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Editorial: Stop threatening air safety

The proof is in. Air travel is safer because of changes made in the aftermath of the crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Clarence a decade ago. The airline industry and its toadies in Washington need, at long last, to stop trying to weaken the law that has saved lives.

Everyone who flies – or who doesn’t – has a stake in the aviation improvements that have kept the skies safe since the disaster on Feb. 12, 2009. Fifty people died because a poorly trained pilot made critical mistakes in wintry weather. Forty-nine of those souls were on the propeller jet when it crashed into a house. One more was in the residence.

Despite unbearable loss, family members spent years traveling back and forth to Washington, D.C., to win – and then to protect – congressional passage of a landmark law requiring several key improvements: better pilot training, more experience and increased rest.

Yet, a decade later, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 are still having to push federal regulators and the airline industry. They shouldn’t have to do it. In the two decades before the law was enacted, 1,186 people lost their lives in U.S. commercial plane crashes; since then, only one has died, when a window shattered on a Southwest Airlines jet last year.

News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski this week offered an in-depth reflection on the crash, the push for improved safety and profiles of the victims and their loved ones. Most telling, though, are comments from professionals who praise the safety improvements the families’ selfless efforts have produced.

• Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Robert L. Sumwalt: “This truly was a watershed event that led to the most profound changes in the aviation industry in my entire lifetime.”

• “Miracle on the Hudson” Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger: “Everyone who flies owes the Buffalo families a debt of gratitude that they will never be able to repay.”

Such observations refute the claims of those working to weaken these laws and to put lives at heightened risk.

On Flight 3407, copilot Rebecca Shaw – 24, and tired with a cold – misprogrammed a computer, causing the plane to slow too much as it approached Buffalo. The pilot, Marvin Renslow, was hired despite failing three test flights early in his career. He wasn’t fully trained to handle emergencies and took the exact wrong action when the plane went into a stall and caused the plane to crash.

Yet, the airline industry resists when it comes to the requirement that first officers as well as captains have the equivalent of 1,500 hours of flight experience. The industry claims that the 1,500-hour rule has created a pilot shortage. It is a specious argument. Time and increased pay are the solutions to that problem, not compromised safety.

That doesn’t matter to the Federal Aviation Administration, which continues to drag its feet on the minimum training hours. Even Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has adopted the industry line about pilot shortages and called on Congress to reconsider. It’s a con, and the price of falling for it, the statistics show, will be counted in lost lives.

The family members of those killed have been busy in other ways, too. They have given in spirit, time and resources to causes that help others, including orphans, families with hospitalized children, students with dreams of college or poor children on six continents who get to open Christmas gifts from Buffalo.

The effort counts as an homage to their lost loved ones. It would be fitting and right for the favor to be returned by federal regulators and the airline industry.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, now the chamber’s minority leader, has been in lock-step with the families and vows to continue blocking efforts to change the 1,500-hour rule. He understands the critical fact, to which Rep. Chris Collins, who was Erie County executive in 2009, agrees. Schumer said: “There are many people walking alive and happy on the face of this Earth who might not have otherwise been because of the work of these great families.”

It’s time for the government and the airline industry to celebrate these improvements and to stop trying to reverse them. But they probably won’t.

Schumer and the families will have to hold fast.

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