WASHINGTON – The Families of Continental Flight 3407 appear to be winning their latest battle to preserve the aviation safety measures they pushed into law seven years ago.
They did it, in part, by enlisting the help of the two pilots from "Miracle on the Hudson" – and by relying on the strong support of New York's two U.S. senators, both Democrats.
The latest battle started after Senate legislation surfaced that would have made it easier for new pilots to qualify to fly commercial aircraft.
To fight that amendment, Scott Maurer, one of the leaders of the family group, made the rounds of 25 Senate offices last week. Jeffrey Skiles, the copilot of the famed US Airways flight that landed on the Hudson River in January 2009 after colliding with a flock of geese, accompanied him.
Meantime, the captain of that US Airways flight, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, called senators to press them to preserve the current pilot experience requirements.
"Captain Sullenberger has been making phone calls to senators at the direction of the Flight 3407 families," Skiles said. "We want to show people what professional pilots think."
As Skiles and Maurer lobbied senators, Reps. Chris Collins and Louise M. Slaughter both gave speeches at a Washington aviation safety conference last week to back the families' stance on the aviation safety law.
"I am firmly against any watering down of qualification hours for pilots, and we will continue to fight against the regional airlines as they push for increased profits over safety," Collins, a Republican from Clarence, said at the Air Line Pilots Association aviation safety forum. "Any attempt to water down these rules will put the FAA reauthorization bill in jeopardy."
Maurer came away from his lobbying trip thinking that, at this point, the amendment that the families are concerned about could doom the larger legislation to which it is attached: a measure reauthorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.
"There's a realization that this bill is not going to go forward with this amendment in it," Maurer said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and his New York colleague, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, made clear that they will not let the bill move forward if it includes a controversial change in aviation safety rules advocated by Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican.
The Senate Commerce Committee, which Thune chairs, added an amendment to the FAA bill last month 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.
Thune said at the time that the current rules are contributing to a pilot shortage, and he added: "I think we need to find a way of addressing it."
Under the proposed change, for the first time experience at unaccredited flight schools or in training programs offered by the airlines would count toward the 1,500-hour requirement.
The Flight 3407 families say Thune's amendment would dramatically weaken a key provision of the landmark aviation safety law that they fought for after the 2009 plane crash in Clarence that claimed 50 lives.
With Schumer and Gillibrand backing the families, the larger FAA measure remains stuck in the Senate.
"It will not pass" if it includes Thune's provision to make it easier for pilots to get the 1,500 hours of required flight time, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said last week, according to Politico.
Nelson, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, told reporters that the FAA bill could pass unanimously "if we get rid of that."
Nelson's press secretary did not respond to a request for comment, but other Senate sources said the Florida Democrat is playing a key behind-the-scenes role in fighting for the Flight 3407 safety rules.
They see Nelson's hand in an unusual decision by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – the nation's premier flight school – to withdraw its earlier support for Thune's amendment.
"Unfortunately, we have become aware of some additional information that must be considered by the university before offering our endorsement of the amendment," Alan J. Stolzer, dean of the Florida-based flight school, said in a June 30 letter to Thune. "Thus, please accept this letter withholding our support."
An Embry-Riddle spokesperson declined to elaborate on why Stolzer changed his mind about Thune's amendment only two days after announcing his support for it. But other sources said Nelson's concerns were key to the decision.
The Regional Airline Association insists that the change Thune proposes is a good one. The airline group says that the current 1,500 rule for pilots is too rigid, and that it favors pilots with plenty of flight time regardless of the quality of that flight time.
Good training programs, rather than additional hours in the sky, would make for better pilots, said Faye Malarkey Black, the group's president.
"In the end, I believe lawmakers will come together on this issue to support new pilots entering the field with more opportunities to pursue the kind of structured pilot training that has been proven to offer a higher level of safety," she said.
Skiles, however, argued that the Thune amendment would bring inexperienced pilots back into the cockpit.
"It allows the pilot experience requirements to be significantly weakened," he said.
Asked about the Thune amendment last week, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta refused to comment, saying he doesn't take stands on pending legislation.
Voluntary measures agreed to by the airlines and the FAA have played a key role in improving aviation safety, Huerta said at that aviation safety conference. But afterwards, he acknowledged that the 2010 aviation safety law – which also included new rules on pilot rest and training –- had made the skies safer.
Huerta singled out the training provisions in the bill, which force pilots to have the kind of training in stall recovery that the Flight 3407 pilots never received, as particularly important. The deadly crash was blamed on pilot error, with, among other things, the captain responding incorrectly to a stall signal.
There have been no fatal plane crashes among U.S. commercial airlines since the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of Flight 3407, and Heurta said that's a testimony to his agency's efforts, those of the airlines, and the 2010 aviation safety law.
"The record speaks for itself," the FAA chief said.
Slaughter said the record is a testimony to the tenacity of the Flight 3407 families, who have made countless trips to Washington over the years to press for aviation safety.
"There wasn't a single time that something was coming up about airline safety that they didn't all come down en masse," said Slaughter, a Fairport Democrat. "They paid their own way, which was considerable, they paid for their lodging, and they came and came and came."