Published: Jul 30, 2010 11:01 AM EDT
Updated: Jul 30, 2010 7:41 AM EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress is getting ready to pass tough new
aviation safety measures that were developed in response to a
deadly commuter plane crash in western New York in early 2009, a
key lawmaker said Wednesday.
      Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview
that he was introducing a bill with the safety improvements on
Wednesday. He said he expects House passage on Thursday and Senate
passage soon afterward.
      Besides the safety measures, the bill extends authority for
Federal Aviation Administration programs through Sept. 30, the end
of the current budget year. Without that extension, the FAA would
have to shutdown on Sunday when current program authority expires.
      There is strong support in Congress for the safety measures,
which were added to a broader aviation bill that lawmakers have
been struggling for nearly four years to pass. With that bill
stalled over disagreements involving other issues, House and Senate
lawmakers have reached a consensus that the safety provisions
should be passed separately from the broader measure, Oberstar
said.
      The impetus for the safety measures was the crash of Continental
Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo-Niagara International Airport.
All 49 people aboard and one man in a house were killed. A National
Transportation Safety Board investigation faulted errors by the
flight's two pilots and deficiencies in pilot hiring and training
by Colgan Air Inc., the regional carrier that operated the flight
for Continental Airlines.
      The bill "takes a big step forward in improving the safety of
our skies," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the
Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a
statement.
      The investigation also revealed the accident was the byproduct
of a financially strapped industry seeking to cut costs by farming
out short-haul flights to regional carriers. Those carriers often
hire inexperienced pilots at low wages, assign them exhausting
schedules and look the other way when they commute long distances
to work because they can't afford to live in the cities where they
are based.
      The last six airline accidents in the United States all involved
regional air carriers.
      Friends and family members of the victims of the Colgan crash
have been lobbying Congress relentlessly for passage of the safety
provisions. As a group, they have made more than 30 lobbying trips
to Washington at their own expense over the past 17 months. They've
met with dozens of senators and House members or their staffs, and
attended every congressional hearing with any connection to
aviation safety. They've also pressed their case in private
meetings with President Barack Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray
LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
      The safety measures Congress is preparing to pass are
"everything we asked for," said Kevin Kuwik, a spokesman for the
families who lost his girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, in the accident.
"The bill cuts right to the core of what caused Flight 3407 to
crash."
      The bill would require that the minimum flight experience for
first officers be raised from 250 hours to 1,500 hours - the same
level as captains. That could force regional airlines to hire more
experienced pilots and indirectly raise salaries. FAA would also be
required to update rules governing how many hours airlines may
require a pilot to fly before the pilot is permitted rest, and
airlines would have to put in place fatigue risk management plans -
programs that use scientific research on fatigue to assess pilot
hours and alert airlines to schedules that are likely to induce
fatigue.
      Other provisions address pre-employment screening of pilots,
create mentoring programs between experienced pilots and newly
hired pilots and provide remedial training for pilots who have
performed poorly on skills tests.
      Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to
persuade senators to pass the broader aviation bill, including the
safety measures, before the end of the week. The heart of the bill
is a blueprint for FAA's $40 billion program to modernize the
nation's air traffic control system.
      The key issue holding up the bill, Dorgan said, is whether
airlines should be allowed to fly an additional 16 flights a day
from Reagan National Airport near Washington to destinations beyond
a 1,200-mile "perimeter" imposed years ago to reduce airport
noise and encourage development at the larger Dulles International
Airport, which is farther away from the city and less convenient
for lawmakers.
      "I've just had a bellyful of the intransigence that exists in
this chamber," Dorgan said in a speech on the Senate floor. "It's
just fine to represent your interest and your region, but it's ...
just not fine to block this bill."