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Lawmakers bristle as airline industry blames safety rule for pilot shortage

WASHINGTON – The regional airline industry Thursday blamed a key safety requirement stemming from a deadly 2009 plane crash in Clarence Center for creating a pilot shortage, only to encounter members of Congress from both parties who criticized the industry for not paying its beginning pilots enough.

The regional airlines and the nation’s largest pilot union squared off at a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing that was supposed to be about air service to small communities but that instead veered again and again to the question of whether there is a pilot shortage and what caused it.

Testifying on behalf of the Regional Airline Association, Bryan K. Bedford, president and CEO of Republic Airlines, said smaller airlines are having trouble hiring enough pilots because of a recently implemented safety rule requiring newly hired co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience or its equivalent.

The Families of Continental Flight 3407, who banded together in wake of the crash that claimed 50 lives in Clarence Center in February 2009, lobbied for that experience requirement in aviation safety legislation they pushed through Congress the year after the crash.

But Bedford said the requirement was leaving some regional airlines so thin on pilots that they have had to trim service. What’s more, he said, the pilot experience rule may be forcing the airlines to hire pilots who have 1,500 hours of flight time but who otherwise aren’t the best aviators.

“The arbitrary nature of how the ultimate regulation was imposed, was codified, is not fulfilling the desires of the families of Colgan Flight 3407,” Bedford said. “It’s not building safety into the cockpit. In fact, I fear it’s pushing us in the other direction, where you may have less qualified guys – although qualified by statute – potentially coming into these cockpits. I think we do that at great risk.”

About a dozen members of the Flight 3407 families group attended the hearing, and afterward, one of the group’s leaders, Kevin Kuwik, disagreed completely with Bedford’s remarks.

“To listen to them to put words in our mouth and characterize our position is very offensive, to be honest with you,” Kuwik said.

The aviation safety bill that the families advocated boosts pilot training, as well as experience requirements, and Kuwik said the quality of training and the quantity of a pilot’s experience are both important.

“If you don’t have the quantity piece in there, they’re going to pay food stamp-level wages to these young pilots,” Kuwik said, noting that the co-pilot of Flight 3407 – who, investigators said, made critical errors in the cockpit – made $16,000 a year and as a result lived with her family in Seattle even though her job was based in Newark, N.J.

Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, noted at the hearing that the Government Accountability Office recently reported that starting co-pilot salaries average only $24,000 a year. That, the pilot union chief said, is the main reason that some regional airlines are having trouble hiring new pilots. Calling that “near-poverty wages,” Moak argued that the airlines are trying to use their hiring problems to push for rolling back the safety improvements mandated by Congress after the Flight 3407 crash.

Members of the subcommittee also seemed concerned about the low pilot salaries.

The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Richard R. Larsen of Washington state, said the regional airline industry offers its beginning pilots “poverty wages.”

And Rep. Richard L. Hanna, R-Barneveld, said: “Clearly, $24,000 a year is underpaid.”