WASHINGTON – Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Thursday called on Congress to reconsider one of the key provisions of the aviation safety law passed by Congress after the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence, saying the law's tough pilot experience requirement is contributing to a pilot shortage.
Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Washington Post, Chao was asked if she would be open to seeing the minimum number of flight hours for new pilots reduced below the 1,500-hour standard set by that 2010 aviation safety law.
“You know, I think there needs to be a robust discussion, because obviously we hold the memories of those who are lost in our hearts, and we don’t ever want to see an accident like that again or any accident ever occur," Chao responded. "But there is this side effect, unanticipated, corollary impact of reducing the number of pilots, pilots who can very safely fly in our sky. So I think Congress needs to have this discussion, and we will abide by the wishes of Congress."
Congress increased the number of flight hours required for new commercial copilots to 1,500, up from 250, in a comprehensive bill stemming from the Flight 3407 crash, which claimed 50 lives and which government investigators blamed on pilot error. The bill also dramatically improved pilot training, required pilots to get more rest and set up a database whereby airlines could better track the records of pilots they might want to hire.
But the 1,500-hour rule has drawn increasing criticism as commuter airlines have struggled to find pilots. An FAA panel last year suggested that the rule be re-examined, and the Flight Safety Foundation and one of President Trump's nominees for the National Transportation Safety Board have also criticized the measure.
And on Thursday, Chao weighed in, saying the rule "actually made it so much harder, for so many other experienced veterans in flying to enter this field. This is obviously a very sensitive subject, and until the Congress advises us otherwise, it’s very hard for us to do anything on that obviously because we have to comply with the rules and regulation and the law."
One of the leading members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who pushed those aviation safety changes into law, wasn't particularly impressed with Chao's move.
"It's so disingenuous," said John Kausner of Clarence, who lost his daughter Ellyce in the crash. "We've been trying to get a meeting with (Chao) for the better part of a year."
Kausner pinned the increasing criticism of the 1,500-hour rule on the airline industry, saying it was proving to be relentless in fighting the safety requirement.
"We are a group of 200 people and they are a multi-billion-dollar industry, and they're just going to be grinding on about this," he said.
Members of Congress from New York State, who fought alongside the Families of Continental Flight 3407 for the passage of the aviation safety law in 2010, did not take kindly to Chao's comments.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, has long vowed to block any legislative move to weaken the 1,500 hour rule, and upon hearing Chao's comments, he repeated that vow.
“It is dangerous and outrageous that the Department of Transportation would even suggest watering down the First Officer Qualification rule, which has done so much to improve air passenger safety," said Schumer, who played the leading role in pushing the aviation safety bill through the Senate. "Not only is it an affront to the 3407 families’ efforts over the last nine years, but will also put the safety of the traveling public at great risk. I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the 3407 families and will aggressively fight to keep these life-saving standards in place.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, vowed to do the same.
“Congress has already had discussion on this, held numerous hearings and taken action," he said. "A compromise on flight safety is a compromise on human life, a concession we must not be willing to make.”
Chao's comments came only five months after she spoke with Rep. Chris Collins, who came away with the impression that the Transportation secretary didn't want to tamper with the flight safety rules.
“I’m disappointed in Secretary Chao's comments today that are in stark contrast to a conversation she has had with me regarding training hour standards," said Collins, a Clarence Republican who served as Erie County executive at the time of the crash. "Instead of talking about eliminating a rule that has kept passengers safe, I’d recommend Secretary Chao talk to the regional airlines and figure out a way they can improve their wages and working conditions to attract and keep pilots.”
Given all that support in Congress for the 1,500 hour rule, Kausner, of the Flight 3407 families, took some ironic satisfaction in the fact that Chao was asking lawmakers to change it.
"Good," Kausner said. "Just keep doing that."