WASHINGTON – Congress is on the verge of passing far-reaching airline safety legislation, and a lot of the credit goes to an unlikely band of lobbyists: the families and friends of the 50 people who died in a regional airline crash in western New York more than a year ago.
How they've come so far with few connections and little money is a lesson in wielding influence the hard way — with people power, persistence and facts.
The new safety provisions have been added to a broader aviation bill Congress has been struggling for four years to pass. The bill would speed up the Federal Aviation Administration's $40 billion program to modernize the nation's air traffic control system. But it's also loaded with other controversial provisions unrelated to safety that have repeatedly threatened to derail it.
EDITOR'S NOTE — An occasional look at how behind-the-scenes influence is exercised in Washington.
Thanks to a relentless pressure campaign by the family members, the safety provisions are now spurring the bill toward passage.
As a group, they have made more than 30 lobbying trips to Washington at their own expense over the past 17 months since the crash in Buffalo, N.Y., united them in grief — with a determination to try to fix what had gone wrong.
They've met with 88 senators or their staffs, and two dozen House members or their aides — many of them more than once. They've attended every congressional hearing with any connection to aviation safety. They've watched from the House and Senate visitor galleries as lawmakers debated reforms, an unmistakable island of red sweaters, ties and jackets — their chosen color — with photos of their loved ones pinned to their chests.
In March, when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., threatened to block a vote on the bill because he objected to a labor provision affecting Federal Express, which is headquartered in his state, about 20 family members descended on his office. In a tense meeting with Corker's chief of staff, they demanded he explain why the senator was putting the interests of a company ahead of safety. They held out pictures of the loved ones they'd lost, told of the children who would grow up without fathers.
Ten minutes after the meeting ended, family members were still standing outside Corker's office trying to decide what to do next when an aide called them back in to tell them Corker had reached a compromise with Democratic leaders. The threat to block the bill had been dropped for the moment. Family members don't take credit for Corker's decision, but they say they believe their actions helped.
"I do not believe that we would even be sitting at the (negotiation) table with our colleagues from over on the Senate side had it not been for the impact that the families have had on this whole process," Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House aviation panel, said last week.
It has been an emotional journey. Family members were still coping with their grief in the weeks after the February 2009 crash of the Continental Connection airliner near Buffalo when a National Transportation Safety Board investigation revealed the accident was the byproduct of a financially strapped industry seeking to cut costs by farming out short-haul flights to regional carriers. Those carriers often hire inexperienced pilots at low wages, assign them exhausting schedules and look the other way when they commute long distances to work because they can't afford to live in the cities where they are based.
Family members were already beginning to organize, but the NTSB's disclosure of errors by the flight's two pilots and deficiencies in pilot hiring and training by Colgan Air Inc., the regional carrier that operated the flight for Continental Airlines, was galvanizing. It gave their effort a focus and armed them with evidence to support their demands for safety reforms.
"We're just determined not to go away until something is done," said Karen Eckert, 60, of Williamsville, N.Y., who lost a sister in the crash: Beverly Eckert, a widow whose husband died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Karen Eckert and another sister, Susan Bourque, 61, of East Aurora, N.Y., gave up their jobs — each had a government career spanning over three decades — to devote their time to pressing for reforms.
Family members have also been lobbying the Obama administration to both support the legislation and take action on its own. With help from members of the New York congressional delegation, they wrangled a private meeting with President Barack Obama during a presidential trip to Buffalo this spring. Based on contacts they made at that meeting, they've continued to press their case with White House aides. They've also met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and with FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
Babbitt announced a series of safety steps last summer, but progress in key areas has been slow.
Many of the congressional meetings have been poignant. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the aviation panel, told several fathers who had lost daughters in the crash that he knew what they were going through — he had lost a daughter during heart surgery. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, described losing his father in a plane crash in 1972.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who had become friendly with Beverly Eckert while the widow was lobbying for creation of a 9/11 commission, became teary, saying something must be done to prevent other terrific people from suffering such a horrific fate, recalled Scott Maurer, the families' lead spokesman.
Early on the families forged an informal alliance with pilot unions, who have been lobbying for many of the safety provisions. Jeff Skiles, the first officer of U.S. Airways plane that ditched into the Hudson River a month before the Buffalo air crash, has accompanied them on several visits to lawmakers and their staffs. Earlier this month, he joined family members at a press conference in West Virginia, the home state of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the bill. Together, they urged the senator to act faster on the measure. Three Rockefeller aides attended the conference, Skiles said.
"They hold a tremendous amount of sway and a tremendous amount of power with the media," Skiles said. "Members of Congress are very aware of that."
Details of the final bill are still being negotiated, but it's expected to require that the minimum flight experience for first officers be raised from 250 hours to 1,500 hours — the same level as captains. That could force regional airlines to hire more experienced pilots and indirectly raise salaries. Other provisions address pilot training, pre-employment screening and work schedules.
"We want to get the best pilots possible in the cockpit and then set them up for success," said Maurer, who lost his daughter, Lorin, in the crash.
Their effort, Dorgan said, "just shows you if you stick to an issue and don't quit and be relentless and keep making the case, you can make things happen."
Flight 3407 Memorial: http://www.3407memorial.com/