WASHINGTON – President Trump's nominee to be vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board told senators Tuesday that he stands by his criticism of one of the key safety rules enacted in the wake of the 2009 crash of a passenger plane in Clarence: the requirement that most new pilots and copilots have 1,500 hours of quality flying experience before being hired by a commercial airline.
"I believe in performance-based regulations as opposed to arbitrary, one-size-fits-all rules," said Bruce Landsberg, whom Trump appointed to the safety board – which investigates transportation accidents – in September.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Landsberg had kinds words for the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who pushed for passage of the most comprehensive aviation safety law in decades in 2010.
"As someone who is part of a family who has lost a loved one due to incompetence, I have great empathy for the Colgan families and commend them for taking action," he said in reference to Colgan Air, the defunct regional airline that operated Flight 3407 on behalf of Continental.
The safety board found pilot error to be the root cause of the Flight 3407 crash, which claimed 50 lives. But Landsberg said inexperience wasn't the reason Capt. Marvin Renslow did exactly the wrong thing and essentially flew the plane into the ground once he heard a stall warning.
"Four thousand hours wasn't enough for the pilot of that aircraft," Landsberg said of Renslow's hours flying.
A longtime safety expert at an organization that represents private and recreational pilots, Landsberg noted that in the U.S. military, 300 to 500 hours of flight experience is considered plenty to qualify a pilot for flying aircraft.
"They should be given some consideration for that," Landsberg said.
Landsberg's stance drew some harsh pushback from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and retired Army pilot.
She noted that pilots only had to have 250 hours of experience to serve as first officers on passenger airliners before the passage of the Flight 3407 safety law. In addition, she noted that while there were several fatal passenger airplane crashes in America in the years before that safety law passed, there have been no such fatal aviation accidents since then.
"It's been safer since the 1,500 hour rule was put into effect," Duckworth said.
The 1,500-hour rule was one of several safety provisions that the Flight 3407 pushed into law. Most notably, the safety law dramatically boosted pilot training requirements while also requiring that airline crews get much more rest before working on a passenger flight.
But the 1,500-hour rule has long been the most controversial provision in the aviation safety law. Regional airlines have long contended that the requirement is so strict that it's causing a pilot shortage, and a Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel has suggested that the rule be revised, saying it "imposes costs that exceed benefits."
But the Flight 3407 families, New York's two U.S. senators and the Western New York House delegation have pushed to maintain the 1,500-hour rule, which enjoyed strong backing from pilot unions over the years.
“After the heart breaking tragedy of Flight 3407, the families of victims came together and advocated for aviation regulations that undoubtedly save lives and keep the traveling public safe," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat. "It’s critical that nominees to serve in transportation safety roles, like the NTSB, take seriously the progress that has been made and work with us to uphold the highest level of safety in the aviation industry, rather than just parrot special interest and industry talking points.”
Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from Clarence, said he would continue to press the Trump administration to support the 1,500 hour rule in spite of Landsberg's views.
“It is worrisome any time transportation official is against such hard fought safety reforms that were put in place because of the tireless efforts of the families of Flight 3407," Collins said. "Despite concerns, I doubt this individual will have an opportunity to weigh in on these rules because it is out of the scope of his position."