WASHINGTON – The nation's airline pilots soon will be trained to be far more professional than the chatty, yawning Colgan Air duo whose mistakes led to the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence 11 years ago.
Starting in April, commercial airline pilots will have to undergo leadership and command training, as well as instruction in how to mentor co-pilots. Newly hired pilots will have to watch flight operations and learn their airline's procedures inside and out before ever entering the cockpit.
Those are the big changes in new regulations that the Federal Aviation Administration finalized and announced late Tuesday. Long in development, the new rules stem from 2010 legislation that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 pushed into law nearly a decade ago.
“When I met with the Colgan Flight 3407 families, they emphasized how important this rule on pilot training was in elevating safety in the aviation sector," said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. "I am glad that the Department has been successful in finalizing this rule.”
The Flight 3407 families are glad as well. In a statement, they said the new rules will help ensure that regional airlines – like the now-defunct Colgan – will operate with the same professionalism as the major carriers that hire them to operate many domestic flights.
The new regulations "will build on the strong safety advances that have already been made as a result of the Airline Safety Act; in particular, the stronger entry-level training and experience requirements for regional airline first officers," the families said in a statement. "The human factors element is the biggest challenge to aviation safety today, and this is another component to addressing the deficiencies that led to the very preventable tragedy of Flight 3407."
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who has worked with the families on the safety law for more than a decade, agreed.
"Those efforts take a strong step forward with the finalization of the FAA’s Pilot Professional Development rule, which improves safety by allowing new pilots to get additional training from seasoned pilots," Schumer said.
The new professional-development standards are among the last called for under the aviation safety legislation that Congress passed in reaction to the February 2009 Flight 3407 crash, which claimed 50 lives. Earlier regulations under the law bolstered pilot training for handling emergencies, increased the amount of flight experience that new pilots must attain and set stricter requirements for how much rest pilots must have before flying.
Flight 3407's cockpit recordings showed the pilot and co-pilot chatting about topics that had nothing to do with the flight, and also indicated that the co-pilot was yawning. And a federal investigation later pinned the crash on pilot error.
That's why the Flight 3407 families pushed for a provision in the law aimed at bolstering pilot professionalism. But the FAA prioritized other parts of the new law first, meaning the professionalism requirements finalized Tuesday took years to be completed.
“These new training requirements for flight crews will go a long way in providing the nation’s commercial pilot workforce with the latest and safest flight deck practices and procedures," said FAA Administration Stephen M. Dickson.
One major piece of the Flight 3407 aviation safety law – a pilot records database – remains uncompleted, although the Trump administration is currently reviewing proposed rules for that part of the law. The Flight 3407 families have long said that's one of the most important pieces in the law, in that it would prevent the hiring of pilots with shoddy flight records – such as the one who piloted the plane that crashed in Clarence.
"I would admonish the FAA to focus on that," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat. "That is as important as anything else that is in this legislation, and it's been waiting to be implemented for nearly 10 years."