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Regional air carriers try to weaken rules for pilots

Regional airline carriers stepped up their efforts Tuesday for Congress to make “adjustments” and “refine” pilot training rules enacted in the aftermath of the fatal crash in 2009 of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center.

In remarks prepared for testimony to the U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee in Washington, the interim president of the Regional Airline Association said the 1,500 hours of flight time required to earn an airline pilot transport license has had “unintended consequences” both on the quality and quantity of new pilots applying to regional carriers.

Faye Malarkey Black testified that airlines are seeing fewer qualified pilots applying for jobs because, in part, they have spent too much “unstructured” time trying to rush to attain the 1,500 hours. She said the requirement “favors candidates who have amassed 1,500 hours over candidates who have undertaken academic pathways through tier piloting career but not amassed the 1,500 hours.”

But Sen. Charles E. Schumer said that it is “troubling that the regional airlines continue to try to weaken the critical new safety rules” that were adopted following Feb. 12, 2009, crash that killed 50 people. Schumer said he will work with Congress to “flatly reject” the carriers’s push to get what he said would be a two-tiered pilot training system, for major carriers and the smaller airlines.

Schumer was joined in a pushback against the industry effort by Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, pilot of the USAirways “Miracle on the Hudson” crash-landing that saved 155 lives in January 2009. He accused the regional carriers of twisting facts and making false claims about pilot shortages while taking financial shortcuts that could threaten the flying public.

Sullenberger, in testimony to the Senate panel, called on Congress to leave the pilot training rules untouched. “Public safety absolutely demands it,” he said.

Following the Flight 3407 crash, blamed on pilot error, Congress enacted a series of new training and certification requirements, including that newly hired pilots have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight experience.

With the Federal Aviation Administration up for reauthorization this year, safety advocates, including family members of victims of Flight 3407, have worried the air transport industry would use that process to weaken the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.

The regional airline trade group Tuesday told an aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee about a litany of problems created by the 1,500 hours flight experience rule. Black, the group’s president, used the term “unintended” consequences to describe the rule’s effects at least 16 times in 17 pages of written testimony submitted to the committee. Regional airlines today account for 46 percent of the nation’s passenger flights, and Black said the industry has a “deep concern” about the 1,500-hour requirement.

The head of the trade group said prospective pilots now graduate from college and, instead of going into airline training programs before flying with passengers onboard, must spend one or two years in various noncommercial airline jobs trying to build up the hours. Black, the group’s interim president, noted that some take such jobs as crop-dusters, which do not provide “for the development of skills relevant to a commercial airline pilot.”

Sullenberger called the industry’s concerns “spin.” He said that more pilots would be entering the system if the industry paid better, noting the $16,400 salary of the primary pilot of Flight 3407.

As for the industry’s push to amend the experience rules, he said, “They could not be more wrong. There are no shortcuts to experience. There is no shortcut to safety. The standards are the standards because they are necessary.”

Sullenberger said the stronger rules for pilots would not be in place without the lobbying effort by the Flight 3407 families.

“Every member of the flying public owes them a debt of gratitude,” he said.

But he sounded warnings about the stepped-up efforts to weaken the rules. “With the immediacy of that 2009 tragedy having passed, they are also appealing to new members of Congress and staffers who might not remember the Buffalo crash,” Sullenberger told lawmakers. “Putting self-interest over public safety, they are trying to gain your support in rolling back the essential progress that has been made for airline safety.”

Sulllenberger called the industry’s claims about the impact of the 1,500-hour requirements are “preposterous.” He said the rules make it more likely that future airline pilots will earn a range of experience, such as flying in weather in different seasons, before applying to become a commercial pilots.