May 23, 2011 By: Erika Lovely
Capt. C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger is not happy with Congress.
“It’s personal for me and everyone who flies,” said the pilot who two years ago famously landed a US Airways plane in the Hudson River without losing a passenger.
The problem: There’s a tiny amendment that was slipped at the last minute into the House version of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. In nine short paragraphs, it changes the way the FAA makes regulations, including requiring an analysis on how proposed rules could affect the economy and private markets.
If that amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), becomes law, the implications could be more catastrophic than the risks Sullenberger took when he crash-landed his hobbled airplane, he warned.
New airline safety regulations will be harder to issue, including a series of recently passed rules that prevent exhausted pilots from getting in the cockpit, opponents fear. The new regulations are supposed to go into effect on Aug. 1. But their implementation could be stymied if Congress passes the FAA reauthorization bill before then.
Although the FAA’s goal is to have “one level of safety” across the industry, the amendment would cut against that goal, Sullenberger said.
“In a nutshell, it would delay and create additional obligations for effective aviation-safety rule making,” Sullenberger told POLITICO, after spending two weeks on the phone with lawmakers. “It would make it harder to update our safety rules. It would create additional hurdles, so that only the most innocuous, least costly rules will be adopted going forward.”
The amendment would require government regulators to conduct an in-depth analysis of how rules could affect the economy, competitiveness, employment and private markets. It would also require the FAA to write different safety rules for different parts of the airline industry, including passenger airlines, charter airlines and others.
“I still support it strongly,” said Shuster, who told POLITICO that he doesn’t believe the amendment would have any impact on the pending pilot-fatigue rules.
“For people to say it’s going to affect current rule making is a miscommunication and a little bit of misinformation. I want the skies to be as safe as possible, too. I just want to make sure we go about it using sound science,” he added.
In addition to the amendment itself, Sullenberger’s lobbying efforts turned up another surprising and frustrating bit of news: Some lawmakers now admit to him they didn’t know much about the amendment before they voted for it.
The measure passed with strong Republican support – only six Democrats backed it. The Senate version of the FAA reauthorization doesn’t include the amendment, potentially pitting the two chambers against each other as the bill sits in conference committee.
Sullenberger isn’t alone in the fight.
Also backing him are the families of Continental Flight 3407 victims, whose charter plane crashed into a Buffalo, N.Y., home in February 2009, killing 49 people. The government later determined that the crash was very likely caused in part by pilot fatigue.
“I lost my girlfriend on that flight,” said Kevin Kuwik, a spokesman for 35 of the families. “It kind of hurts when people initially support you, but when you really need them, they’re nowhere to be found,” he said of lawmakers. “We like to call this a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Air Line Pilots Association, International President Lee Moak, a former airline captain, said the amendment could prevent the Obama administration from issuing new regulations for supplemental carriers, flights that are often unscheduled and used to transport military troops.
“ALPA believes that the men and women who serve our country deserve the very highest standards of aviation safety and that one level of safety must exist throughout the U.S. airline industry,” Moak said. “With safety at stake, Congress must dismiss this amendment, and the FAA must act now to put in place standardized duty and rest regulations for airline pilots.”
Some lawmakers have taken heed of the informal coalition’s warnings.
Members of the New York delegation have largely opposed the amendment.
“Because of the advocacy and dedication of the Flight 3407 families, we finally passed new rules for air safety,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “However, a measure included in the FAA Reauthorization Bill would undermine the work we have done to improve air safety in our country. I urge my colleagues to reject efforts to undermine the implementation of critical safety regulations. I will continue to stand with the families of Flight 3407 to make sure that the lessons learned from those lost on that tragic flight are not forgotten in the halls of Congress.”
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said he’s been speaking to colleagues about the amendment, trying to spread the word. King was good friends with Beverly Eckert, a Sept. 11 widow who died in the charter crash.
“We’re talking about an issue of pilot fatigue here; and to me, we continue to see the problem of pilot fatigue,” he said. “Since the crash, I’ve been meeting with the family. When I see it all put together, it makes sense.”
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) is helping to circulate a draft letter that calls for the deletion of the Shuster amendment from the final version of the FAA reauthorization. Higgins said guidance he’s received from the FAA clearly backs his concerns.
“The FAA has concerns that the amendment adopted enshrines in legislation a set of procedural hoops that could have the effect of slowing down rule-making projects under way and in the future,” the FAA said in a statement to lawmakers.
“It’s bad for the flying public, and it’s bad for aviation safety,” Higgins told POLITICO. “This is a delaying tactic.”
But that’s not the way industry-backed supporters of the amendment see it.
In a letter signed by nine aviation industry groups, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business leaders assert that it merely puts into law portions of a similar executive order already issued by President Barack Obama.
Guidance from the FAA sent to congressional offices calls the amendment “unnecessary,” because it so closely mirrors Obama’s executive order. The FAA did not return calls for clarification from POLITICO.
“The executive order reminds everyone what they’re supposed to be doing in the first place,” said National Air Carrier Association President Oakley Brooks. “So follow what your boss tells you to do.”