In March, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) introduced a brief amendment to an aviation bill that will fund the Federal Aviation Administration for the next several years. Shuster’s seemingly innocuous amendment called on the FAA to draw up separate flight safety rules for commercial, charter, and cargo airlines, and imposed several procedures the agency must follow in crafting those rules.
The measure, which narrowly passed the Republican House of Representatives on April 1 and might soon be made part of the final aviation legislation, is actually far from harmless. If enacted it will slow down or stop some common-sense flight safety rules from being created through the various stringent procedures it places on the regulatory process. While it’s not as dramatic as recent GOP attempts to gut environmental protection or regulation of Wall Street, Shuster’s amendment is a telling example of how far the current GOP will go to protect industry interests.
The new flight safety rules that Shuster is trying to slow down would create tougher guidelines for how pilots are trained, and how much rest they must get before flying. The rules are a product of a lengthy campaign from families of a recent crash in Buffalo, NY that proved the dangers of lax federal regulation in airline safety.
On February 12, 2009, Continental Flight 3407, operated by the smaller carrier Colgan Air, crashed into a suburb of Buffalo. The young co-pilot had taken an overnight, cross-country flight the day before the crash and slept briefly in an airport lounge in Newark, NJ before piloting Flight 3407.
When the plane encountered an ice storm as it attempted to land, the pilots made some critical errors in judgment and lost control of the flight, sending it plummeting downwards. The National Transportation Safety Board found that their “performance was likely impaired because of fatigue.” Both pilots were heard yawning on the cockpit voice recorder.
The families of the crash victims channeled their grief into an effort to toughen federal regulations on pilot fatigue, and other safety measures. After 15 months of lobbying, they got a bill passed last summer that required the FAA to create an array of new pilot safety and training rules.
The families gathered in Washington yesterday to urge a conference committee working on the final aviation bill not to include Shuster’s amendment. Karen Eckert, who lost her sister Beverly in the crash, blasted the sneaky language of the measure. “It doesn’t have the word safety in it….It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Eckert. They were joined by the Western New York Congressional delegation. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also called out Shuster’s sneak attack on flight safety regulations. “This amendment is the preverbal nose under the tent designed to undermine our hard won safety improvements,” he said.
It’s possible the conference committee of legislators will strip Shuster’s language, as Schumer promised to fight for yesterday. But the amendment has been surprisingly resistant to public outcry so far. In the days before it passed, famed pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger mounted a fruitless public campaign to defeat the amendment. Saying the language “creates a huge obstacle to new regulations,” Sullenberger said he believed that “at some point in the future, we don’t know when, it’s likely people will die unnecessarily.” He also said on MSNBC that it was a “slap in the face” to the Flight 3407 families while decrying “special interests only interested in the bottom line.”
Special interests are, of course, at the heart of the matter. Shuster is a five-term Republican who has received $115,750 from the aviation industry over the course of his career. That money has led Shuster to advocate for an outright weakening of basic flight safety rules despite all the opposition from grief-stricken relatives of crash victims to possibly the most famous pilot in America. The question now is whether the aviation industry’s money will keep Shuster’s language in the final bill.