Feb. 09--WASHINGTON -- Five years after Continental Connection Flight 3407 fell from the sky and three and a half years after surviving families forced Congress to pass a landmark aviation safety law, their handiwork faces a wave of unexpected turbulence.
Thanks to those families, newly hired co-pilots on the nation's commercial airlines now must have six times as much flight experience as they needed a year ago -- leaving some regional airlines short on pilots and forced to cut back on service.
And thanks to those families, as of Jan. 4, all passenger airlines must give their pilots the amount of rest that research says they need to fly safely -- but some airlines are griping that those new rest rules make it tougher than ever for them to staff their flights.
Those new rules took effect amid an emerging pilot shortage that industry experts blame on a wave of retirements and growing demand for pilots worldwide.
To hear the industry tell it, the pilot shortage -- which primarily affects small commuter airlines -- is about to create pain in many parts of the country.
"All of our members, large and small, are having trouble finding qualified 1,500-hour pilots," said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. As a result, Cohen added: "Every community, large and small, if you're not concerned about losing some or all of your air service, you should be."
But to the Flight 3407 families and their supporters in Washington, those new rules are the price the airline industry must pay to ensure that what happened in Clarence five years ago Wednesday never happens again.
"We just want our regional pilots to have the same training and qualification standards as the major airlines," said Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, 9/11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the crash. "Of course, we want communities to have air service, but we don't want to sacrifice safety for it."
Flight 3407 crashed, federal investigators said, because the crew let the plane fly too slowly, prompting a stall warning that the pilot mishandled, thereby crashing the plane into the ground. All 49 people on board died, as did a man on the ground.
That 2009 investigation, conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, revealed that in the regional airline industry, flights were sometimes flown by inadequately trained or poorly rested pilots who toiled for as little as $16,000 a year.
Soon after the crash, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 vowed to change all that. And in August 2010, they prodded Congress into passing a law that called on the Federal Aviation Administration to draw up new rules on pilot experience, training and rest.
The most controversial part of that law, then and now, requires co-pilots to have the same Air Transport Pilot license -- and the 1,500 hours of flight time it requires -- that pilots must have.
That requirement took effect last August. And for some regional airlines that have been accustomed to hiring pilots with as little as 250 hours in the cockpit, the change seems to have come as a shock to the system -- even though they had three years to prepare for the new rules.
Most dramatically of all, Great Lakes Airlines, a Wyoming-based carrier, has seen its number of pilots shrink from 304 to 98. Some of the airline's pilots didn't qualify to fly anymore under the new rules, and the airline said it has struggled to find replacements.
As a result, the airline announced late last month that it is suspending service to six small communities in North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan. The move was "due to the unintended consequences of the new congressionally mandated pilot regulatory requirements," said the airline's CEO, Charles Howell.
That move followed a wave of suddenly canceled Great Lakes flights that left passengers stranded and two senators from Nebraska furious.
"Are we going to see some changes in that 1,500-hour rule -- the flight duty rule, as well?" Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asked Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta at a Senate hearing last month. "Are you going to be flexible and accommodating with us?"
GAO study says a large number of qualified pilots may be working abroad, in the military or in other occupations where salaries are higher.
Bill also extends authority for FAA programs through the end of the budget year on Sept. 30.
Although job prospects for commercial pilots are bright, and regional airlines are scooping up newly minted aviators with signing bonuses, fewer young people are choosing aviation careers.
The rule requires first officers – also known as co-pilots – to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, requiring 1,500 hours total time as a pilot.