Safety bill faces rough flight in Senate


Oct. 16--WASHINGTON -- An aviation safety bill that passed the House by 398 votes faces far tougher challenges in the Senate, including growing industry opposition, the intrusion of extraneous issues that could delay or doom the safety measures and a tight Senate schedule.

Most notably, the major airlines have ramped up their lobbying against a key provision strongly backed by the families of the victims of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed in February in Clarence Center, claiming 50 lives.

That provision would boost the number of flight hours for newly hired pilots to 1,500 from the current 250.

"By equating experience with total flight time or a level of technical certification, the mandate will punish many highly qualified pilots and significantly reduce the pool of pilot candidates, particularly for regional carriers," James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association, said this week in a letter to lawmakers.

Still, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N. Y., is pushing to include the 1,500- hour requirement in legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration -- but that bill could get hamstrung by a labor dispute involving FedEx.

The Senate--which is expected to spend weeks debating health care reform -- also might not have time to finish the FAA bill and the included safety measures by the end of the year.

Despite those potential obstacles, Schumer vowed to fight for including the strongest safety provisions possible in the FAA bill.

"We never thought this was going to be easy, but safety comes first,"

Schumer said. "Fortunately, the pilots and their union understand this and are siding with us."

The Air Line Pilots Association and the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations back the training requirement.

"The issue we have is the same issue the families have," said Jeffrey Skiles, the coalition's vice president -- and the co-pilot of the USAirways jet that successfully crash-landed in the Hudson River in January. "We think there is no replacement for experience in the cockpit."

But the major airlines represented by ATA argue in their letter that the 1,500-hour flight time requirement could lead to "unnecessary and artificial barriers for qualified, experienced pilots."

May suggested turning over the issue to theFAA-- but Rep. Jerry F. Costello, the Illinois Democrat who heads the Aviation Subcommittee, said such FAA rule makings can take years.

"When they don't want to act, they push it off to the side," said Costello, who held a private round-table discussion Thursday on why the FAA has taken nearly 14 years to act on the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations on aircraft icing.

The flight-hours requirement could lead to higher salaries at regional airlines-- which now can pay co-pilots as little as $16,000 a year.

Mike Loftus, a former Continental pilot whose daughter, Maddy, died in the Clarence crash, said the airlines are obviously concerned about the possible impact on profits.

"You can see them starting to squirm a little bit" over the requirement, Loftus said.

In addition to industry opposition, the air safety bill faces a huge procedural challenge. It must be merged with the FAA reauthorization bill pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

The House-passed, 326-page version covers every aspect of aviation policy -- but includes at least one ticking time bomb that could blow up the whole effort.

That provision, backed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, would allow drivers for FedEx Express to organize on the local level under the National Labor Relations Act. It would replace the current requirement that they can organize only nationwide under the Railway Labor Act.

FedEx adamantly opposes the measure, calling it a giveaway to rival UPS. And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, is threatening to use the power that any senator has to put a "hold" on the FAA legislation to protect FedEx, which is based in Memphis.

"Sen. Alexander will use all the tools at his disposal to prevent legislation from coming to the Senate floor that singles out the way FedEx is governed under federal labor law," said Jim Jeffries, the senator's press secretary.

The Senate also faces a busy schedule for the rest of the year, and the FAA measure and its safety provisions still have to be approved by the Senate Finance Committee, which has been wrapped up for months in health care reform legislation.

Schumer said he will pressure Sen. Max Baucus, the committee's chairman, to move the FAA legislation, and an aide to Baucus said the Montana Democrat still intends to get the bill finished this year.

But House members, who finished their air safety bill in a mere three months, seem concerned.

"We have done our due diligence in the House," said Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who weakened the 1,500-hour requirement slightly to placate flight schools, but who still supports the measure. "We all need now to work on the other body." .