Nearly Three Years After Flight 3407 Crash, Why Haven’t New Safety Rules Been Implemented?

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Flying Cheap is being rebroadcast tonight, Nov. 29; check your local listings or watch it online.

Beverly Eckert’s husband died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. On the night of Feb. 12, 2009, she headed to their hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. to present a scholarship in his name on what would have been his 58th birthday. She was on Continental Connection Flight 3407.

Eckert, whom President Obama described as “a tireless advocate for those families whose lives were forever changed on that September day,” never made it. The aircraft she was on crashed into a Buffalo-area home, killing all 49 people onboard and one on the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] determined that pilot error caused the accident. Almost three years later — despite the passage of key legislation aimed at preventing crashes like that of Flight 3407 — some family members and legislators say there’s been too little movement on improving safety conditions, especially for regional pilots.

Back in August 2010, President Obama signed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act into law, addressing some of the factors that played a role in the crash of 3407, a regional flight operated by Colgan Air.

“Everyone knows what the problem is,” Beverly’s sister, Karen Eckert, tells FRONTLINE, referring to pilot training and fatigue. “This is the first law that says: ‘We’ll address it.’”

Today, however, much of the law has yet to be enacted, stalled in the Office of Management and Budget [OMB] after reviews and changes from the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA]. Key portions of the legislation — including training and flight and duty time — are still in limbo.

“The infuriating truth is that not enough progress has been made to keep the flying public safe,” said Buffalo-area Congresswoman Louise Slaughter [D] in a statement to FRONTLINE. “What is unconscionable to me and disheartens my colleagues from the Western New York congressional delegation is that many of these directives are still stuck in the FAA a year later.”

A portion of the delay is likely due to the back-and-forth between the FAA and OMB, par for the course in Washington when enacting legislation. But because new flight and duty time rules would cover all pilots — not just those who carry passengers on commercial airlines — the OMB and the FAA are also under pressure from lobbyists, specifically those from the cargo plane industry.

Between July 22 and Oct. 12 of this year, companies like JetBlue, FedEx and UPS met with the OMB and the FAA about flight and duty time on nine occasions. The Families of Continental Flight 3407 also met once with the OMB and FAA.

The Department of Defense initially objected to flight and duty time rules — privately-run charter companies are contracted to shuttle the vast majority of soldiers across the globe — but later said they supported the new regulations.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, it’s looking more and more like the FAA will “impose less-stringent work-hour limits on cargo carriers than on passenger airlines.”

To Karen Eckert, though, it shouldn’t matter if you’re carrying passengers or packages: “Pilots are people, and people get tired.” FAA rules stipulate that a pilot should have at least eight hours of rest within a 24-hour period, but FRONTLINE’s reporting found that pilots are often encouraged to “move the rig” despite exhaustion. And because regional pilots fly multiple, short flights with more takeoffs and landings, they often suffer increased fatigue.

In a statement to FRONTLINE, the FAA said it’s “committed to ensuring that airline pilots are fit and rested when they report for duty” and that it’s “working aggressively to complete a new pilot fatigue rule, as well as separate rules that address pilot qualifications and training.”

While many key changes have yet to be enacted, Rep. Slaughter does see some progress. “Online travel websites now prominently disclose the air carrier you’re flying so when you’re flying a regional airliner you know it when you book the flight, not when you arrive at the gate,” she noted.

In addition, Scott Mauer, whose daughter Lorin died in the crash of Flight 3407, said that some pilots he’s talked to have “come back with positive comments on improvements and enhancements on stall recovery.” Flight 3407 crashed when pilot Marvin Reslow reacted incorrectly to a stall warning.

Mauer travels on regional planes regularly for his job, and he said he has talked to thousands of pilots over the years, giving them the opportunity to tell him what’s on their minds, both good and bad.

But at the end of the day, when he catches flights later at night, “these guys are just exhausted,” he explained. And that, in part, is why he says the Families of Continental Flight 3407 will “be back in D.C. in full force, pushing” until the new regulations are implemented.

There’s more to explore after watching tonight’s rebroadcast of Flying Cheap (check local listings), including controversy over newly-released emails that Pinnacle, Colgan Air’s parent company, allegedly withheld from the NTSB about their confidence in Flight 3407 pilot Marvin Renslow. You can also watch Flying Cheap anytime online.

Update [Dec. 1, 2011]: Yesterday, the FAA missed its latest deadline to finalize pilot fatigue rules. According to The Buffalo News, the FAA did not give any indication as to when new regulations might be implemented.

Photo: A Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 is shown on it's acceptance flight in Toronto. A commuter aircraft similar to the one shown -- Continental Connection Flight 3407 -- crashed into a Buffalo-area home in February 2009. (AP/THE CANADIAN PRESS -- Andrew H. Cline)

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