WASHINGTON (

TheStreet

) -- Members of Congress grilled the CEOs of

Continental

(CAL) - Get Report

and

United

( UAUA) on safety issues Wednesday, and the two executives stressed the need for a merger to bring financial stability to a historically unprofitable industry.

The CEOs also faced tough questions regarding network carriers' limited oversight of safety practices at regional carriers that fly under their names. The issue was brought about in the aftermath of a 2009 crash of a Colgan Air plane that killed 50 people. The plane was flying as Continental Express.

Continental CEO Jeff Smisek and United CEO Glenn Tilton appeared before the House Transportation Committee's subcommittee on aviation. In contrast to the

hearing last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee, the tone was harsh.

To an extent, the tone reflected the view of Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "This is a terrible, awful no-good thing," said Oberstar, summarizing his view on the proposed merger at the hearing's conclusion. "The Justice Department ought to turn it down and I will do everything in my power to make that happen -- this is the very antithesis of deregulation."

Earlier, Oberstar declared that airlines "work night and day trying to figure out how to squeeze more money out of this turnip they've got in their hand, and I'm determined that won't happen." He said airline industry consolidation has led to fewer carriers, higher ticket prices and fewer jobs. If the merger is approved, Oberstar will introduce legislation to step up regulation of the airline industry, he added.

On the safety side of the argument, Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio) and Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) focused on the relationships between the contract carriers. Boccieri asked Smisek why the Colgan Air pilots had not been trained to recover from an aircraft stall. "That is your responsibility," he told Smisek.

Smisek countered: "No, it was not. We were not aware of that training deficiency. That is the responsibility of the

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Federal Aviation Administration. We did not train those pilots," Smisek reiterated. "We expect them to be safe. We expect the FAA to do its job."

Boccieri responded: "We expect you to do your job too, sir."

Smisek said Continental is committed to safety and deeply regrets the fatal accident, but reiterated that the airline, with limited resources, can't be responsible for the safety of all carriers.

Garamendi, who also questioned Smisek, said later that he had been "shined on if not inundated with BS," adding: "There's a very, very serious problem here with safety ... When they tell me it's the FAA's responsibility, and then they claimed it is not their responsibility as to the quality of the people they contracted, I know something is seriously wrong."

In addition to raising safety concerns, panel members heard testimony from union leaders. Those leaders generally did not oppose the merger but rather insisted that workers' concerns should be addressed if the deal is to occur. "We want to make sure the carrier can survive and be successful," said Robert Roach, general vice president of the International Association of Machinists, which represents about 27,000 workers at the two airlines. "Having a good contract and no job means nothing

because when the camel dies, we all walk."

Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, called on the carriers to "not use this merger as a vehicle to outsource more good middle class jobs."

As for the pilots, Jay Pierce, chairman of the Continental chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, said: "Continental pilots did not search out or solicit this merger

but this can be an opportunity to create a great airline. Network carriers should be operational airlines, not merely ticket agents," he said, adding that their flights should be operated by pilots they have trained.

Wendy Morse, chairman of the United ALPA chapter, said a pilot deal is needed before the merger. In the 2005 merger between

US Airways

(LCC)

and America West, she said: "Management failed to negotiate in advance and

therefore failed to realize the advertised synergies."

US Airways President Scott Kirby said Monday that additional synergies of $10 million annually can be realized when the pilot groups unify under a single contract, which has been delayed by a seniority dispute.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.