before the Senate panel earlier this month, FAA administrator Babbitt said the nation is in a period of “extreme” aviation safety, but the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo and the loss of the Air France jet over the South Atlantic are reminders improvements can always be made.

“This is a business where one mistake is one too many,” he said.

Dan Morgan, vice president for Safety and Regulatory Compliance for Colgan Air Inc., told the House Transportation Committee earlier this month that safety is “the number one priority” for everyone at the company. He said Colgan has extensive programs to assure proper training of all air crew members

“I want to assure this committee and the flying public that Colgan Air will continue to make safety the highest priority and will aggressively seek to identify ways in which we can improve safety and ensure that we operate the safest possible airline,” he said.

Snowe said as the FAA authorization and appropriations bills move through Congress, she expects the agency will be directed and given the staff to improve oversight.

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