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'Sully' decries House bid to undercut air safety law

Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, heroic pilot of the "Miracle on the Hudson," lashed out Wednesday against a Republican lawmaker's attempt to gut aviation safety legislation pushed into law last year by the Families of Continental Flight 3407.

"I think it represents a giant step backward in terms of aviation safety," said Sullenberger, who reached out to The Buffalo News to discuss the amendment put forth by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

If Shuster's amendment becomes law, "at some point in the future, we don't know when, it's likely people will die unnecessarily," Sullenberger said.

Shuster's proposal, set for a House vote today, would make it much more difficult for the government to impose tough standards to control pilot fatigue and to bolster pilot experience requirements.

The law passed last summer at the families' behest requires the government to draw up such standards. But under Shuster's proposed amendment, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to tailor new regulations to individual segments of the airline industry, such as passenger airlines, cargo carriers and charter operations.

"It totally guts our striving for one level of safety," Sullenberger said.

In addition, all the new regulations would be subject to a complex set of analyses before they could be implemented.

"It creates a huge obstacle to new regulations," Sullenberger said.

Charter operators are advocating the Shuster amendment, said the 3407 families, who started pushing for tougher aviation safety rules within months of the February 2009 crash in Clarence Center that claimed 50 lives.

However, the amendment could be applied to all segments of the airline industry, including passenger airlines, thereby stalling the pilot fatigue and experience rules the 3407 families fought for -- perhaps forever.

Sullenberger said he knows from experience the importance of making sure pilots are well rested. He said that if he and his co-pilot, Jeffrey B. Skiles, had been fatigued on the day their jet with 155 people aboard struck a flock of birds over New York City in January 2009, they "could not have performed at the same level" in achieving an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

Sullenberger urged people to contact Shuster's office, as well as their own lawmakers, to fight the amendment.

Shuster's press secretary, Jeff Urbanchuk, did not respond to calls seeking comment on the amendment, which Shuster wants added to a bill reauthorizing FAA funding. The Rules Committee on Wednesday voted to send the amendment to the House floor.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport, the panel's ranking Democrat, lauded the Flight 3407 families as she worked in vain to kill the Shuster amendment. "This [amendment] is an insult to them," she said.

The measure would make it impossible for the FAA to write safety rules in the time frame called for in the bill passed last year, said Kevin Kuwik, a leader of the 3407 families.

Kuwik was already in Washington lobbying against the Shuster amendment. As soon as they heard about it, other key members of the families group began driving to Washington to join the fight.

First elected in 2002, Shuster received $18,500 in campaign money for his 2010 re-election and $115,750 in his career from the airline industry.

Shuster's amendment has a strong chance of passing the GOP-led House.

Regardless, "this isn't going down without a fight," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

Shuster's measure is expected to face a rougher ride in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "We are going to band together once again to beat back this senseless amendment and any other attempts to undermine the progress we've already made."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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