WASHINGTON – President Trump's nominee to be the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board doesn't think much of a key pilot experience requirement stemming from the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which tumbled to the ground in Clarence and claimed 50 lives largely because of pilot error.
Bruce Landsberg, an experienced aviation safety expert named in September to join the federal panel that investigates plane crashes and other transportation tragedies, complained twice earlier this decade about one of the key provisions of the aviation safety law that Congress passed in 2010 under pressure from the Families of Continental Flight 3407.
That provision requires both the captain and first officer of every commercial airliner to have 1,500 hours of flying experience, up from the previous requirement of 250 hours.
In a 2010 blog post, Landsberg said there was "no factual support" calling for the 1,500-hour requirement. He noted that both the pilot and first officer of Flight 3407 had far more than 1,500 hours of flight experience, adding: "Pilots should be hired and trained by solid criteria, not arbitrary numbers."
And in another blog post two years later, he called the pilot experience requirement "a non-issue."
Hearing that, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer – who teamed with the Flight 3407 families to pass the most comprehensive aviation safety law in decades – seemed shocked.
“It’s frightening to think that Mr. Landsberg, who is nominated to serve on the nation’s top transportation safety board, could honestly believe that pilot training is a non-issue,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat. “The families of Flight 3407 fought too long and too hard to pass this critical piece of safety legislation only to be undermined and dismissed by someone seeking to serve in one of the most important transportation safety roles in the country.”
Landsberg could not be reached for comment, and a White House spokesman did not respond when asked for comment on Landsberg's nomination to the safety board.
But Landsberg, then the president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Foundation, explained his views on the 1,500-hour requirement in blog posts in 2010 and 2012.
In 2010, he noted that the safety board had listed several factors that led to the pilot errors that caused the crash of Flight 3407, which a now-defunct regional airline, Colgan Air, operated on behalf of Continental Airlines. The factors the safety board cited included pilot fatigue, the pilot's poor record and the airline's poorly implemented pilot training program.
"Nowhere in any of this are the first officer’s flight-hour qualifications mentioned as a cause or a factor, yet a law has passed addressing a non-issue," Landsburg wrote. "This non sequitur was caused by the understandable grief and outrage of the families who lost loved ones on the flight. They somehow were led to believe that the (co-pilot) was under-qualified and she was a proximate cause."
Landsberg, a longtime safety official with an organization that represents private and recreational pilots, returned to the pilot experience issue in a 2012 blog post.
There, he noted that the 1,500 hour requirement would make it more difficult for pilots of light general-aviation aircraft — the kind of pilots his organization represents - to get hired at commercial airlines. That's because the new law also required some pilot experience in environments that are similar to that of a passenger airliner.
"The Colgan accident was tragic and avoidable," Landsberg wrote in 2012. "There was a systemic failure that needed to be addressed, but this result is disappointing. A blunt instrument was used when a scalpel would leave fewer scars and promote faster healing. Sometimes even good intentions result in an unintended and undesirable outcome."
In that blog post, Landsberg echoed the central concern of the Regional Airline Association: that the 1,500-hour requirement would cause a pilot shortage at the smaller carries that the major airlines contract with to provide regional air service.
Landsberg's point of view on that issue may turn his confirmation by the U.S. Senate into a battle. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, also a New York Democrat, last week joined four of their colleagues in sending a letter to Landsberg, asking him to explain his point of view on the issue.
Gillibrand said she will not support any nominee to the safety board who doesn't show support for the Flight 3407 families.
“I am appalled that a nominee to the board responsible for making recommendations to improve the safety of our national transportation system would suggest that first-officer flight-hour training is a non-issue,” Gillibrand said. “It is no coincidence that we have not had a tragedy like Flight 3407 in the last eight years – because the new rules are working, and they have made air travel safer. Now is not the time to roll them back."
If the Senate confirms Landsberg to a five-year term on the safety board, with the first two as vice chairman, he will not have any direct power to overturn or alter the Flight 3047 safety regulations.
"Obviously we strongly disagree with his written position" on the 1,500-hour rule, said Karen Eckert, one of the leading members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407. "Since the NTSB is not a policy-making or regulatory agency, if confirmed, we would count on him, as we do every other NTSB member, to investigate every crash thoroughly, to make sound conclusions as to its probable cause and make the sometimes tough but necessary safety recommendations to prevent any future crashes."
If confirmed, though, Landsberg could prove to be one more voice in favor of cutting back on the 1,500-hour experience requirement for new commercial pilots.
Just last month, a panel advising the Federal Aviation Administration recommended revising the 1,500-hour rule, saying that it "imposes costs that exceed benefits."
And in the Senate, Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota and the chairman of the Commerce Committee -- which oversees aviation issues -- has been pressing for a legislative change in the 1,500-hour rule, which took effect in 2013.
Supporters of modifying the rule argue that doing so is necessary to make sure that smaller regional carriers have enough pilots to continue serving smaller communities.
But pilot unions have joined the Flight 3407 families in staunchly advocating the 1,500 hour experience requirement.
Union officials have long believed that the requirement not only puts more experienced pilots in the cockpit, but that it also forces airlines to pay pilots more than the often-paltry salaries that first officers on regional airlines usually get. The first officer of Flight 3407, Rebecca Shaw, earned only $23,900 a year.
Trump nominated Landsberg for the safety board in mid-September, and his selection seemed routine at the time.
The National Business Aviation Association lauded his selection.
"Landsberg, an award-winning expert on pilot safety, has written hundreds of articles on aviation safety and helped develop dozens of online courses," the business aviation group said. "He also has worked with regulatory agencies and other aviation safety stakeholders, including the Federal Aviation Administration , the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the National Weather Service, as well as various industry groups."
But he also blogged in opposition to the 1,500-hour experience requirement for pilots — without even mentioning the other provisions of the aviation safety law pushed into effect by the Flight 3407 families in 2010. That measure also dramatically bolstered pilot training and implemented a new regimen so that flight crews are more rested.
Landsberg will likely be forced to further explain his thoughts on that safety law at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
While neither Schumer nor Gillibrand sits on that panel, the four other Democratic senators who wrote to Landsberg to ask him about the 1,500 hour rule — Sens. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Margaret Wood Hassan of New Hampshire and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois — all serve on the Commerce Committee.