WASHINGTON – A Senate committee Thursday approved what would be the first-ever weakening of the aviation safety provisions pushed into law by the families who lost loved ones in a plane crash in Clarence in 2009. However, the Senate's most powerful Democrat vowed to do everything in his power to prevent any major cutbacks in flight safety standards.
The Senate Commerce Committee, on a party-line vote, agreed to a Republican-backed amendment that would make it easier for pilots to get the 1,500 hours of flight experience required under the law before they can fly a passenger airplane. Under the proposed change, experience at unaccredited flight schools, or training programs offered by the airlines, would for the first time be able to count toward the 1,500 hours requirement.
Republicans said that action is necessary to boost passenger air service in rural areas. They said smaller communities are losing air service in part because the commuter airlines that serve them can't hire enough pilots with the amount of experience that's currently required.
"Two-thirds of the airports in this country are served exclusively by a regional airline," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who proposed the amendment. "Nobody here is suggesting that this pilot hour issue is singularly the issue that's responsible for the loss of service or the degradation of service in some of these communities. But I think it's also clear it is a contributing factor. And I think we need to find a way of addressing it."
But Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., threatened to block the legislation that includes Thune's amendment – a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration –- if Republicans insist on dramatically weakening the pilot experience requirements.
"I'll continue to do everything I can to ensure that any effort to water down these rules never becomes law," said Schumer, who is not on the Commerce Committee, after the hearing. "For years I've fought alongside the families of Flight 3407 and my Western New York congressional colleagues to protect these important rules that have improved aviation safety, and today's amendment has just redoubled our resolve. While we all share a desire to improve rural air service, those improvements simply cannot come at the expense of safety."
As minority leader, Schumer has the power to rally Democrats in opposition to Thune's proposal and block the FAA bill from coming to a vote. That means any changes to the aviation safety law will have to have his approval.
At issue in the debate is one provision in a wide-ranging aviation safety measure that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 pushed into law in 2010, a year after that flight crashed into a home in Clarence, claiming 50 lives.
A federal investigation found that Flight 3407 crashed because of pilot error. The plane crashed in part because the copilot misprogrammed the computer guiding the flight, and because the pilot did exactly the opposite of what he should have done when the plane began to stall.
The investigation also found that the pilots on the flight were fatigued and poorly trained. That prompted the families of the crash victims to work with lawmakers to pass an aviation safety law boosting pilot rest, training and experience requirements.
Smaller regional airlines opposed the pilot experience requirement from the start, saying it contributes to a pilot shortage. Thune's amendment to the FAA bill is an attempt to address that concern.
Under the aviation safety law, experience gained at accredited aviation colleges and universities and in the military can be credited toward the 1,500 hours of flying experience required for new copilots, but other pilot training doesn't.
Thune's amendment would change that law to say that "training courses, or other structured and disciplined training courses, will enhance safety more than requiring the pilot to fully comply with the flight hours requirement."
That language would allow the FAA to start counting other kinds of flight training toward the 1,500 hours requirement.
That can be done without weakening aviation safety standards if those new flight training programs are good enough, said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
"I am of the view that how you get the 1,500 hours is more important than the 1,500 hours," Blunt said.
But New York's senators have been adamant about maintaining the standards set by the aviation safety law,.
"There is no credible argument to weaken these rules, and I will work with my colleagues to remove this dangerous language on the Senate floor," said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is not on the panel that approved Thune's amendment.
Nevertheless, support for Thune's effort goes beyond Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee. Alan J. Stolzer, dean of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – one of the nation's premier aviation schools – sent Thune a letter endorsing his amendment.
"We do believe that the flight hour gap ultimately needs to be addressed to preclude a degradation of the quality of (pilot) candidates," Stolzer wrote.
For years, though, the Flight 3407 families have opposed any changes in the law. And one of the leading members of the group, John Kausner, said the families would continue to be opposed to changes as broad and unspecific as Thune's amendment.
Noting that Thune's amendment calls for "other" training to be counted toward the 1,500 hour requirement, Kausner said: " I don't know how you get broader than 'other.' That's just too broad."
A more specific tweaking of the 1,500 hour requirement might be acceptable to the families, added Kausner, who attended the Commerce Committee hearing with several other members of the families group.
"It's not like we're closed to anything," he said. "We just want to see what it is and see that it's safe."
Republicans and Democrats on the Commerce Committee debated Thune's amendment for more than a half hour even though it would be a small part of a massive bill aimed at shaping federal aviation policy for the next few years.
And while Republicans and Democrats offered sharply different views of Thune's proposed change in the pilot experience requirement, those differences pale in comparison to the overall FAA reauthorization bills being drawn up by the House and the Senate.
The House bill – which doesn't include any changes to the Flight 3407 safety provisions – would privatize the nation's air traffic control system, but the Senate version of the bill would not.
That's such a stark difference that some congressional staffers believe the two houses of Congress will not be able to agree on a measure reauthorizing the FAA for the next few years.
In that case, Congress would most likely do what it has done in the past when the House and Senate couldn't agree on major must-pass legislation.
Congress could simply agree to extend the current law authorizing the FAA, thereby leaving the Flight 3407 aviation safety regulations fully in place.