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South Dakota senator’s effort to weaken pilot-training requirements must be defeated

The regional airline industry found a politician – a U.S. senator from South Dakota – willing to carry its water with yet another misbegotten attempt to douse the hard-won pilot training requirements Congress finally put in place following the crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Clarence in 2009.

Perhaps Sen. Mike Rounds, the Republican who introduced an amendment that would make it easier for pilots to qualify to fly commercial flights, is unclear about what is at stake: It’s public safety.

People around here remember all too well the crash that took 50 lives in Clarence Center. Colgan Air, the now-defunct regional airline operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407, was flown by pilots who may have had more than 1,500 hours but Capt. Marvin D. Renslow, who made the fatal mistake on that wintry Feb. 12 night, had failed three federal flying tests before the airline hired him. And even then, not all regional pilots have that much training.

On that bitter night, flying through challenging weather and paying too little attention to his tasks, Renslow took the exact wrong action as his aircraft stalled, causing it to plunge to the ground, where it crashed into a house.

The loved ones of those doomed passengers bravely set aside their own grief and formed the Families of Continental Flight 3407. Their sole, selfless objective was to improve the level of safety for the flying public and, as was sadly demonstrated when one man in the house lost his life, the public at large. Improved pilot training for regional airlines is necessarily a part of that job. It’s worth a few extra dollars in airfare.

This is perhaps the disconnect that Rounds suffers. His amendment serves only the interests of regional airlines. The 2010 aviation safety provisions that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 worked so hard to write into law, strongly aided by senior Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., require pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience before being hired by commercial airlines.

Rounds’ amendment would allow regional airlines to hire first officers with fewer than 1,500 hours and use their training flights at the airline to count toward the 1,500-hour goal. This approach completely misses the mark.

Despite the Regional Airline Association complaints, it is undeniable that more training – and, yes, the right kind of training – is needed. Most people agree that a well-trained surgeon is the better pick. Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, Beverly Eckert, in the crash explained it clearly: These are desperate regional airlines petitioning Congress for “legislative bailouts.”

The South Dakota senator plans to maneuver this amendment through by attaching a bill reauthorizing money for the Federal Aviation Administration. This effort must be thwarted and Schumer – who played a pivotal role in approval of the legislation, along with strong bipartisan support from the Western delegation – said he will “fight tooth and nail” to ensure the amendment “never reaches the runway.”

The selfless efforts by the Families of Continental Flight 3407 to keep the flying – and general – public safe cannot be diluted.