WASHINGTON — President Trump claimed credit for the nation's safe skies this week, and that prompted the Families of Continental Flight 3407 to ask him on Wednesday to commit to their side in an evolving battle over how much experience the nation's beginning pilots ought to have.
"Every American who boards a plane each day is counting on you to ensure that we put the best possible pilots in that cockpit, and set them up for success," the families said in a letter to Trump. "As another holiday season passes for us with an empty chair at our tables, we call on you to honor their memory by preserving these critical safety standards that were paid for in blood."
That was just the families' formal reaction. Individuals who lost loved ones in that February 2009 plane crash in Clarence lashed out at the president not long after he took to Twitter to boast that 2017 — his first year as president — was free of commercial aviation safety fatalities.
"Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation," Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. "Good news - it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!"
In fact, Flight 3407 was the last American commercial airliner to experience a fatal crash, and that was nearly nine years ago.
A year after the crash, the Flight 3407 families pushed into law the most comprehensive aviation safety legislation in decades. That law requires copilots as well as pilots to have 1,500 hours in flight experience. It also established new pilot training and rest requirements aimed at preventing the kind of pilot error that caused the Flight 3407 crash.
Flight 3407 family members think that law helped lead to an unprecedented period of aviation safety in America, which is why they were shocked to see Trump taking credit for last year's lack of aviation fatalities.
"He did nothing!!!" Justine Krasuski of Cheektowaga, who lost her husband, Jerry Krasuski, in the crash, said on Facebook in reaction to Trump's tweet. "It's us, the Flight 3407 Families that paved the way. Quite sad, to say the least."
In addition, family members remained concerned that the Trump administration will oppose what they see as the keystone of the safety law they got passed: the so-called "1,500 hour rule" for new copilots.
Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, has been leading the push to weaken the so-called 1,500-hour rule, saying it has caused a pilot shortage.
Meantime, an FAA advisory committee in September recommended changing or repealing the 1,500 hour rule, saying its costs exceed its benefits. And a Trump appointee to the National Transportation Safety Board, Bruce Landsberg, has called the pilot experience requirement "a non-issue."
In light of all that, Flight 3407 family member Ron Aughtmon said on Facebook that he was "appalled and disgusted" by the president's tweet.
"However, it doesn't surprise me one bit," said Aughtmon, who lost his uncle, John J. Fiore of Grand Island, in the crash. "He's done absolutely nothing since coming into office to assist with airline safety, in fact he and his 'party' want to water down the standards that we have fought so hard for over the last 8 1/2 years."
Asked for further details on Trump's claim, a White House spokesman released a statement from deputy press secretary Raj Shah.
“President Trump has raised the bar for our nation’s aviation safety and security. Last year, the President announced his initiative to modernize Air Traffic Control and under his leadership, the Department of Homeland Security released enhanced security measures to ensure safer commercial air travel," Shah's statement said. "The president is pleased there were no commercial airline deaths in 2017, and hopes this remains consistent in 2018 and beyond."
However, the White House spokesman refused to respond to questions about Trump's stance on the 1,500 hour rule — which the president ought to commit to, said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.
"The Families of Flight 3407 fought long, hard and successfully to improve aviation safety, yet special interests relentlessly try to water down the rules that made our skies safer," said Schumer, who pressed for passage of the aviation safety legislation alongside the families. "If he is serious about air safety, the president’s tweet should be followed by a directive to the Department of Transportation that they must fight against all efforts to weaken passenger safety rules.”
For his part, Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican and a strong Trump supporter, appears to believe that Trump has already committed to keeping the 1,500-hour rule in place.
"Thank you @realDonaldTrump for your commitment to safe skies & keeping pilot qualification hours in place," Collins tweeted. "The families of Flight 3407 have been vocal advocates for important flight safety reforms, and their efforts have not gone unnoticed."
Asked if that meant that Collins had received a personal commitment from Trump on the pilot experience issue, Collins' spokesman released a statement from the congressman that said: “President Trump has made clear that he is committed to keeping our skies safe, sharing in the common goals that the Families of Flight 3407 and Western New York lawmakers have been advocating for since the tragedy in 2009. Throughout the last year I’ve worked very closely with the Trump Administration on a variety of issues, including aviation safety, and will continue to be a vocal proponent of keeping important reforms in place that keep airline passengers safe.”