Weekly Feature

2018-10-10 / Front Page

Senate approves five-year reauthorization for FAA, keeping pilot training requirements in place


Family members of those killed in the February 2009 crash of Flight 3407 received welcome news last week as the Senate gave final approval to a five-year reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, sending the legislation to the desk of President Trump for passage.

(See editorial on page four)

The bill passed the Senate after five extensions and the final iteration sets additional guidelines for drone aircraft and provides funding for the Transportation Security Administration. There’s a section of the bill that also bans airlines from forcibly removing seated passengers if the flight is overbooked.

The section that matters most prominently to the family members of the Flight 3407 victims includes the pilot training requirements that they have campaigned relentlessly for in the aftermath of the deadly accident.

In the past year alone, family members have visited Washington D.C. nearly a dozen times, and there’s a reason for the frequent visits, says John Kausner of Clarence Center, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Ellyse in the crash.

Each time the annual FAA funding reauthorization bill comes before the House, Kausner says there’s always talk of tweaking the current pilot training requirements — a move long-sought by the major airliners but spurned by the Flight 3407 families.

“They’re desperately trying to find other ways to train pilots other than the requirements embodied in the bill,” Kausner said. “That’s why our vigilance has to remain.”

According to Kausner, the bill’s language leaves open the potential for the FAA administrator to tweak training requirements in the future. Advocates of the changes say reform is needed in order to upgrade air service as airlines find it increasingly difficult to serve smaller communities because they can’t hire enough pilots with the amount of experience necessary under current law. An FAA advisory committee in September also supported changing the 1,500-hour rule.

Yet detractors, like the Flight 3407 families, point to the lack of air accidents as evidence that the current rules work. The Aviation Safety Network last year reported no fatalities on commercial passenger jets in 2017 and noted that last year was the single safest in modern aviation history, both by the number of fatal accidents as well as in terms of fatalities.

“There’s a shortage of farmers, of truck drivers, teachers, plumbers, etc. That’s just the environment we’re in demographically. It’s got nothing to do with these rules,” Kausner said. “The answer, for the airlines, is to be a more attractive industry.”

With FAA authorization set to expire on Sept. 30, family members of Flight 3407 victims appeared at a press conference alongside Rep. Brian Higgins at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Sept. 24, urging reauthorization without watering down the pilot requirements.

Prior to the Flight 3407 crash, pilots with as few as 250 hours of flight time were being qualified to fly commercial airliners. The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 requires pilots and first officers to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, typically attained through 1,500 hours of flight time training.

The 2010 law also called for the creation of a Pilot Record Database, providing airlines access to a pilot’s background, training history, certifications, incident summaries and employment record. The FAA released a beta test for the database in December 2017.

Kausner noted that the families’ last trip to the capitol saw them receive reassurance on the database’s full implementation. However, he added that the group’s victories cannot cloud the ongoing battle to keep the current training standards in place, especially as lobbyists for the regional airline industry continue to try to roll back safety provisions that were put in place after the 3407 crash.

“We’ve gone to Washington for the last 10 years, making our presence known,” he said. “We don’t have any lobbying money. It’s done through personal energy, time and dollars.”

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