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Transportation secretary’s remark threatens hard-won flight safety rules

How disappointing.

Did Transportation Secretary Anthony R. Foxx did not fully understand the possible long-term effect of his recent statement that there is a pilot shortage?

Or, worse, did he fully understood that and was trying to dent the armor built by Flight 3407 families and the local congressional delegation to protect the flying public?

Either way, he needs to quickly apologize and issue a retraction. His words will provide a boost to opponents of the tougher flight safety rules during the impending debate on a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.

For those who don’t remember, and Foxx may very well be among them, Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center in 2009, killing 50 people, including one on the ground.

The crash devastated families, but it also created an unstoppable force. The Families of Continental Flight 3407 worked unselfishly and tirelessly to enact safety reforms that, with the notable help of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., were written into law after years of stalling by the airline industry.

Key among those reforms is a requirement that airline pilots have enough experience, training and rest. The investigation into the crash of Flight 3407 showed that the pilots lacked all three elements, leading to the reforms.

The flight and duty time requirements and experience requirement that demand pilots and co-pilots have 1,500 hours of flight time have been controversial, at least from the airlines’ point of view. No surprise, really. Then Foxx, at a Feb. 26 budget hearing, pushed the industry line: “There are more restrictive flight and duty time regulations and increased training requirements for first officers that went into effect January 2014. Those changes have led to a significant shortage in pilots.”

That claim ignores the real underlying issue, which was brought up in a letter to Foxx by Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport. They noted that the Government Accountability Office last year found that there is no pilot shortage.

But there is a paycheck shortage. Regional airlines are infamous for paying their pilots and co-pilots paltry salaries, often as little as $14,000 to $20,000 annually, although they are entrusted with the lives of their passengers. There is a shortage of pilots willing to work for the meager pay offered by the regional airlines. If those airlines offer pay commensurate with the responsibility they should have better luck finding pilots.

The families and members of Congress have worked diligently for the greater public good. Foxx’s poorly chosen words should not be allowed to dismantle that effort.