Monday, August 10, 2009

Safety First, Again

Following the latest civil aviation misery - the collision over the weekend of a sighteeing helicopter and a small plane over the Hudson River in New York City - thoughts turn once again to aviation safety and what's being done about it.

This was, after all, the same city section of river where a US Airways plane made an emergency water landing back in January with no loss of life. This time, with the loss of five Italian travelers in the chopper and four more lives lost in the plane, we weren't so lucky.

Fortunately, the new Federal Aviation Administration chief, Randy Babbitt, gets it. Or least least, he seems to.

In comments made Aug. 5 to a pilots' union, Babbitt addressed the training and work rules of the overworked, exhausted and underpaid pilots at small, regional feeder lines that operate small jets and propeller planes for the big, name-brand airlines. Things have got to get better, he said, and if they do not, new federal rules will see to it that pilot standards are tightened.

Some pilots at commuter airlines fly as many as five times a day, Babbitt noted, and they frequently work without enough rest. That should be reassuring to us all.

But then, all of us who have flown in those tiny, funky planes have hair-raising experiences to talk about. I once flew through a snowstorm in a two-prop plane that detoured on its way from New York City to Harrisburg, Pa. to make an unscheduled stop in Scranton. While on the ground, I saw past the thin curtain separating the cockpit from the half-dozen packed and scared passengers, and caught our young pilot looking at an unfolded paper in his hand: A map.

When we finally touched down safely in Harrisburg, the woman next to me - she was a total stranger to me, I was a total stranger to her - held hands, tightly.

Babbitt seems to know what things are like out there - and up there. "If you think the safety bar is too high,'' he said in his speech last week, "then your standards are set too low.''

Tough and necessary words. Let's hope he and the FAA back them up. We need improved safety in the sky, and we need it just as soon as we can get it.

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