BUFFALO — More than 25 million people have flown out of Greater Buffalo Niagara International Airport during the past five years, yet it is the 49 passengers of one flight and another person on the ground on Feb. 12, 2009, who remain on my mind.
The crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 remains one of the worst aviation disasters in recent American history. The loss of life that night in Clarence Center left untold families heartbroken and shaken.
The determination of victims’ families has not gone unnoticed, as positive change in flight safety and training standards has been the result. Yet, the speed of implementation of these changes has been incredibly slow.
One year ago, the Office of the Inspector General issued a report on the Federal Aviation Administration’s progress and challenges in implementing the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010. The following is its summary.
“We found that FAA has made considerable and important progress implementing many elements of the act, such as advancing voluntary safety programs, improving pilot rest requirements and establishing better processes for managing safety risks. We also found the agency has not sufficiently targeted assistance to smaller air carriers who are furthest behind in developing new safety programs.
“In addition, FAA faces challenges with meeting timelines for key rulemaking efforts and with developing a long-term strategy for transitioning to a new pilot records database. We made five recommendations to [the] FAA, to improve its efforts in implementing the act. FAA concurred or partially concurred with all five, but we are requesting that the agency submit additional information or reconsider its response for three of them.”
The next time you are near our airport – or any major airport – look up to the sky. Chances are you will see an aircraft staffed by one of those “smaller air carriers” to which the federal agency referred. They are popular options along the East Coast, just like on that night five years ago when Flight 3407 left Newark for Buffalo.
Families of the victims won an important victory in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Enforcement Office mandated that airlines and online ticket agents had to make it easier for travelers to learn if their flight is being flown by a large airline like Continental or Delta or a smaller, regional airline, operating under the mainline carrier’s banner.
Family members have attended more than 20 congressional hearings on aviation issues and made more than 60 trips to Washington, to advocate for changes “to address the weaknesses that contributed to the crash of Continental Flight 3407,” according to the advocacy group Families of Continental Flight 3407.
Yet, implementation of several common-sense changes is behind schedule, including flight crew member mentoring, leadership and professional development. It is unacceptable that standards that would help protect the flying public remain bound in red tape.
New training rules will require pilots to learn to fly in real-world conditions, including simulator training on handling sudden aircraft emergencies. Federal aviation safety officials blamed the Clarence Center crash on pilot error, in part because of a lack of such training.
Next week, hundreds of people personally affected by what happened will gather to remember their relatives and friends. There is talk that this will be the final “formal” observance of the tragedy.
A memorial service is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 12, at Zion Lutheran Church, 9535 Clarence Center Road. Then, at 10 p.m., there will be a procession to the crash site on Long Street for the lighting of 51 luminarias – one for each of the victims, as well as the unborn child of one of the passengers.
It will be a horribly painful day, made only slightly more tolerable because of the positive change the group has been able to effect. They are strong people, who deserve the thanks and admiration of our entire community. But the delays and double talk must cease.
When will we ever wake up from this nightmare?
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.