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1,500-hour proposal for co-pilots is hailed

Many new commercial airline co-pilots would be required to have 1,500 hours of flying experience, up from the current minimum of 250 hours, under a set of new rules proposed Monday in reaction to the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center.

Under the Federal Aviation Administration proposal, all new commercial pilots would be required to have an Air Transport Pilot, or ATP, certificate, which typically requires 1,500 hours of flight experience.

But former military pilots and graduates of four-year flight schools would be eligible for ATP "restricted privileges" certificates that would let them serve as co-pilots for commercial airlines without amassing 1,500 flight hours.

Military pilots would be able to get that restricted privileges license with 750 hours of flight experience, while graduates of aviation bachelor's degree programs could get that provisional certification with 1,000 hours of flight time.

The proposed rule stems from 2010 legislation pushed by the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who made the 1,500-hour requirement one of their central goals.

The families group and lawmakers alike praised the FAA's proposed rule.

"If this were to be the final rule, that would be pretty good," said Kevin Kuwik, one of the leaders of the families group.

"This is another important step forward toward making sure that the landmark aviation safety bill actually makes the skies safer for passengers," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who led the fight to include a more stringent pilot experience requirement in that safety legislation.

Forty-nine passengers, including a pregnant woman, died in the crash of Flight 3407 three years ago, as did a man in the home where the plane came down.

Federal investigators blamed the crash on pilot error, prompting the families group to push hard for higher experience requirements.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the new rule stemmed from his agency's emphasis on safety.

"This proposed rule reflects our commitment to the safety of the traveling public by making sure our pilots are the most qualified and best trained in the world," LaHood said.

The proposal would also require pilots to have 1,000 hours of experience at a passenger airline before qualifying as a captain.

And the proposed rule also would make it tougher to qualify for an ATP certificate. Pilots would need to complete a new FAA-approved training program, and have 50 hours of flight experience on a multi-engine plane, in addition to the 1,500 hours requirement.

"Our pilots need to have the right training and the right qualifications so they can be prepared to handle any situation they encounter in the cockpit," said acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta. "I believe this proposed rule will ensure our nation's pilots have the necessary skills and experience."

Susan Bourque, another key member of the Flight 3407 families group, said she was happy with both the increased experience requirements and other parts of the regulation that call for more stringent pilot training.

"It really is a step in the direction of one level of safety," she said of the proposal. "For the regional airlines, it elevates the level of experience required [for co-pilots] to the standard that was almost de facto at the major airlines."

She acknowledged, though, that the proposal is likely to draw fire from the airlines.

Bourque said she was concerned, too, about the provisions of the bill making it easier for military pilots or graduates of four-year flight schools to become pilots without a full 1,500 hours of experience.

Those provisions could provide an opening to flight schools or other special interests that want to weaken the proposal, Bourque said.

The airlines and others would have 60 days to comment on the proposal once it is published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.

The FAA then will work to incorporate those comments into a final rule, which it hopes to publish by early next year.

In the meantime, the families group and lawmakers vowed to fight any attempts to weaken the proposal -- just as they fought off industry efforts to weaken an earlier rule aimed at controlling pilot fatigue.

"While today's announcement is good news for the flying public, it is only a proposed rule, and we must ensure it is not watered down," said Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, whose district includes the crash site.