Fatal air crash decline presents safety challenge

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Continental Airlines Flight 3407 operated by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air, crashed into a house in Clarence Center, N.Y., and burned Feb. 12, 2009. Safety experts say airline travel has become so safe in the United States it's hard to justify imposing costly new safety rules on the economically fragile industry.   FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Continental Airlines Flight 3407 operated by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air, crashed into a house in Clarence Center, N.Y., and burned Feb. 12, 2009. Safety experts say airline travel has become so safe in the United States it's hard to justify imposing costly new safety rules on the economically fragile industry.

WASHINGTON — It’s been 43 months since the last deadly airline crash in the United States, the longest period without a fatal domestic accident since commercial aviation expanded after World War II. That sounds like unvarnished good news, but one consequence of having such a remarkable record is that it’s difficult to justify imposing costly new safety rules on the economically fragile industry.

Last year, the FAA revised rules on pilot work schedules and rest periods to address concerns that tired pilots were making mistakes, sometimes with fatal results. But the agency dropped requirements that would have extended the new rules to cargo carriers.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has urged cargo executives to voluntarily comply with the new rules, but so far he’s had no takers.

“We’re doing rulemaking in a system that is very, very safe,” LaHood said.

Last year, the FAA missed a congressionally mandated deadline for issuing new regulations on pilot training. Congress ordered the new rules after the last fatal airline crash in the U.S., on Feb. 12, 2009, when a startled captain overrode a key safety system as his airliner lost lift and began to stall.

An investigation showed the plane would have been able to fly had the captain responded correctly. Instead, it plummeted into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people aboard and a man in the home. Investigators cited pilot training lapses by the regional airline, Colgan Air, as a factor.

The FAA began work on revamping training rules in 1999. Regulators had proposed new rules just before the Colgan crash but effectively withdrew them for more work after the accident. Final rules aren’t scheduled to be issued until next year, and airlines aren’t expected to have to meet the new requirements until February 2019 — 20 years after the FAA started work on the rules and 10 years after the Colgan accident.

Training regulations haven’t kept pace with changing technology, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member. Planes are far safer than they used to be, he said, “but it’s much more difficult to fix the human being, and that’s who is responsible for most of the accidents these days.”

“There are a lot of things on the table that will help, but they cost money and it’s going very slowly,” Goglia said.


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