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5 years after deadly crash, new pilot training rule becomes official

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at 4:57 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, at 4:44 p.m.

— Announcing steps to correct what it called “the greatest known risk in pilot training,” the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday finalized a new rule to address the midair stalls thought to have contributed to multiple fatal crashes in recent years.

The change originated from the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., in February 2009. The crash killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that the flight crew members weren’t adequately trained to handle the circumstances they found themselves in.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday that one of his first meetings after he took over as the head of the department this year was with the families of the crash victims, who’ve lobbied for the changes for nearly five years.

“With their help,” Foxx said, “the FAA has now added improved pilot training to its many other efforts to strengthen aviation safety.”

The rule helps meet a mandate by Congress in a 2010 law reauthorizing the FAA. Congress required the agency to take steps to prevent pilot fatigue, and it raised the qualification standards for first officers, or co-pilots, on passenger and cargo aircraft. The FAA had already issued final rules for those safety improvements.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency had kept its promise to get the rule done this year.

Some lawmakers have criticized the agency as moving too slowly on the new rule, and the nation’s air carriers will have five years to implement it. By then, nearly a decade will have passed since the Buffalo crash.

When an Asiana Airlines flight crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport in July after an apparent midair stall, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for the FAA to speed up its implementation of the rule.

In a letter co-signed with Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Schumer also urged the FAA to press the international governing body on aviation to adopt similar standards, which would force foreign-based carriers operating in the U.S. to comply.

“While we believe these rules can make the U.S. a world leader in aviation safety in the areas of pilot fatigue, pilot certification and crew member training, we think that international carriers should also be pushed to adopt a more seamless set of standards,” they wrote Huerta in July.

Mary Schiavo, a former Department of Transportation inspector general under President Bill Clinton and an aviation attorney, called the new rule an improvement. She credited the families of the Buffalo crash victims with “storming the halls of Congress” as they faced airline opposition and bureaucratic red tape.

“They certainly accomplished something others couldn’t,” she said.

The FAA estimates that the new rule, which includes improvements to flight simulation technology, will cost the airline industry as much as $350 million. Schiavo said the loss of one wide-body aircraft would cost an airline $500 million to $1 billion, not counting the potential loss of life.

“The cost of this regulation is cheap,” she said.

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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