WASHINGTON – The Families of Continental Flight 3407 spent the fourth anniversary of the loss of their loved ones lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration and members of Congress for tougher rules for the nation’s pilots – and in doing so, they found new reason for frustration with the FAA.
Only hours after Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told them that the FAA had committed to completing long-delayed new regulations for pilot qualifications and training this year, the agency’s administrator and top safety official told the families that the training rule will likely not be completed until June 2014.
“There was a disconnect” that apparently left Schumer with the wrong information, said Karen Eckert, one of the leading members of the families group.
The FAA feels it needs to redo the economic analysis undergirding the proposed new pilot-training rules, said Eckert, whose sister Beverly Eckert, a 9/11 activist, was one of the 50 people killed in the crash.
“They put some sense into some of the delays and explained why they have to go back to the drawing board,” Eckert said. “They said there’s a better way for them to do the cost-benefit analysis” on the training rule.
The FAA officials, including Administrator Michael P. Huerta, assured the families that the new analysis would likely make a better case for the new pilot-training rules, rather than lead to their weakening.
The proposed rules would, for the first time, require pilots to train in a simulator for how to react to unexpected stalls and upsets. The pilot of Continental Connection Flight 3407 did not know how to react to an aerodynamic stall, and his mistakes sent the plane plummeting into a house in Clarence Center.
Still, there was a sharp contrast between what the families learned at their meeting at the FAA and what Schumer announced at a news conference earlier in the day.
“We spoke to the FAA this morning,” Schumer said. “They assured us they are on track to meet both the August deadline for the pilot certification [regulations] and the October deadline for crew member training. They told us they will meet those deadlines.”
Asked to explain the discrepancy between what he had said and what the FAA officials told the Flight 3407 families, Schumer said: “The FAA promised – no ifs, ands or buts – that these regulations would be done by August and October of this year. We will hold their feet to the fire to ensure they live up to this commitment that they made to me, and to the families of Flight 3407. Any other action on their part would be absolutely unacceptable and a violation of the promises they made.”
However, both the Flight 3407 families at the news conference and Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, expressed some skepticism about whether the FAA would meet those deadlines, no matter what Schumer heard.
Noting that Flight 3407 crashed because the pilot did not know how to recover from a stall, John Kausner, whose daughter, Ellyce, was killed in the crash, said: “I will submit to you that the FAA cannot get out of a stall.” He noted that the airline industry is fighting the new rules, suggesting that it would face an undue burden from them. That prompted him to gesture to the families standing with him and say: “You want an undue burden? Look behind me.”
Meanwhile, Scott Maurer, whose daughter, Lorin, was killed in the crash, appealed to President Obama to push the FAA to complete the new rules. “We’ve been patient, Mr. President, very patient,” he said. “But you know that the American people deserve better. You know that and we know that.”
Collins was equally skeptical of the FAA’s ability to complete the new air safety rules.
“I’m sorry, but a new deadline is unacceptable,” Collins said, before he had any reason to know that the FAA had set yet another new deadline. “To say – and I’m sorry, Sen. Schumer – to say they’re going to meet the deadline, they’ve missed the deadline, again and again. That is unacceptable. Words are unacceptable.” Collins, who was the Erie County executive in charge of the emergency response on the night of the crash, choked up during his comments, saying: “It’s hitting me like a tsunami right now.”
Collins’ comments prompted Schumer to return to the podium to reassure the families and the media that he is not going easy on the FAA. If agency officials do not complete the regulations on time, “they will be hearing from us,” he said.
Later in the day, the families held a memorial service for their loved ones in a Capitol Hill committee room. Schumer, Collins and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, joined Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, in reading the names of the crash victims.
And each of the family members then proceeded to the front of the room and, one by one, laid down a rose to mark their loss.