Flight 3407 Families, Lawmakers Decry Attempt to Trim Pilot Experience Rule

May 13, 2022
The so-called 1,500-hour rule has long been the most controversial element of the 2010 aviation safety law passed in reaction to the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407.

May 12—WASHINGTON — One of the proudest achievements of the Families of Continental Flight 3407 — a rule requiring that pilots have 1,500 hours of experience before flying a commercial passenger airliner — would be cut in half at Republic Airways if federal authorities agree with the regional carrier's recent request for a waiver from the pilot experience requirement.

And while Republic says its in-house training program is every bit as good as experience in the cockpit, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 and the federal lawmakers that support them disagree.

"To do anything that would roll back or give exemptions to a regional airline touting a newly created, unaccredited flight training program ... would be totally irresponsible of Congress or the administration," said Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, Beverly Eckert, in the crash.

The so-called 1,500-hour rule has long been the most controversial element of the 2010 aviation safety law passed in reaction to the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407. That February 2009 crash in Clarence claimed 50 lives, and a subsequent federal investigation blamed the disaster on pilot error.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer — a New York Democrat and the main congressional advocate of the 1,500 hour rule — is vowing to defend the rule.

"To be perfectly clear, under no circumstances will Leader Schumer allow a claw back of the 1,500 hour rule that he and the 3407 families spent more than a decade fighting for on behalf of their loved ones," said Schumer's spokeswoman, Allison Biasotti.

Republic, an Indianapolis-based regional carrier that operates flights on behalf of American Airlines, Delta and United to cities including Buffalo, last month asked the Federal Aviation Administration if it could hire first officers with only 750 hours of flight experience. Republic is the only regional airline that operates its own pilot training academy, and in its submission to the FAA, the airline said that training program gives its pilots plenty of experience.

"The ... program provides an efficient and well-defined path to becoming an airline pilot through a well-rounded, robust and comprehensive training curriculum that far exceeds basic ground/flight school and what is required for pilot certification," Republic said in its submission to the FAA. "This will allow a safer and more diverse group of aviators to enter the industry."

But the Flight 3407 families, who pushed Congress to pass sweeping aviation safety reforms in 2010, argue that no training program can substitute for experience in the cockpit.

Kevin Kuwik, one of the leading members of the families group, said their mentors in aviation safety — "Miracle on the Hudson" pilots Sully Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles — have long argued that long hours in the sky, not training programs, are what make great pilots.

"They have impressed upon us the importance of fundamental airmanship skills that you form every time you hand fly a plane, no matter how simple or complex that plane is," Kuwik said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, took to the House floor on Thursday to push back on the Republic Airlines proposal.

"We are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to categorically reject this request and any attempt to circumvent pilot training requirements," Higgins said.

After the crash, the Flight 3407 families pushed for legislation that revamped pilot training, rest and hiring procedures. But the airlines pushed back most fiercely against the new aviation safety law's rule mandating that pilots have 1,500 hours of experience, saying it has contributed to a pilot shortage.

The Flight 3407 families have managed to stop those attempts to change the law, but now they're facing a somewhat different threat: a direct appeal to the FAA that instead of focusing on the pilot shortage, boasts about the strength of its own pilot training program.

Noting that the law already includes an exemption that allows former military pilots to get hired as first officers with only 750 hours of experience, Republic argues that its training program is every bit as good, if not better, than what the military offers.

The airline's training program is aimed at women and minorities, who are underrepresented in commercial airline cockpits, the airline argued.

But the Flight 3407 families and their supporters in Congress have long offered evidence that the regulations passed after that crash are working.

"There has not been a fatal crash on a U.S. carrier in over 13 years since Flight 3407, and prior to that, we had never even made it three years without such a crash," Eckert said.


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