Airline Industry, Congressmen Square Off Over Pilot Shortage

April 30--WASHINGTON -- The regional airline industry today blamed a key safety requirement stemming from a deadly 2009 plane crash in Clarence for creating a pilot shortage, only to encounter congressmen from both parties who criticized the industry for not paying its beginning pilots enough.

The regional airlines and the nation's largest pilot union squared off at a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing that was supposed to be about air service to small communities, but that instead veered again and again to the question of whether there is a pilot shortage and what caused it.

Testifying on behalf of the Regional Airline Association, Bryan Bedford, the president and chief executive officer of Republic Airlines, said smaller airlines are having trouble having enough pilots because of a recently implemented safety rule requiring newly hired co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight experience or its equivalent.

The Families of Continental Flight 3407, who banded together in wake of the crash that claimed 50 lives in Clarence in February 2009, lobbied for that experience requirement in aviation safety legislation they pushed through Congress the year after the crash.

But Bedford said that requirement was not fulfilling the safety goal that the Flight 3407 families had said it would.

"I can assure this committee that requiring new graduates to build flight time towing banners or dusting crops does nothing to develop the skills or proficiency to fly in the commercial setting," Bedford said.

About a dozen members of the Flight 3407 families group attended the hearing, and afterwards, one of the group's leaders, Kevin Kuwik, said: "To listen to them to put words in our mouth and characterize our position is very offensive, to be honest with you. "

Meanwhile, Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, noted that the Government Accountability Office recently reported that starting co-pilot salaries average only $24,000 a year. That, the pilot union chief said, is the main reason some regional airlines are having trouble hiring new pilots.

Calling that "near-poverty wages," Moak argued that the airlines are trying to use their hiring problems to push for rolling back the safety improvements mandated by Congress after the Flight 3407 crash.

Members of the subcommittee also seemed concerned about the low pilot salaries, which continue five years after a federal investigation into the Clarence crash found that the poorly trained, inexperienced co-pilot on the flight earned only about $16,000 a year.

The top Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington state, said the regional airline industry offers its beginning pilots "poverty wages."

And Rep. Richard Hanna, R-Barneveld, said: "Clearly, $24,000 a year is underpaid."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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