WASHINGTON – The Families of Continental Flight 3407 Monday renewed their fight to preserve pilot experience requirements they got written into the law seven years ago, but this time they could be facing their most daunting opponent yet: the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.
Gen. David L. Goldfein, the top uniformed officer in the Air Force, has been raising questions for months about whether the military is losing experienced pilots to the commercial airlines because of that pilot experience requirement. He met last month with airline industry officials, and a few weeks later, the airlines started circulating a document on Capitol Hill calling for changes in that aviation safety measure.
Speaking with reporters earlier this year, Goldfein indicated that the rule – which requires most nonmilitary pilots to have 1,500 hours of experience before being hired by a commercial airline – could be causing pilots to leave the military earlier than they otherwise would. That's because the law includes a lower threshold of 750 flight hours for military pilots who want to join commercial airlines.
“Right now if you got to have 1,500 hours to go be a commercial pilot, I am a really attractive source,” Goldfein told reporters, according to an account by the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.
Fifty people died in the February 2009 crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence, which federal investigators blamed on pilot error.
A leading member of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, Kevin Kuwik, acknowledged that Goldfein's concerns may make it more difficult for the group to prevent any changes to the so-called 1,500-hour rule.
"Clearly, on paper, he looks more formidable to members of Congress" than the regional airline executives who have fought the 1,500 rule for years, Kuwik said.
Goldfein's concerns stem from the fact that the Air Force was 1,544 pilots short of its goal at the end of fiscal 2016 last Sept. 30. Meantime, the commercial airlines told Congress earlier this year that they will be 15,000 pilots short of their needs by 2026.
To address those shared concerns, Goldfein met in mid-May with officials from the Regional Airline Association, which represents the smaller airlines that the big carriers contract with to provide the bulk of their shorter-haul flights.
“Today’s aviation enterprise doesn’t adequately meet the needs for national defense and national commerce,” Goldfein said in an Air Force account of the meeting.
Kuwik and the other leaders of the Flight 3407 families argue, though, that more of the blame for the pilot shortage should fall on the business model that makes becoming a commercial airline pilot unappealing. Major airlines contract out many flights to smaller regional airlines that still pay pilots as little as $20,000 a year – which is approximately what the co-pilot of Flight 3407 earned.
Nevertheless, the airlines want Congress to make changes, and to that end they are circulating an eight-page memo headlined "Legislative Concepts to Address Pilot Shortage – Funding for Pilot Training." The memo, which The Buffalo News obtained from a source on Monday, includes proposed legislative language that would make it easier for pilots to get academic credit that counts toward the required 1,500 hours of flight experience they need before they can fly a passenger airliner.
Lawmakers should be suspicious of such proposals, said John Kausner, one of the leading members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407.
"There are some ideas like this that maybe look good to someone on paper, but aren't so great when you see how they affect real people, and unfortunately we are the poster children for what happens when you give the regional airlines free rein," said Kausner, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Elly in the crash.
The Families of Continental Flight 3407 pushed landmark aviation safety legislation into law in 2010, and it included dramatic improvements in required pilot training as well as rest and experience requirements. For most starting pilots, the law boosted the required number of flight hours from 250 to 1,500.
"And now that we've gone over eight years with zero fatal commercial crashes on domestic carriers – the safest period in U.S. history by far – here we go again with the lobbyists lurking in the back hallways of Congress looking for another legislative bailout in exchange for some more campaign contributions," Kausner said.
Airlines have long contended, though, that the aviation safety law's pilot experience provisions are too onerous.
"We recognize the rule has impacted the pilot supply by reducing, and postponing, the pool of hirable pilots," Russell A. Childs, the CEO of SkyWest, the nation's largest regional airline, told Congress earlier this year.
And Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association, said Monday that there are far too few pilots entering the pipeline to keep pace with retirements.
"Supply is not meeting demand," she said.
She said she was unaware of specific legislative proposals circulating on Capitol Hill. But in an email, she outlined a series of ideas that closely tracked the memo.
In the memo, the airlines propose a variety of legislative changes aimed at making it easier to become a pilot. For example, they propose increasing the financial incentives for military pilots to join the commercial airlines, as well as expanding student loan and grant programs to cover pilot training.
Kuwik said the families support those provisions. But what concerns the Flight 3407 families is a proposal that makes it easier for would-be pilots to count academic experience as credit toward the 1,500 hours of flight experience that pilots now must have to be hired by the airlines.
The FAA has interpreted the 2010 aviation safety law as saying that academic credit will count toward that requirement only if it comes from accredited aviation colleges and universities. The airlines want to broaden that provision so that other kinds of aviation training, like that provided by the airlines and unaccredited flight schools, would count toward the law's flight experience requirement.
The law's references to academic training and academic requirements "cannot reasonably be understood to be limited to training provided by institutes of higher education," the airlines said in the memo.
With Congress about to consider legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, the Flight 3407 families worry that the airlines might have found a legislative pathway to get what they want.
To date, the airlines' efforts to water down the pilot experience requirement have gone nowhere. And to hear Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Chris Collins tell it, the airlines' latest effort will go nowhere, too.
“Regional airlines should drop any and all attempts to roll back these important and hard-won aviation safety standards,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat. “Each and every time this issue has come up we’ve successfully beaten back special interests’ attempts to water down safety standards, and I will work tirelessly alongside the families of Flight 3407 to ensure we’re successful again."
Meantime, Collins – a Republican from Clarence who responded to the crash while serving as Erie County executive – seemed shocked that the military was raising questions about a law passed to protect commercial airline passengers.
"I find it outrageous that anyone would want to compromise air travel safety by the general public because of concerns about military pilot numbers," he said. "Military leaders should focus on their own efforts to recruit and retain their pilots. Congress will concentrate on making sure the general flying public is safe and all commercial pilots are well trained.”