WASHINGTON – A bill that would increase mandatory flight training for pilots by 1,250 hours easily passed U.S. House on Wednesday with only 11 dissenting votes.
However,the head of the Federal Aviation Administration has said the legislation is “unnecessary,” while others say the bill isn't strict enough.
The Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act was conceived out of the tragedy of Continental Connect Flight 3407,which crashed eight months ago outside of Buffalo, N.Y. All 49 people on the flight died,along with one person on the ground.
One of the pilots had failed two flight tests,and both pilots were fatigued at the time of the crash.
The bill,which awaits Senate action,would require pilots to undergo 1,500 hours of flight training,compared to the 250 now required. It calls for the FAA to assemble an Air Carrier Safety and Pilot Training task force,create a pilots records database and begin fatigue risk-management plans.
It would require Web sites that sell plane tickets to disclose the air carrier for each segment of a trip. Smaller,regional airlines fly many routes under contract and the brand names of large airlines,but often hire less-experienced crews. The Continental Connect flight that crashed in Buffalo was operated by Colgan Air.
“Unfortunately,it took a tragedy for us to realize that a pilot is not an entry-level position,” said Rep. Christopher Lee,D-N.Y.,who co-sponsored the bill.
Lee's home is three miles from the crash site,and he knew some of the victims.
Kevin Kuwik,whose girlfriend,Lorin Maurer,died in the crash,said passage of the House bill was bittersweet.
“It went from a black-and-white provision with a three-year implementation plan,to now having strong guidance,but lots of leeway for the FAA,” he said.
Kuwik referred to a last-minute change to the bill that would allow academic coursework to substitute for some of the 1,500 hours of hands-on experience.
“We are leery of anything less than hands-on training,” said Kuwik,who spoke on behalf of the victims' families.
The provision was added out of concern that flight schools would have fewer students with such high demands for flight time.
“There is some concern,especially among some of the more prestigious universities,such as Embry-Riddle,that if we only counted flight hours,that students would forgo training there and spend their time just gaining hours any way they can,” said Paul Berard,communications director of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The committee worked closely with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board to create the bill,but the legislation has led FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to say it is “unnecessary” because the FAA has already been working on some of the provisions.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the agency doesn't comment on pending legislation,but will continue to work with Congress on the bill.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner,R-Wis.,took a cue from Babbitt,and voted against the bill because he said the FAA deemed it unnecessary and it would create more government mandates on the private sector.
Along those same lines,Rep. Lynn Westmoreland,R-Ga.,who is on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,voted against the bill because he thought it was overly burdensome regulation.
The Air Transport Association,which represents dozens of airlines,including United Airlines,Delta and Southwest,offered a brief statement on the bill,saying safety is its highest priority and the organization looks forward to working with Congress.
The Regional Airline Association posted a statement on its Web site,which says,”This bill has many elements mirrored in our own Strategic Safety Initiative including a thorough study of pilot commuting and fatigue. We are committed to ensuring the quality of our world-class pilot training programs.”
Pilot organizations appear to be very much in support of the bill. The Air Line Pilots Association,which represents 53,500 pilots in the U.S. and Canada,described the legislation as “momentous.”
The Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations,which represents 28,000 pilots,also praised the bill,but expressed frustration at the provision for academic training as a substitute for experience in the cockpit.
Despite the hesitance some have to adopt more stringent pilot training guidelines,any action it too late for the victims of Flight 3407.
Zebulon Mellett's brother,Coleman Mellett,was one of the plane's passengers.
“My brother was one of the most gentle people I could have asked for,and he died in such a violent way,in a way that everyone else … would agree was avoidable,” Mellett said at a press conference with other family members of victims. “We are in support of the bill,and it's up to the Senate to carry the torch and put this through. But this will always be too late for the group standing behind me.”