WASHINGTON – The Flight 3407 families came to Washington Wednesday fearing the worst: that a Republican president bent on cutting federal regulations would join with a Republican Congress to undo the flight safety improvements they won in legislation nearly seven years ago.
But the families left Washington with reassurance.
Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike vowed to fight to preserve those aviation safety measures, despite an expected assault from the airline industry.
"I am proud to stand with the families in their quest for safer skies, and I remain committed to doing whatever is necessary to make that happen," said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who carries special clout with the new administration as one of President Donald J. Trump's strongest defenders.
"Your good work will not be undone by anybody," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the new Senate Democratic leader, who vowed to use every power at his disposal to block any attempt to repeal the Flight 3407 safety rules. "We will make sure of that."
About 20 members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407 made the trip to Washington. They met first with Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., before heading to a session Collins arranged with the new leaders of the House Aviation Subcommittee.
Schumer and Gillibrand both said the families could be in for yet another fight. Schumer noted that the Trump administration may be much more susceptible to pressure from special interests.
And, Gillibrand noted a provision of the safety law that appeared to still be under threat: one requiring that commercial pilots have 1,500 hours of flight experience before being hired at a commercial airline.
"The 1,500 hour rule is one we're going to have to fight very hard to maintain," she said. "The regional airlines are trying to unwind that."
Both senators and family members said they were concerned that the airlines would fight to repeal that flight-hours requirement, which airlines say is responsible for a pilot shortage.
"They feel emboldened to do it," Gillibrand said. "They're all focused on de-regulation."
The families came to Washington especially worried about that 1,500 hour rule, but they left feeling more confident after the new chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., told them that changing the aviation safety rules wasn't part of his agenda, said Kevin Kuwik, one of the leading members of the family group.
"It was all really positive," Kuwik said of the House meeting. Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, Tom Reed, R-Corning, and Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, also attended.
The Families of Continental Flight 3407 won approval not just of that pilot experience requirement, but also new pilot training and rest requirements and a host of other aviation safety measures.
Two of the regulations called for in the law that they got passed still have not been implemented. One calls for establishment of a pilot records database. The other calls for new pilot professionalism standards.
Leaders of the family group said they plan to keep pushing for those new regulations, even though Trump recently froze the regulatory process and issued an executive order that calls for the repeal of two federal regulations for every new one that is implemented.
Asked if that executive order could imperil some of those already-implemented rules, Kuwik noted that Congress called for the establishment of those regulations. That means Congress would have to repeal them.
"They have no leeway," said Kuwik. "The rules were put in by legislation."
Schumer stressed, though, that any lawmaker who opposes the regulations will have ways to try to repeal them.
Legislation authorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration must be renewed by September, and lawmakers could try to change the safety rules in that bill. Schumer also noted that a member of the House Appropriations Committee could try to do the same thing in legislation setting aside funding for the FAA.
Schumer -- who holds considerable power as minority leader and can stop any bill in its tracks -- said he won't let that happen.
And even on the House side, where it is easier to pass legislation, any lawmaker bent on easing the safety rules would face opposition.
"We look forward to the discussions with our colleagues to ensure these safety measures stay intact,” said Reed, the Corning Republican.
Hearing that news, the members of the family group offered effusive praise to the New York lawmakers, who have stood by their aviation safety efforts from the start.
"We cannot thank the Western New York House delegation enough for its steadfast support of our cause over the past eight years," said John Kausner, another leader of the family group.
In his meeting with the families, Schumer – who pushed the aviation safety law through the Senate – said his work with the families was one of the highlights of his career.
And three days after he teared up at an event with immigrants and refugees protesting Trump's immigration crackdown, and two days after Trump accused him of producing "fake tears," Schumer noted that he has frequently cried at events with the Flight 3407 families.
"These people can testify that I've often cried," Schumer said. "They've seen me cry a whole bunch of times. That's who I am."