WASHINGTON – Four years after Continental Connection Flight 3407 fell from the sky and into a home in Clarence, the families of the crash’s 50 victims have learned a hard political lesson: Sometimes getting Congress to pass a law is the easy part.
The families pushed a landmark aviation safety law through Congress in August 2010, only to be frustrated ever since by the Federal Aviation Administration’s slow, arduous process turning that law into regulations for the airlines to follow every day.
Modernization of the rules regarding pilot work hours and rest requirements is on the books.
But the FAA has had much more trouble complying with the other two central mandates of the law: tougher experience qualifications for pilots and improved pilot training.
All of which is very troubling to aviation safety advocates such as Scott Maurer.
“The law looks great on paper, but unless we get these overdue final rules completed on pilot qualifications and crew-member training, much of our effort will have been for naught,” said Maurer, who lost his daughter, Lorin, in the crash.
That being the case, more than 50 members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407 will be in Washington on Tuesday, the fourth anniversary of the crash, to press their case before lawmakers and the FAA.
“I’d like FAA, DOT (Department of Transportation) and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) – the players on the government rule team – to stand up and show us, and show the flying public, that safety does come first, and to put these rule makings back on track,” said Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, Beverly Eckert, in the crash.
For its part, the FAA now says it expects the qualifications rules to be finished by July – 11 months past its deadline – and the training rule to be done in October, meaning it will be more than two years overdue.
In its latest update on why the rules have been delayed, the FAA offered a three-word explanation for the delays: “Additional coordination necessary.”
It’s all further proof of another lesson the families have learned: The federal rule-making process is not nearly so transparent as Congress.
As bureaucrats work to turn laws into regulations, they seek comments from interested parties and then review them and try to reconcile the competing interests involved – which in this case would be the airlines, the pilots, flight training schools and aviation safety advocates such as the Flight 3407 families.
The process has left those families in the dark about the delays, and they’re not particularly happy about it.
“Is it a lack of resolve? A lack of priority? Is it a real issue? Are they stuck?” Eckert asked. “We don’t know, and that’s what’s so frustrating.”
One thing is certain, though: The airline industry has expressed grave concerns about both sets of rules, leaving the families fearing that the industry has undue influence that they lack.
“It’s no secret that the airline industry is against any change and has been waging a war behind the scenes to water down or halt these critical rule makings,” Eckert said.
Both Airlines for America – which represents the nation’s major airlines – and the Regional Airline Association refused to respond to requests to comment for this story.
But the industry’s concerns, spelled out in their comments to the FAA, essentially argue that the regulations the FAA has proposed are too burdensome and too expensive.
The new pilot qualification rules would require all new commercial pilots to have an Air Transport Pilot, or ATP, certificate, which typically requires 1,500 hours of flight experience – up from 250 today.
Former military pilots and graduates of four-year flight schools would be eligible for ATP “restricted privileges” certificates that would let them serve as copilots for commercial airlines without amassing 1,500 flight hours. Military pilots would be able to get that restricted privileges license with 750 hours of flight experience, while graduates of aviation bachelor’s degree programs could get that provisional certification with 1,000 hours of flight time.
The airlines say that the practical implication of those rules would be that most aspiring pilots would have to get four-year aviation degrees in order to amass the requisite hours, rather than going to far cheaper flight schools that turn out pilots much faster.
The trouble is, “regional airlines’ recent pilot recruiting and selection experience provides substantial evidence that requiring an expensive and time-consuming four-year aviation degree as prerequisite for obtaining certification ... would cause today’s already dwindling pool of airline pilot candidates to dry up to such an extent that it would significantly constrain or even force reductions in regional airline service,” the Regional Airlines Association said in its filing with the FAA.
Regional airlines handle many of the flights in an out of Buffalo, and often they go unrecognized by travelers because the regionals fly under the name and contract of the major airlines.
Industry concerns haunt the training rule, which would require that pilots be trained to fly in the weather conditions they are likely to experience in their jobs and force them, for the first time, to get simulator training on sudden emergency “upsets” and how to recover from them.
The Air Transport Association – now Airlines for America – told the FAA those requirements and others in the new training rules would be inordinately expensive.
The agency’s cost-benefit analysis showed the rules costing the airlines $199.1 million while producing $222.9 million in benefits.
But the airlines cited a consultant’s study that put the costs at $1.97 billion and the benefits at a paltry $34.4 million.
The airline group bounced the FAA proposal off training experts at its member airlines.
“The collective opinion of these experts is that there remains a large number of systemic issues in the proposed rule which will make it unduly burdensome, detrimental to existing training programs, and nearly impossible to implement in accordance with its own directives,” the group told the FAA.
Safety experts such as Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, see things far differently, instead stressing the importance of training pilots in simulators so that they will be prepared if an unexpected “upset” hits their plane.
The pilot of Flight 3407 did not have that experience and mishandled his response to an unexpected aerodynamic stall, crashing the aircraft.
“What we really wanted to do was to get to a situation where the first time pilots saw these events was in a simulator, so they got to practice it, they got to experience this event and learn how to respond,” Hersman said.
Lawmakers with a vested interest in the aviation safety issue agreed and said it’s long past the time for the airlines to stop complaining.
“I can see where the airlines might be lobbying,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. “Well, that day has come and gone. The law was passed.”
Collins, who oversaw the emergency response as Erie County executive when Flight 3407 crashed, termed the FAA’s delays “disappointing and unacceptable.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer said he was pleased that the FAA had at last vowed to complete the regulations this year.
But he also noted that the airlines appear to be lagging in implementing the regulations. For example, at two regional airlines recently studied by the Department of Transportation inspector general, only 25 percent of copilots would have met the new experience requirements.
“The FAA has to put far more heat on the airlines to get this done,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat who played a key role in pushing the aviation safety law through the Senate.
Then again, as always, the FAA finds itself under heat from the Flight 3407 families, who vow they won’t rest until all the aviation safety rules stemming from the crash are implemented.
“They never give up, which is just the greatest,” Schumer said, regarding those families.