WASHINGTON – The Families of Continental Flight 3407 spent 90 minutes Wednesday with the nation's transportation secretary and its top aviation official. The marathon meeting left the Buffalo-based group confident that there's no Trump administration effort to water down the aviation safety law Congress passed in the wake of the crash that killed 50 in Clarence a decade ago.
About a dozen members of the group met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Acting Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Daniel Elwell. The family members said afterward that Chao and Elwell seemed receptive to speeding up the last remaining task under that law: creating a pilot records database aimed at preventing airlines from hiring bad pilots.
Most notably, though, Chao alleviated the families' fears that the Trump administration would try to change the most controversial part of the law, which mandates that pilots and copilots have 1,500 hours of experience before joining a passenger airline.
"She confirmed that there was no activity to change the 1,500-hour rule," said Paul Jonmaire of East Aurora, who lost his fiance, Jean Marie Srnecz, in the 2009 crash.
Small-state Republicans in the Senate, who have been worried about losing air service in their states because of a pilot shortage, have clamored for such a change. And last June, Chao herself sounded as if she were on their side.
Asked at a forum whether the 1,500-hour rule should be changed, Chao said: “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. 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."
Meeting with the Flight 3407 families, however, Chao tried to "walk back" her comments, said Marilyn Kausner of Clarence, who lost her daughter, Ellyce, in the crash.
"She was very aware that her comment had caused us a great deal of concern, and I think she was anxious to reassure us that there's no efforts being made right now to roll back that 1,500-hour rule," Kausner said.
Chao released a statement following the meeting: “We appreciate deeply the opportunity to meet with the families of Colgan Airlines Flight 3407 today. Their stories and continued determination to make aviation safer for everyone are moving and inspiring. Safety is – and always will be – the Department’s Number One priority.”
Rep. Chris Collins, the Clarence Republican who arranged the session, confirmed that Chao had said she's not looking to change the 1,500 hour rule.
“Today’s meeting with Secretary Chao and the Flight 3407 Families has been two years in the making and yielded great results," said Collins, adding that Chao's commitment on the 1,500-hour rule "is a victory for maintaining our high aviation standards."
It may not be the families' only victory stemming from the meeting, either. The families have been frustrated at the FAA's inability to implement a pilot records database – which, they say, would have prevented the mistake-prone pilot of Flight 3407 from ever getting an airline job.
At the meeting, Chao committed to keep an eye on the issue in hopes of getting the pilot records database implemented.
"Moving forward, Secretary Chao understands our contention for implementation of the Pilot Records Database, which she will be looking into to ensure that only qualified and responsible pilots are navigating our skies," Collins said.
Nine years after Congress mandated the pilot records database, it remains unimplemented for two reasons. For one, there has been a technical glitch that has somehow stopped its internet sign-on from working, thereby leading to security concerns.
Noting that the glitch has stalled the database for three years, Kenneth Mellett – whose son, Coleman Mellett, died in the crash – told Chao and Elwell that it's time to scrap that sign-on software and start again. Mellett, who has a computer background, volunteered to work with the FAA on that effort.
Secondly, the federal rule that will allow the database to be implement has yet to be finalized. That being the case, the families urged Chao and Elwell to move forward on the rule even if the sign-in software isn't ready.
Members of the families group said Chao seemed receptive to that idea for speeding up the implementation of the pilot record database.
"She wants it to be done as quickly as possible," said Kevin Kuwik, one of the longtime leaders of the Flight 3407 families.
Chao's encouraging words for the families are significant because they come from a top official in an administration that has largely been committed to paring back federal regulations, not maintaining or expanding them.
The meeting also appears to be a triumph for Collins, who is facing felony insider trading charges and who has lost the right to serve on congressional committees as a result.
Even so, he pushed for and got the families their first meeting with a transportation secretary in four years and the longest such meeting ever.
All of the family members who attended told stories of the loved ones they lost, and some read letters from family members who could not travel to Washington.
Chao was visibly moved by the stories, Jonmaire said.
"I think it hit her hard, when you looked at her face," he said.
But the meeting was not all about agreement and empathy. Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter, Lorin, in the crash, questioned the FAA's dual role as a regulator of aviation safety and as an advocate of the airline industry.
Maurer also made clear that the families won't take Chao at her word on the commitments she made to their cause. Instead, the families plan to hold her to her word, said John Kausner, the late Ellyce Kausner's father.
To that end, Maurer left Chao with some words to remember.
"Scott said: 'You get trust when we get action,' " Kausner said.