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Editorial: Protect aviation safety by keeping Flight 3407 rules

Time and again some airline industry mouthpiece will declare that the new pilot experience requirement is too high and contributing to a pilot shortage.

The public has become accustomed to this specious claim. But when the transportation secretary makes the same statement at a public event, it takes on a more threatening tone.

Secretary Elaine Chao adopted the industry line on the pilot training hours and called on Congress to reconsider a key provision of the aviation safety law it passed after the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence.

She was speaking at a forum sponsored by the Washington Post, and was asked if she would be willing to allow the minimum number of flight hours for new pilots to be reduced from the 1,500-hour standard set by the 2010 aviation safety law.

The transportation secretary had been given the opportunity to lock arms with the families who lost loved ones in the air and on the ground. A good start would have been to meet with the families. She didn’t, even though the group had been trying to get a meeting with her “for the better part of a year,” according to John Kausner of Clarence, who lost his daughter, Ellyce, in the crash.

She could have shown support for the flying public, which has benefitted from the rules. Instead, Chao opted for the bureaucratic response, expressing compassion but insisting that the rule is reducing the number of pilots available. Even if it is, there are better solutions.

Under pressure from the families and with strong support from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, Congress increased the number of flight hours required for new commercial copilots to 1,500, up from 250. Schumer plans to block any legislation that would weaken the 1,500 hour rule, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, also said he would stand with the 3407 families.

The 1,500-hour rule has received undue criticism, by a Federal Aviation Administration panel last year that suggested re-examining the rule, and by the Flight Safety Foundation and one of President Trump’s nominees for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Now, Chao has added her voice to the discussion but to the detriment of the flying public and to the benefit of a well-heeled airline industry.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican who served as Erie County executive at the time of the crash, has it right. Chao should talk to the regional airlines and figure out how to improve wages and working conditions. That will produce more pilots and serve the interests of air safety.

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