- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

RICHMOND — An East Coast discount bus service was near to being shut down by federal transportation authorities before a weekend crash in Virginia killed four people, but it was still operating because it received a 10-day extension to file its appeal, federal transportation authorities said Wednesday.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Sky Express Inc. was shut down this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation for violating multiple federal safety regulations and is now prohibited from offering interstate transportation. One of its buses bound for New York City swerved off Interstate 95 on Saturday, hit an embankment and overturned about 30 miles north of Richmond.

The development renewed calls from industry experts and lawmakers who say more oversight is needed to ensure safer bus travel across the U.S.

Transportation Department officials said Wednesday they were about to shut down Sky Express but then gave it extra time to appeal an unsatisfactory safety rating.

A timeline released by the department indicates that without the extension Sky Express would have been shut down last Saturday.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he is directing the agency to end its practice of extending appeals periods for operators found to be unsafe.

Sky Express cannot resume operation until the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration determines the company is “fit,” according to the order issued late Tuesday following the crash. And Transportation Department spokeswoman Candice Tolliver said the agency “often” issues so-called out-of-service orders, but could not immediately provide details on the process companies need to go through in order to get back on the road.

The agency’s action doesn’t happen enough, said Pete Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, an industry trade group whose members are among the 3,200 bus companies operating across the country.

With commercial bus lines making about 750 million passenger trips each year, there’s a lack in oversight to make certain that companies are complying with federal and state regulations, Mr. Pantuso said. Federal regulations outline things like how many hours a driver could work and the amount of time between trips.

Various other state regulations exist.

“The regulations are there but there’s not enough consistent enforcement,” he said.

Still the industry historically has had a “great safety record,” with about 10 to 15 fatalities annually, Mr. Pantuso said.

“About 99.9 percent of them operate safely all the time and they’re diligent about safety,” he said. “It’s their family, their friends, their neighbors that they’re transporting. … This company was operating well outside the margins of safety.”

Sky Express, incorporated in North Carolina in 2004, offers $30 bus trips between New York and 15 cities in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It also goes to Washington, D.C.

The carrier is part of an industry of inexpensive buses on the highways of the East Coast that offer cheap fares, convenient routes and in some cases free wireless Internet. The industry is in the fifth year of a boom, but a string of fatal accidents also has prompted calls for tougher federal regulation.

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