Crash families channel grief to outlobby airlines on pilot rules

By Alan Levin Arizona Daily Star

Beverly Eckert, 50, of Stamford, Conn., died in the 2009 crash. Here she holds a picture of husband Sean Rooney, who was killed in the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack.Douglas Healey, The Associated Press

Beverly Eckert, 50, of Stamford, Conn., died in the 2009 crash. Here she holds a picture of husband Sean Rooney, who was killed in the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack. Douglas Healey, Associated Press

One was a basketball coach. Another sold food packaging. Two were sisters-in-law of an insurance executive who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

With no Washington experience or deep-pocketed backers, these family members of victims of a 2009 plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., channeled their grief and rage for four years to win U.S. rules reducing pilot fatigue and improving training and qualifications. They outmaneuvered industry opponents spending millions on lobbyists.

The rules, the last of which was announced by the Federal Aviation Administration Nov. 5, will cost airlines $7 billion over 10 years to add training, hire more pilots and adjust flight schedules, according to government estimates.

“We learned and realized very early on that you’re not going to go cry on someone’s desk and get something done,” said Scott Maurer, a regional sales manager at Sealed Air Corp. whose daughter Lorin, 30, died in the crash. “You have to have a plan, and you have to conduct it in a businesslike manner.”

A core of five to 10 family members, aided by an extended circle that swelled to as many as 40, bird-dogged lawmakers and agency heads until they got what they wanted, according to interviews with five participants as well as politicians and government officials.

Some members of Families of Continental Flight 3407 came to Washington more than 60 times, paying their own way.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, whose job includes working with crash survivors, said she’s never seen such persistent advocacy by families.

“They opened up people’s minds, and they opened up offices, and they opened up priorities that even the NTSB probably couldn’t have,” she said in an interview.

Flight 3407, operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s Colgan unit, was nearing Buffalo from Newark, N.J., at 10:17 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2009, when it pitched up violently. The plane slowed, lost lift and plunged into a neighborhood in Clarence Center, N.Y. All 49 people aboard and a man on the ground died.

At an NTSB hearing starting May 12, 2009, the families heard that a captain with a history of failing skill tests who’d barely slept the night before triggered the accident by overreacting to a cockpit alarm. The co-pilot had earned $16,000 the prior year and taken a red-eye flight the night before reporting to work.

Convinced there were systemic safety shortfalls in the regional-airline industry, the families that week fanned out across the halls of Congress, a five-minute taxi ride from the NTSB’s conference room.

One of their first meetings was with Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who was chairman of the aviation rule-making subcommittee.

“My advice is you’ve got to show up,” he told the group. “The world is run by those who show up. And show up at everything.”

So they did.

Led by Kevin Kuwik, a buzz-cut assistant basketball coach at the University of Dayton who won a Bronze Star for Army service in Iraq, they became experts in the minutiae of influence and the technical side of airline operations.

Kuwik’s girlfriend was Maurer’s daughter Lorin. His father, Edward, was mayor of the western New York town of Lackawanna and served in the Erie County legislature. That gave the group contacts with the Buffalo area’s congressional delegation and with Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.

The two sisters brought their own connections. Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque lost their sibling, Beverly Eckert, an advocate for September 11, 2001, attack victims who had met only days before the accident with President Obama.

Beverly Eckert, whose husband, Sean Rooney, died in one of the World Trade Center towers, served on the Family Steering Committee of the 9/11 Commission and was a familiar figure on Capitol Hill.

The House had passed an aviation safety bill by a 409-to-11 vote in October 2009, but the measure stalled in the Senate.

Airlines and their trade groups began lobbying to mute the measures, according to reports and public filings.

Large carriers such as FedEx Corp. and American Airlines parent AMR Corp., along with their Washington-based trade group, Airlines for America, reported spending more than $50 million lobbying in 2010.

Airlines argued that measures sought by the families would be too costly and wouldn’t have prevented the crash. The families found they could wield their own brand of political muscle. Friendly congressional staffers helped them plot strategy, Maurer said.

On Aug. 1, 2010, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 was signed by Obama and became law.

That started a new quest by the families to ensure that regulations — the flesh that filled out the skeleton outlined in the legislation — were crafted to their liking.

Any time a U.S. official who might have some responsibility for completing the regulations appeared before the House or Senate, such as FAA chief Michael Huerta, they attended to keep up the pressure.

Most citizen lobbyists are ineffective, falling prey to inexperience or fractured motivations, Rogan Kersh, a political science professor who is provost of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said.

The Families of Continental Flight 3407 is the exception, adopting traditional lobbying skills and applying relentless pressure, he said.

Costello said he uses their efforts as a case study for how to influence government in lectures he’s delivered at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

“None of this would have happened if the families had stayed home and not stuck together as a coalition,” he said. “They deserve all the credit.”

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