WASHINGTON – The threat that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 worried about finally started to take shape Wednesday, as a key senator said he would propose changes to the pilot experience requirements that the families fought to get enacted into law seven years ago.
Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, told Politico that he and his committee colleagues are working on a proposal to alter the rule that requires both pilots and copilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience before flying a commercial airliner.
The proposed amendment to a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration "preserves the strong safety requirements in the law but at the same time makes it a little bit easier" for regional airlines to hire copilots, Thune said.
Thune didn't offer details of the proposal, only saying that it "basically allows for structured or disciplined instruction, and it sort of fits within the context of what we already allow for — academic training, military training qualifies for the 1,500 hours."
But the airlines have been floating a proposal on Capitol Hill that would allow experience gained at unaccredited flight schools, and schools run by the airlines, to count toward the 1,500 hour requirement. Under the law that the families fought for, the only academic training that counts toward the 1,500 hour requirement is that which is obtained at an accredited aviation college or university or in the military.
Thune's proposal will meet stiff opposition from New York's two U.S. senators.
“This is an underhanded attempt by the regional airlines and their allies in Congress to chip away at pilot training requirements that are in place to protect public safety," said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "This amendment is an insult to the families of Flight 3407 and to anyone who has lost a loved one in a preventable airline accident. I will use every tool at my disposal to defeat this amendment on the Senate floor.”
The Flight 3407 families, who are on a three-day lobbying trip to Washington this week, plan to fight Thune's proposal as well.
The families group came together after Continental Connection Flight 3407, run by a now-defunct regional airline called Colgan Air, crashed into a home in Clarence in February 2009. Fifty people died in that crash, which investigators came to blame on pilot error.
That finding prompted the families to work with lawmakers to craft a broad-ranging aviation safety bill that imposed tough new pilot training and rest requirements.
Yet the airlines long have fought the part of the bill that requires newly hired pilots to have 1,500 hours of flying experience.
Asked about Thune's proposed changes on Wednesday, Karen Eckert, one of the leading members of the families group, said: "Let the record speak for itself – eight and a half years without a fatal crash on an American airline."
Eckert also noted the nation's airline pilots – including Jeff Skiles, the copilot of the US Airways plane that successfully crash-landed in the Hudson River in 2009 – strongly back the aviation safety law and stood side by side with the families at a press conference on Tuesday.
Still, Thune is a formidable opponent. The third-ranking Republican in the Senate leadership, he chairs the committee that oversees legislation affecting the airlines. That committee will be marking up its FAA reauthorization legislation on Thursday, with some of the Flight 3407 families in attendance.
The airlines clearly want changes to the 1,500 hour rule, saying it has contributed to a pilot shortage.
"We recognize the rule has impacted the pilot supply by reducing, and postponing, the pool of hireable pilots," Russell A. Childs, the CEO of SkyWest, the nation's largest regional airline, told Congress earlier this year.
Thune told Politico that his amendment would be a very narrow change in the law, and that it would require the FAA to certify that any flight instruction counted toward the 1,500 hours requirement is safe.
The proposal will help alleviate the pilot shortage, he said.
"At the same time, we preserve a strong safety requirement," Thune told Politico.
Asked about the Flight 3407 families, Thune said they will be "opposed to any change whatsoever."
Then again, any change to the aviation law will also have to pass muster with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who was the leading congressional figure behind the aviation safety law that Thune wants to amend.
And earlier this week, Schumer said he was renewing his push to maintain the current safety standards.
"It is unthinkable that some in the aviation industry are pushing the FAA to water down these standards, and it is an affront to the 3407 families’ efforts over the last eight years,” said Schumer, who has been known to tear up with emotion at events with the Flight 3407 families.