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Aviation safety group appears to break with Flight 3407 families

WASHINGTON – A venerable flight safety organization appears to be subtly criticizing one of the key provisions of the 2010 aviation safety law advocated by the Families of Continental Flight 3407, and Rep. Brian Higgins is not at all happy about it.

The Flight Safety Foundation, an independent, international flight safety group with a 70-year history, published a position paper this week that's less than a rousing endorsement of the law's requirement that all new commercial copilots have 1,500 hours of flight experience.

“It cannot be assumed that critical skills and knowledge will be obtained only through hours in the air," the group said in the position paper, adding: "Relying solely on a number does not effectively capture a pilot's true experience. The type of experience and the flight environment must be considered to provide meaning to the number."

Seeing this, Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said Wednesday: "There is no give-and-take on flight safety. Any effort to give up the flight safety improvements, based on lessons learned after Flight 3407 ... threatens the lives of passengers."

Arguing that flight hours aren't essential for the development of good pilots "is like saying you don't have to study for an algebra test," Higgins said.

Higgins lashed out because it's possible the airline industry – which says the 1,500 hour requirement has caused a pilot shortage – conceivably could cite the Flight Safety Foundation memo as evidence that the requirement should be changed.

But in an interview, Jon Beatty, president and CEO of the group, insisted his organization is not advocating for the repeal of the 1,500 hour rule, which replaced an earlier requirement that copilots must have only 250 hours of flight experience.

"We're not looking at it as if we should reduce the hours; we're looking at it as: What else can we do on top of that?" Beatty said. "We do believe that pure experience alone is not enough. Pure experience alone doesn't take into consideration all the other things that are available to put the best possible pilots in the cockpits."

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The 2010 aviation safety law wasn't based just on the 1,500 hour rule, either. Adopted after federal investigators blamed the Flight 3407 crash on pilot error, the new law implemented more rigorous pilot training, more stringent pilot rest requirements and a host of other changes aimed at making the skies safer.

No American commercial airline has experienced a fatal crash since the law took effect. And while the families of the 50 people who died in the 2009 crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence credit the law they championed for saving lives, the Flight Safety Foundation argued in its memo that other safety measures and improved technology have also made flying safer.

"It is not the result of any one factor, including any particular change in the hours requirement for pilot experience," the group's memo said.

Asked why the group issued a memo filled with such statements now, Beatty stressed that aviation is always changing, and that aviation safety requirements should be modernized, too, to keep up with changes in the market and technology.

"The 1,500 rule is a law," he said. "We're not calling for the repeal of that. What we're saying is: Lets go above and beyond. What else we can do?"

Asked for comment, Scott Maurer, a key member of the families group, said it was disappointing that the Flight Safety Foundation seems so focused on the 1,500 hour rule when the law the families passed actually requires pilots to have in-depth training and not just experience.

"In fact, much of what the Flight Safety Foundation suggests is needed is already required in the rule," Maurer said.

Higgins was not the only local lawmaker who appeared suspicious of what the Flight Safety Foundation had to say.

“It is simply not possible for an individual to receive the same quality of training outside of a cockpit as they would in," said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. "That is why I have continued to fight against any proposals to water down the safety requirements."

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