WASHINGTON - Congress on Friday approved far-reaching aviation safety legislation that was developed in response to a deadly commuter airline crash in western New York last year.

The Senate approved the measure without debate, following similar action by the House late Thursday night. That sends it to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The safety measures are an attempt to force airlines to hire more experienced pilots, investigate pilots' previous employment more thoroughly and train them better. The legislation requires a major overhaul of rules governing pilot work schedules to prevent fatigue.

The impetus for the safety measures was the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo-Niagara International Airport on Feb. 12, 2009. All 49 people aboard and one man in a house were killed. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation faulted actions by the flight's pilots and deficiencies in pilot hiring and training by Colgan Air, the regional carrier that operated the flight for Continental Airlines.

All of the past six fatal airline accidents in the United States involved regional carriers. Pilot performance was a contributing factor in four of those cases.

Major airlines are increasingly outsourcing short-haul flights to regional carriers, which now account for more than half of all domestic flights.

As they prepared to pass the bill, House lawmakers praised the friends and family members of the victims of Flight 3407. They have lobbied relentlessly over the past 17 months.

Standing on the House floor but addressing family members in the visitors' gallery, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said their efforts have helped to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to someone else. "We are now at a point of making an extraordinary difference to aviation safety," said Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Proposed FAA requirements:

  • Boost the minimum flight experience for first officers from 250 hours to 1,500 hours - the same as captains.

  • Require the FAA to strengthen regulations governing pilot training programs at airlines.

  • Give FAA three years to impose rules requiring airlines to establish pilot mentoring programs and professional development committees, and add leadership and command training.

  • Require websites that sell airline tickets to state the name of the carrier operating each segment of the flight.
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