WASHINGTON — One of the key aviation safety reforms enacted in response to the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center that took 50 lives in 2009 ought to be repealed or changed, an advisory committee told the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday.
The requirement that all commercial pilots obtain a license based on 1,500 hours of flight experience "imposes costs that exceed benefits," the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee said in a report that its members approved in a 21-4 vote at a Thursday meeting.
The panel's recommendation poses a significant threat to one of the most important provisions of the aviation safety law that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 pushed toward passage seven years ago.
A handful of members of the advisory panel pushed hard against the change, including Chad Balentine, supervisor of engineering and accident investigation at the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots union.
"We feel this would introduce serious safety risks into the industry," Balentine said.
But the big airlines' representative on the panel, Robert Ireland, disagreed.
"I think it's offensive to associate any changes proposed here with anything other than our support for full flight safety," said Ireland, managing director for engineering and maintenance at Airlines for America, an industry group.
The airlines — especially the smaller carriers represented by the Regional Airlines Association — have long advocated a change in the pilot hours requirement, saying it's so stringent that it's causing a pilot shortage.
They've tried — to no avail, so far — to get Congress to amend the requirement. Now, they apparently are trying to force changes through the federal regulatory process.
The Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee is a longstanding panel, consisting of representatives from the aviation industry, unions and safety groups, that routinely makes recommendations to the FAA.
This year, under an executive order by President Trump aimed at trimming unnecessary regulations throughout the federal government, that aviation rule-making panel was tasked with poring through federal aviation regulations, to recommend which ones to eliminate or modify.
The result: a 154-page report filled with dozens of uncontroversial recommendations on practically every element of commercial aviation — and a few, vaguely worded provisions that appear to take aim at the 1,500-hour experience requirement for new pilots.
Those changes were the only ones to spark any debate at Thursday's meeting.
Kevin Kuwik, one of the leading members of Families of Continental Flight 3407, said three recommendations in the committee's report appeared to threaten that key safety reform from 2010.
Most important is a proposal to eliminate the requirement that pilots have an air transport certificate, which in most cases requires them to have 1,500 hours of flight time. Another suggests modifications in a rule that prevents co-pilots from being promoted to pilots until they get 1,000 hours of flight time on a commercial airline. Another suggests pilots might be able to get alternative training, instead of the currently required flight hours.
Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association, said her group didn't recommend such changes, but supports them strongly.
She said the proposal asks the FAA to expand training opportunities for pilots that would provide them with a much better grounding in flying a plane safety than simple flying experience would.
"This doesn’t weaken the pilot qualification rules, it expands the element of the rule producing the safest and most proficient pilots," said Black, who did not attend Thursday's meeting. "Far from rolling back safety, this is one of the most important things we can do right now to advance it."
At the meeting, Gail A. Dunham, executive director of the National Air Disaster Alliance and Foundation, noted that there have been no fatal plane crashes in America since the enactment of the aviation safety law pushed by the Flight 3407 families. The families advocated that measure after they lost loved ones in the February 2009 crash in Clarence and which federal investigators later blamed on pilot error.
Dunham said the absence of recent crashes proves the law shouldn't be changed.
"It's the best aviation safety legislation in decades," said Dunham, who, unlike the Flight 3407 activists, serves on the advisory panel. "And everyone in Congress knows it."
Lawmakers who represent Western New York fought strongly for the law — and vowed Thursday to continue to do so.
“Any rollback of the 1,500 hour rule in future FAA legislation is a non-starter,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, also a New York Democrat, agreed, saying: "It’s no coincidence that we haven’t had a tragedy like Flight 3407 recently – because the rules are working and they have made air travel safer."
Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican, said he planned to write to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to protest the advisory committee's action.
"I know that the rest of the delegation and I are ready to fight to make sure pilot training standards aren’t watered down," Collins said.
That's just what Kuwik, the Flight 3407 families' representative, wanted to hear.
"We need to stay vocal" to make sure that the recommendation goes no further, said Kuwik, who did not attend Thursday's meeting. "Hopefully this will be seen as an industry-driven thing and not the FAA's position."