The nation's top transportation safety official says legislation passed by the Republican-led House earlier this month could gum up efforts to make the skies safer -- including those measures stemming from the crash two years ago of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center.
An amendment, authored by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., "would add complexity to the rulemaking process and would likely increase the time required to complete rulemakings, thereby delaying key measures needed to improve safety," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Hersman made her comments in a letter to Rep. Jerry F. Costello of Illinois, ranking Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee, who released the letter Wednesday.
Her comments contradict those that Shuster made before his amendment passed.
Schuster said his proposal would not affect current Federal Aviation Administration efforts to draw up new safety rules in wake of the Clarence crash -- but Hersman said the Shuster amendment could halt those safety efforts in their tracks.
Most notably, Hersman said the Shuster amendment would get in the way of efforts to draw up new rules aimed at making sure pilots don't fly when they're fatigued.
"This important rulemaking process, and many others, could be halted or not uniformly applied" if the Shuster amendment makes it into law, Hersman said.
Shuster's spokesman, Jeff Urbanchuck, did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment on Hersman's letter.
Under Shuster's amendment, the FAA would have to draw up separate flight safety rules for commercial, cargo and charter airlines. In addition, the Shuster amendment would impose a series of tough new procedures the FAA must follow in writing new flight safety rules.
Before the House passed the measure, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, pilot of the "Miracle on the Hudson" jetliner that made a safe emergency landing on the Hudson River in January 2009 after striking a flock of birds, called the Shuster amendment "a giant step backward in terms of aviation safety."
The Families of Continental Flight 3407 waged a strong battle to stop the amendment from being passed, saying that it would undermine the safety reforms they won in legislation passed by Congress last summer.
That broader bill calls on the FAA to write new rules on pilot fatigue and training in the wake of the Clarence crash, which claimed 50 lives and spurred a strong new focus on regional airlines such as Colgan Air, the Continental subcontractor that operated the flight.
The House voted April 1 to add the Shuster amendment to a bill reauthorizing FAA funding, which now must be merged with a radically different FAA bill that the Senate passed.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has vowed to block the Shuster amendment from being included in a House-Senate compromise. But even so, Costello and the Flight 3407 families said they were happy to see Hersman come forward on the issue.
Hersman "makes clear what Capt. Sullenberger, the Colgan families and I said during debate of the Shuster amendment on the House floor -- that it will make our skies less safe," said Costello, who noted that the Shuster amendment would abolish the FAA's longtime goal of "one level of safety" across the airline industry.
Scott Maurer, a leading member of the families group, thanked Hersman for the letter and said: "The window of opportunity to correct many of the problems learned from Continental Flight 3407 is drawing closed because of bureaucratic roadblocks like the Shuster amendment."