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Senator aims to weaken pilot experience rule enacted after Flight 3407 crash

A U.S. senator from South Dakota is trying to weaken the tough pilot experience requirements that Congress put in place after the crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Clarence in 2009, and the families of the crash victims and Sen. Charles E. Schumer aren’t happy about it.

Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican, has introduced an amendment that would make it easier for pilots to qualify to fly commercial flights.

The 2010 aviation safety provisions that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 pushed into law require pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience before being hired by commercial airlines. But under Rounds’ amendment, regional airlines could hire first officers with fewer than 1,500 hours and use their training flights at the airline as credit toward the 1,500-hour goal.

Rounds’ press secretary, Katie Douglas, did not respond to a request for comment on the amendment, which the senator hopes to attach to a bill reauthorizing money for the Federal Aviation Administration.

But it appears to be in response to complaints from regional airlines that they are having trouble finding qualified pilots with enough experience to meet the law’s requirements.

“These stronger pilot-qualification standards have become a scapegoat for the painful after-effects of a very shaky regional airline business model that has put intense pressure on regional carriers to take every shortcut possible to stay viable economically,” said Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, Beverly Eckert, in the crash of Flight 3407.

“So here we have desperate regional airlines petitioning Congress for legislative bailouts that will allow them to maintain what has become a very tenuous status quo, while at the same time the mainline carriers are reaping record profits from lower fuel costs and from charging every fee under the sun,” Eckert added.

The Regional Airline Association has complained about the 1,500-hour requirement, citing a study released last month that indicated many pilots with 1,500 hours didn’t have the right kind of experience.

“The industry is currently forced to engage in remedial training of newly hired pilots, especially of those pilots hired with high flight hours,” RAA President Faye Malarkey Black said.

But the regional airlines and Rounds have a tough opponent on the issue: Schumer, a New York Democrat who was the key legislative player in the aviation safety bill that passed after the crash, which claimed 50 lives.

“It is unthinkable that there are still members of Congress that would even consider giving airlines a shortcut around the critical pilot training rules that we’ve passed,” Schumer said.

“Improved pilot training and other important safety requirements are fundamental to aviation safety and any attempt to create a loophole in those requirements is an affront to the Flight 3407 families’ dedication over the last seven years. That is why I am going to fight tooth and nail to make sure this amendment never reaches the runway for final passage in the FAA bill and never becomes a reality,” he added.