FAA Facing Pressure as Deadline Approaches for Pilot Qualification Safety Rules

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As part of my lifelong commitment to promoting aviation safety, I have come to greatly admire “Families of Continental Flight 3407”. The support group was formed immediately following the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 (operated by Colgan Air) on February 12, 2009 that took the lives of 50 people as it approached the airport in Buffalo, New York. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation cited many safety issues, including the performance of the pilots, fatigue, inadequate pilot training, insufficient FAA oversight, and a lack of airline safety systems as contributing to the accident.

The unyielding efforts of these grieving but determined family members led to the passage of one of the most comprehensive aviation safety legislative reforms in history — the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. Passed by both the Senate and House and signed by President Obama, the law includes many provisions to improve the overall safety of regional carriers like Colgan Air, which operate over half of all U.S. scheduled airline flights, and have higher accident rates than the major airlines. In fact, the last six fatal commercial airline crashes have been on regional airlines.

This new legislation requires pilots to have more experience before being entrusted with the lives of passengers. And experience matters. If my first officer Jeff Skiles and I had less experience when we safely landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009, we could not have had the same outcome.

One provision of the law, the “Pilot Certification and Qualification Requirements” will raise the entry level qualifications for First Officers at regional airlines from the current absurdly low level of 250 hours to the better, but still minimal level of 1500 hours of flight time. The final rulemaking by the FAA to adopt, amend, or reject the provision is due on August 1st. The fact is, when new pilots get into the right seat of a regional jet, they are still getting on-the-job training with you as a passenger in the back. When new-hire regional pilots have a only few hundred hours in the cockpit they have not yet experienced many cycles of the seasons of the year, the thunderstorms in the summer, the ice and snow in the winter; they have not yet experienced the real world of operational flying, with all its vagaries and ambiguities, and much greater challenges than in the structured and sterile training environment.

Despite these facts, I’m continually amazed how hard the airline industry pushes back against safety improvements. Their lobbyists are constantly lobbying at FAA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and on Capitol Hill to weaken, to delay or to kill important safety improvements that have been mandated by Congress. The industry lobbyists are still trying to get the FAA to allow pilots with less than 1500 hours to be airline pilots. In spite of their rhetoric claiming safety is paramount, their actions belie their words and are a slap in the face of the families of victims of the Buffalo crash and others and are an attempt to thwart the will of Congress and the American people. The airline industry’s priority needs to be the safety of their passengers and not their bottom line.

Please join me in supporting this landmark safety legislation, PL 111-216, by writing to your elected official or to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, insisting that the FAA not succumb to the intense pressure of airline industry lobbyists and that the final rule not be watered down when it is finally published. Do not let the lobbyists convince the FAA to allow loopholes and exceptions to the 1500 hour minimum. Far too many lives have been tragically lost in regional airline crashes and the families of those lost deserve more.