The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, June 17:

Four weeks after US Airways Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III and First Officer Jeffrey B. Skiles calmly landed an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, all 49 passengers and crew aboard a Continental Express flight were killed when their turboprop airliner crashed outside Buffalo, N.Y. One man on the ground also was killed.

Separate hearings in Washington last week suggested that the different outcomes of the two flights may have been a direct result of the training and experience of the cockpit crews. Capt. Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw, who worked for Colgan Air, which operated the Continental Express flight, had nothing like the experience, training and flight-deck discipline of the US Airways crew.

The chilling cockpit voice recordings from Continental Express Flight 3407, released last month by the National Transportation Safety Board, revealed that Renslow and Shaw had violated the fundamental rule of “sterile cockpit” during the approach to Buffalo-Niagara Airport.

They continued aimless chatter about career goals and personal background, paying scant attention to the buildup of ice on their aircraft’s wings.

Not until the rattle of the aircraft’s stall indicator is heard on the recordings did the crew seem to realize that something was drastically wrong. And then they may have done everything wrong.

The issue is not one of blame, but in making sure it doesn’t happen again. It turns out that when Renslow was hired to fly for Colgan, he didn’t disclose the fact that he’d flunked three Federal Aviation Administration tests of his flying skills. Nor did Colgan ask.

At a hearing Wednesday of a Senate Commerce subcommittee, Mark Rosenker, the acting chairman of the NTSB, said that three years ago the NTSB had suggested making it mandatory that airlines review FAA test records before hiring pilots. Instead the FAA chose to make it optional.

At an NTSB hearing last week, Sullenberger, the hero of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” said the simulator training he is required to undergo each year – despite his 20,000 hours of flight experience – helped him react calmly, even though he’d never practiced a water landing.

But testimony before the Commerce subcommittee suggested that Colgan may not have been nearly so focused on pilot skill and training. Shaw, for example, was only 24 when she died. Flight 3407 was the first time she’d flown into heavy icing conditions.

She was paid $16,200 a year and commuted across country from Seattle, where she lived with her parents, to her base in New York. Renslow, who commuted from his home in Florida, was paid about $55,000 a year. Both may have been sleep-deprived on the night of the crash.

Since 2000, the NTSB has made 419 safety recommendations on which the FAA hasn’t acted. Last year, after cracks were found in some planes, it turned out that the FAA had been letting the airlines do their own inspections. The inspector general concluded, “It appears that FAA management fostered a culture whereby air carriers were considered the primary customer of its oversight mission instead of the flying public.”

The free-market approach to regulation – of food safety, of financial markets, of airline safety and dozens of other parts of American life – has been an abysmal and sometimes deadly failure. Try not to think about that next time you board an airplane.


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