Jul. 31—WASHINGTON — Twelve years after then-President Barack Obama signed the aviation safety law they won through sheer force of will, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 will return to Washington on Monday to see their achievement recognized — and to resume a battle it seemed they won long ago.
The Federal Aviation Administration, often a friend and sometimes a foe to the families as they've pressed for safety regulations, will dedicate a plaque in their honor at the agency's headquarters. And afterwards, the families will do what they've done dozens of times over more than a dozen years: head to Capitol Hill to defend key provisions of the law they pushed to passage.
"It is certainly bittersweet — over 13 years after this crash occurred and with landmark safety legislation and a sterling safety record as the results of our relentless advocacy — that there are still efforts afoot to undercut everything that we have fought for," said Scott Maurer of Palmetto, Fla., whose daughter Lorin, 30, was one of 50 people killed in that crash in Clarence on Feb. 12, 2009.
To be specific, some airlines are blaming the flight cancellations and delays at the nation's airports this summer on a pilot shortage that they say stems from the most controversial provision of that 2010 aviation safety law: a measure that requires pilots to have 1,500 hours of experience before they can fly a passenger plane. Meanwhile, some smaller airlines are seeking ways to skirt the so-called 1,500 hour rule.
But to hear William J. McGee tell it, the pilot shortage is much more complicated than that rule. Senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project and previously aviation advisor for advocacy at Consumer Reports, McGee said the airlines, not the safety regulations, are largely to blame for the pilot shortage. He said they never adapted to the 1,500 rule and cut staff during the pandemic.
"Shame on anyone in the industry who would try to use this crisis — a crisis that is literally the airline's own making — to weaken those standards," McGee said.
A landmark achievement
Obama didn't just sign a tough new aviation safety law on Aug. 1, 2010. He opened an unprecedented new era of aviation safety.
Some 1,186 people were killed in crashes of U.S. commercial planes in the two decades before the Flight 3407, but since the advent of that safety law, only two people have been killed on flights sponsored by U.S. airlines.
That being the case, the Flight 3407 families are proud of what they achieved through countless trips to Capitol Hill: an aviation law aimed at ensuring that pilots get more comprehensive training and more rest between flights, and ensuring that airlines have more information about pilots' flight records before hiring them.
"It just works," Karen Eckert of Williamsville, who lost her sister Beverly Eckert in the crash, said of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.
But the 1,500 hour rule has been controversial from the start, and the Flight 3407 families have fought off several attempts to weaken it.
Now, though, aviation industry figures are pushing back on that experience requirement by saying it prevents would-be pilots from pursuing their dreams.
"The rule has made it very expensive to decide to become a pilot — about $250,000 out of pocket and two or three years for people not trained by the military," Ben Baldanza, the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, said in a recent op-ed in Forbes magazine. "It also has made it difficult to attract new populations, including women and minorities, into the pilot profession."
A pilot shortage
The airlines are also now blaming the 1,500 hour rule for a problem that others say they themselves helped create: the pilot shortage that's contributing to the chaos at the nation's airports this year.
There is no doubt that the nation needs more commercial airline pilots. A consulting firm called Future and Active Pilot Advisors estimates that U.S. airlines need to hire 13,000 pilots this year — but only 5,020 people got commercial pilot licenses in 2021.
"There is a severe and growing pilot shortage in the United States," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican who last week proposed raising the maximum age for commercial pilots to 67 from 65 in hopes of alleviating the shortfall. "Every air traveler sees and feels the impact when they go to the airport."
Is the 1,500 hour rule to blame? Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa Airlines, told senators in May that it was.
"While the U.S. is generally considered a leader in aviation safety, it is interesting to note that no other country in the world has adopted these regulations, not a single one," Ornstein said at a Senate Aviation Subcommittee hearing. "And every day, foreign pilots who would be deemed unqualified to fly in the U.S. are flying wide-body international aircraft into congested airspace over places like New York and Los Angeles. It just doesn't make sense."
Yet there are other factors that led to the pilot shortage, too — most notably, a wave of early retirements that the airlines encouraged at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. While overall statistics on those retirements are hard to come by, Delta Airlines alone acknowledged that 20% of its workforce, or about 17,000 people, took buyouts or early retirements in 2020.
That being the case, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, blames the pilot shortage on the airlines.
"Why are airlines understaffed? During the pandemic, Congress gave them $54 billion in taxpayer-funded relief. That money was supposed to be used to keep pilots and other staff so that airlines would be ready to go when travel demand returned," she said on a recent conference call with reporters.
Calling on the Department of Transportation and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, Gillibrand added: "It is clear that airlines have traded good customer service and sound hiring practices for higher profit margins and greater shareholder wealth. It's outrageous and unacceptable."
The fight ahead
The Flight 3407 families have been defending the 1,500 hour rule for years. But now, in a sign that their efforts have been largely successful, they're fighting on smaller battlefields.
The Regional Airline Association now says that it is not seeking repeal of the 1,500 hour rule, yet two regional airlines — Republic and SkyWest — are asking the FAA to approve end-arounds that would allow them to skirt the experience requirement.
Republic is asking the FAA to allow it to hire pilots with only 750 hours of experience, arguing that its own training academy gives its new hires all the experience they need.
"The ... program provides an efficient and well-defined path to becoming an airline pilot," the airline, which operates flights for American, Delta and United, told the FAA.
Meanwhile, SkyWest asked the FAA to allow it to convert some of its low-volume flights from commercial service to charter service, a move that would allow it to hire co-pilots with as little as 190 hours of flying experience.
The move "is critical to maintaining service" in 11 smaller communities in the Upper Midwest and Mountain states, SkyWest said in its application to the FAA.
Those moves have drawn strong opposition from pilot unions.
"Republic and SkyWest are now conceding that, despite receiving substantial federal support, they still can't figure out how to competently manage an airline without cutting corners on safety," said Capt. Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.
The Flight 3407 families will be pressing against those proposed rollbacks, along with any renewed effort in Congress to weaken the 1,500 rule.
"We want all regional airlines and any other stakeholders who might be tempted to spend more money on lobbying Congress to water down key tenets of this safety bill to know that we will continue to be active in our efforts to protect the safety advances that were made as a result of our loved ones paying the ultimate price," Maurer said.
What's more, the families have powerful allies, led by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.
"Under absolutely no circumstances will Leader Schumer allow a rollback of the 1,500 hour rule that he spent over a decade fighting for alongside the 3407 families," Schumer spokeswoman Allison Biasotti said.
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