Congress tightens requirements for airline pilots

Responding to the deaths of 50 people in the crash last year of a Continental Airlines flight near Buffalo, N.Y., Congress passed legislation Friday requiring increased training and experience for regional airline pilots.

The House passed the measure, which also extends Federal Aviation Administration funding, on a voice vote just before midnight Thursday, and the Senate approved identical legislation Friday morning. No member of either chamber objected.

The legislation requires all airline pilots to log at least 1,500 hours of flight time before flying passengers, up from the current 250-hour minimum for newly hired copilots. The bill also boosts training, mandates the creation of a national database of pilot records and aims to reduce pilot fatigue by directing the FAA to update rules on pilot duty hours.

In addition, passengers who shop for airline tickets on the Internet must be notified which carrier will operate each segment of the itinerary.

The bill, which Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.) lauded as the strongest airline safety legislation in decades, was drafted in response to the Continental Airlines flight operated by regional carrier Colgan Air that crashed in February 2009, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. Regional airlines were involved in the last seven fatal U.S. airline accidents, and pilot performance was a factor in four cases, said Costello, who chairs the House aviation subcommittee.

Applause rang out in the gallery when the House passed the bill. Families of the victims of the Continental crash traveled to Washington more than 30 times over the last year to push for reform.

Karen Eckert of Williamsville, N.Y., said the legislation would have pleased her sister, Beverly Eckert, a Sept. 11 widow who served on the 9/11 Family Steering Committee before her death in the crash.

“We are delighted” with the legislation, Eckert said. “It actually encompasses almost every single item that we had asked for.…No other plane will crash because of inadequate training.”

Regional and commuter airlines, which are most affected, voiced concerns that the government was getting too involved in training issues.

The Aug. 1 expiration of FAA funding provided a vehicle for the safety upgrades, a House committee aide said. Congress has extended FAA funding 15 times since 2007, when the last comprehensive aviation law was due to expire.

Members of Congress aim to have a comprehensive airline bill ready by Sept. 30, when the latest extension of FAA funding expires. Divisive provisions over unions at FedEx Corp. and long-distance flights from Reagan National Airport outside Washington have kept the broader bill tabled for months.