- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Members of Congress criticized the Federal Aviation Administration over safety yesterday, saying the agency hasn’t done enough to address key issues that could compromise passenger safety.

“There is something wrong here — dramatically,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. , New Jersey Democrat, at a House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee hearing to review the FAA’s safety programs. “We are long past the time that a redesigned [safety] system should have been done.”

Several members of the panel raised concerns that tighter regulations regarding air-traffic controllers are needed, citing the Comair runway crash in Lexington, Ky., last month that killed 49 persons. The lone controller on duty that morning had only two hours of sleep before coming back to work, investigators say.

“The FAA has not in my view addressed staffing questions, and that is a safety concern,” said Rep. Ben Chandler, Kentucky Democrat, who represents the Lexington area.

Added Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat: “I think we have a system in crisis.”

Air-traffic controllers currently are working under a new contract that their union says could trigger a flood of retirements and would leave the nation’s airport-control towers understaffed.

Mr. Pascrell accused the FAA of prematurely walking away from the negotiating table.

“It is unconscionable to end a contract agreement in the midst of a labor dispute,” Mr. Pascrell said. “It’s not only objectionable, it’s a safety concern.”

The new contract prohibits controllers from taking sick leave “for rest or minor inconveniences,” a practice previously used by controllers who complained of a lack of sleep or fatigue. It also gives the FAA authority to require controllers to work longer than two hours without a break if deemed necessary.

But Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, said the agency has instituted a plan that includes hiring thousands of new controllers during the next few years. He said the FAA is on pace to fill all vacancies.

“The hiring has been going on at a brisk pace,” he said.

He added that studies showing a large number of controllers and inspectors are at or near retirement age is deceiving because the FAA typically hires professionals with experience, and that many employees work long past the time they’re eligible for retirement.

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee, stressed that the United States has the safest skies in the world.

“Even though 42 percent of the world’s [airline] departures are in the North American region, North America accounts for only 8.6 percent of the world’s accidents,” he said. “Aviation is by far the safest form of transportation in the United States.”



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