Guest Commentary: Safety Front and Center

By Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

One of the most dramatic moments I’ve been involved in as a member of the Senate happened in 2015, when I had a chance to ask Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger why pilot qualification requirements are so important. In response, he told the Senate Commerce Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee, referring to his experience in guiding US Airways Flight 1549 to its famous emergency landing on the Hudson River, “Had Jeff [Skiles, the first officer] been less qualified, people would have died. There wasn’t time…to have a conversation about what had just happened and what we must do. I had to rely upon him based upon his own long experience…and well-learned fundamental skills.”

That’s why, when nearly every Monday morning I board a flight to Washington, D.C., to represent the people of Washington State in the U.S. Senate, I’m going there to fight for the safety of the traveling public.

As the top Democrat on the Aviation Subcommittee, all of this travel helps inform my work in the Senate—and means that the safety of the flying public and the dedicated employees who get us to our destinations is always at the top of my mind.

For commercial aviation to keep serving as a vital part of our national economy, passengers need to be confident that when they step onto an airplane safety is never compromised and corners are never cut. The work of ALPA members is a huge factor in that confidence, and I thank you for all you’ve contributed to this important industry.

Following the tragic Colgan Flight 3407 accident more than nine years ago, Congress acted to stem the tide of accidents that had become all too common among regional carriers. We required both captains and first officers to hold ATP certificates and mandated 1,500 hours of flight experience before pilots without military flying experience or a qualifying academic degree could hold an ATP certificate.

Since those changes were enacted, the industry has experienced an unprecedented period of safety, due in large part to the professional men and women who are responsible for the lives of the countless passengers they fly every day.

While there has been discussion recently of modifying the 1,500-hour requirement that’s been in place since 2013, I strongly believe that the regulations we worked so hard to enact after the tragedy in Buffalo, N.Y., remain necessary. Any modifications to pilot training requirements considered by Congress or the FAA need to improve the safety of our system, not roll it back.

While we continue to maintain and improve aviation safety, we need to make sure our small and rural airports can keep and expand their air service. Small and rural airports are major economic engines in the communities they serve. In my home state of Washington, 97 percent of business income is generated by businesses within 10 miles of an airport, and 70 percent is generated by businesses within five miles of an airport.

Air service is a critical resource for small and rural communities to attract new businesses and tourists, which is why I’ve worked with both Republicans and Democrats to bolster the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Community Air Service Development Grant Program. This grant program helps small communities attract air service to new destinations or to increase frequencies to existing destinations, boosting the economic potential for the communities that receive them.

The aerospace industry is vitally important to the American economy. Nowhere is that more true than in Washington State, where 136,000 people work in the industry—including about 4,000 ALPA members!

In addition to being the home of more than 65,000 workers who build the world’s best commercial and military aircraft, as well as a world-class airline, companies in Washington are on the cutting edge. Innovation in aerospace, like the increased use of composites or the tremendous work that is being done with advanced UAS, creates thousands of the good-paying jobs our country needs.

We in the Northwest are proud of our role at the center of the aviation universe and proud of our hardworking friends and neighbors who form the backbone of the industry.

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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