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Editorial: Airline industry can't be allowed to weaken safety rules

And, they’re back.

The airline industry is trying once again to weaken safety rules adopted after the 2009 crash that killed 50 people in Clarence Center. This time, it is working through an advisory panel associated with the Federal Aviation Administration.

This needs to be a nonstarter – another in a series. The regulations are the law of the land, passed by Congress for good cause and signed by the president. Instead of whining about pilot shortages and excessive costs, the industry should be figuring out how to make the legislation work.

Businesses routinely do that when the minimum wage is increased. Here’s how: Government starts talking about an increase. Businesses gnash their teeth, predicting economic calamity. Government raises the minimum wage anyway, and businesses adapt. Life goes on.

There is no reason the airline industry cannot similarly adapt to these rules, including the one requiring 1,500 hours of flight experience for pilots. Its complaints about them would be merely preposterous if it wasn’t simultaneously compromising passenger safety. That makes them dangerous.

It’s important to remember the genesis of these new rules. Colgan Flight 3407 plummeted to earth on Feb. 12, 2009, because of the actions of a poorly trained pilot. A review of the circumstances showed the Capt. Marvin Renslow was violating flight protocol with non-flight related chatter when the turboprop plane went into a stall.

Investigators said Renslow then took the exact wrong action, raising the nose of a plane already traveling too slowly. That slowed the plane even more and the wings lost lift, sending the aircraft into a fatal dive. Flight 3407 crashed into a house, killing all on board and one person in the house.

And the airline industry argues it costs to much to hire pilots with more experience.

If anyone has forgotten, the airline industry jacked up fares when fuel costs spiked several years ago. When those costs began dropping, air fares remained high. Where has that money gone?

If that’s not enough, few people would complain if fares rose another $5 to help fund higher pilot salaries. It’s the business solution to shortages: Make a better bargain. Do that for pilots and it would soon overcome whatever recruiting problems may exist. Yes, that might preclude some people from becoming pilots, but all professions have entry gates. Not everyone gets through.

And yet, here we go again with another effort to weaken the rules. The latest ploy is through the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, a long-standing body that is examining regulations on orders from the Trump administration. Its dubious conclusion is that the requirement for 1,500 hours of flight experience “imposes costs that exceed benefits.”

The time for those arguments was when Congress was considering the law. It was passed more than seven years ago based in large part on a push from the family members of the crash victims. Congress listened to all sides and approved the law, which also deals with other issues, including pilot fatigue, a problem that had been notable among regional airlines, including the now-defunct Colgan.

The good news is that Western New York’s congressional delegation and the state’s two U.S. senators remain committed to protecting the hard-won flight safety rules. As Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., observed: “It’s no coincidence that we haven’t had a tragedy like Flight 3407 recently – because the rules are working and they have made air travel safer.”

Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican whose district includes the site of the crash, said, “I know that the rest of the delegation and I are ready to fight to make sure pilot training standards aren’t watered down.”

It’s odd that the airline industry refuses to adapt to rules that are manageable and whose antecedent is tragedy. If, instead of resisting at every turn, it had spent the past seven years figuring out how to make this work, everyone would be better off. Perhaps what has to happen is that Congress needs to pass another law to compel the industry’s compliance.

Regardless, the rules need to remain.

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