The U.S. Senate has issued a powerful statement on the subject of air safety, voting unanimously last week to dramatically increase the amount and type of training commercial co-pilots must have before they can fly passengers.
The Senate approved an amendment by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who is driven by the terrible crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence last year. Fifty people died in the crash, including everyone on the airplane and one man on the ground, and Schumer successfully pushed for an increase in co-pilot training hours.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., earlier won inclusion of a measure that requires the Federal Aviation Administration to submit detailed annual reports on why it has or has not adopted National Transportation Safety Board recommendations. The intent is to make sure the FAA doesn't ignore such recommendations for years.
Schumer's amendment to the bill reauthorizing funding for the FAA would require new co-pilots to have 800 hours of flight experience under specific, rigorous conditions. Currently, co-pilots need only 250 hours of general experience. Congress should approve both changes when it passes the reauthorization bill.
Families who lost loved ones in the crash had been pushing for a 1,500-hour standard, but Schumer told them he lacked the votes for that big a change. The families plan to push the higher standard in the House, but appear pleased with what Schumer was able to achieve. It "certainly sets the floor at a level that we believe will significantly improve aviation safety," said Scott Maurer, a key member of the families group.
The issue has to resonate with the families, because the actions of Flight 3407's co-pilot, Rebecca Shaw, were an issue in the investigation of the crash. While investigators concluded the incorrect response of pilot Marvin Renslow doomed the Colgan Air flight, Shaw was working while she was ill and, together with Renslow, violated rules on discussing non-flight issues.
Improving the training of co-pilots will, of course, eventually lead to improved training for pilots as better-trained second-in-commands graduate into pilot seats. But, as testimony made clear, everyone in the cockpits of regional airlines needs improved training, especially on issues involving icing and pulling out of a stall, factors that led to the February 2009 crash.
If the House approves a 1,500-hour training standard for co-pilots and the Senate is by then willing to accept that minimum, that would be fine. But 800 hours is more than triple the current number of hours, and represents a muscular response to the training weaknesses revealed by the crash investigation. The senators and the families of Flight 3407's victims have done well.