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Flight 3407 families gird for new battle over aviation safety rules

WASHINGTON – The Families of Continental Flight 3407 think they have another fight on their hands, and with the help of federal lawmakers from New York State, they intend to win it.

Legislation is set to be introduced in Congress this week that could be used to gut the aviation safety improvements the Flight 3407 families won in a law passed in 2010. And with that in mind, nearly two dozen members of the families group came to Washington on Tuesday to take a strong stand against any weakening of that aviation safety law.

New York’s two Democratic senators and Western New York’s four House members – two Democrats, two Republicans – agreed to do everything they could to help.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E Gillibrand said they would use the power that any senator has to block legislation if they need to do it to halt an attempt to weaken aviation safety.

“Any airline, if you try to weaken our work, we’re going to fight you, and we’re going to win,” said Schumer, the key senator behind that aviation safety law.

The Flight 3407 families, meanwhile, said they would continue traveling to Washington – as they have done more than 80 times – to fight to keep the improvements they won in required pilot experience, training and rest between shifts.

“It’s interesting that when we woke up today, it was Groundhog Day,” said John Kausner, of Clarence, whose daughter, Ellyce, was killed in the crash of the regional commuter plane that took 50 lives Feb. 12, 2009, in Clarence Center. “Some things you have to keep doing over and over.”

The families’ latest trip to Washington came nearly seven years after the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407. They came this time because Rep. William F. Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, plans to introduce legislation this week to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Authorization bills often are used as vehicles to make policy changes, and the Flight 3407 families said they fear that the airline industry, which has contended that the safety improvements have led to a pilot shortage, will find a way to use the bill to weaken a provision that requires commercial pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience before they are hired.

To fight that possibility, Jeffrey B. Skiles – co-pilot of the US Airways jetliner that crash-landed safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson” River between Manhattan and Weehawken, N.J., on Jan. 15, 2009 – joined the families and lawmakers at the news conference.

“This is not the time to forget why we passed this legislation,” Skiles said.

Congress passed those safety improvements after a federal investigation found that the pilots of Flight 3407 mishandled the controls and in essence caused the crash.

That investigation also found that the pilot had not been trained in how to use the equipment that could have righted the plane’s course and that the co-pilot made the flight from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo after a red-eye flight from her home in Seattle.

Skiles said the requirement that co-pilots, just like pilots, have 1,500 hours of flight experience would likely be the main target of any airline industry attempt to weaken the legislation.

In an interview after the news conference, he stressed that requirement wasn’t just about spending time in the cockpit. If the number of hours required is cut, he said, so will requirements that pilots learn to fly at night, across country and in poor weather conditions.

Kevin Kuwik, one of the leading members of the families group, said attempts to weaken the aviation law could come in Shuster’s proposal, in committee or on the floor of the House.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who was serving as Erie County executive on the night of the crash, said he didn’t expect a successful attempt to weaken the safety rules.

“I think we’re fine, but if not, we’ve got somebody backstopping us,” he said, referring to Schumer and Gillibrand.

The Regional Airline Association, which represents smaller airlines such as the now-defunct Colgan Air – which operated Flight 3407 – did not respond to a request for comment on the families’ news conference