Crash Families Channel Rage to Outlobby Airlines on RulesAlan Levin
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 Sept. 11, 2001.
With no Washington experience or deep-pocketed backers, these family members of victims of a 2009 plane crash near Buffalo, New York, 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,” Scott Maurer, a regional sales manager at Sealed Air Corp. whose daughter Lorin, 30, died in the crash, said in an interview. “You have to have a plan and you have to conduct it in a business-like 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.
U.S. 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, New Jersey, 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, New York. All 49 people aboard and a man on the ground died.
The investigation at first focused on the snow falling that night and other pilot reports of icing.
The families heard a different story after arriving at an NTSB hearing starting May 12, 2009: 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.
“My wife walked out and said they murdered our daughter,” John Kausner, a Buffalo-area building contractor whose daughter, Ellyce, 24, was on the plane, said in an interview.
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 Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who was chairman of the aviation rulemaking subcommittee.
Dorgan told them about his mother, who was killed by a drunk driver in 1986, the now-former lawmaker said in an interview. As the driver’s case wound through court, Dorgan attended every hearing to send a message, he said.
“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 Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who ranked third in the body’s leadership.
The two sisters brought their own connections. Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque lost their sibling, Beverly Eckert, an advocate for Sept. 11, 2001, attack victims who had met only days before the accident with President Barack 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.
Staff members would say hello to Susan and Karen because they looked so much like their golden-haired sister and offer to assist, the sisters said.
“When we did get to see the member of Congress and talked about Beverly, they always had nice things to say,” Bourque said. “It really helped.”
Even as doors opened, roadblocks appeared. While the House had passed an aviation safety bill by a 409-to-11 vote in October 2009, the measure stalled in the Senate.
Airlines and their trade groups began lobbying to mute the measures, according to reports and public filings.
The Regional Airline Association, the Washington-based trade group representing carriers like Colgan, hadn’t lobbied since 1999. In 2010, it spent $160,000 lobbying on the safety measures and other issues, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Larger 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 on lobbying in 2010. All the carriers said they lobbied on the safety proposals without detailing how much was spent on specific issues.
While the airlines said they supported improved safety and pilot training, they argued in government filings that measures sought by the families would be too costly and wouldn’t have prevented the crash.
Kelly Murphy, an RAA spokeswoman, didn’t respond to e-mail requests for comment. Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, declined to speak about the families. The industry is working with FAA to implement new safety rules to ensure it has the “best-trained pilots,” Medina said in an e-mail.
Going against such well-financed opposition, the families found they could wield their own brand of political muscle.
One day in March 2010, a group of family members tried to visit Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who was blocking the bill containing their safety measures because of a dispute over a labor issue affecting Memphis-based FedEx. Corker sent an aide, they said.
The meeting was emotional, even “borderline hysterical,” Kuwik said, as they held photos of loved ones and told tearful stories about their lives. Within hours, Corker lifted his objections, they said.
Friendly congressional staffers supplied the families with intelligence on the opposition and helped them plot strategy, Maurer said. Jerry Costello, an Illinois Democrat who was chairman of the House aviation subcommittee when the accident occurred, said he orchestrated some efforts.
“When I frankly saw some members that were wavering, I would have my staff call the families and tell them to contact this member or senator,” Costello said in an interview. “We worked hand in hand to pass the bill.”
Even allies came under pressure. During the July 4 congressional recess in 2010, family members flew to the districts of two Democratic committee chairmen and held press conferences calling on them to move stalled legislation containing their safety measures.
Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and now-former Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota had supported them from the beginning. Kuwik said they wanted to send a message: “We need you guys to work out your differences on these bills.”
By the end of the month, Rockefeller and Oberstar had agreed to put the stalled bill on hold and create separate legislation for the safety measure.
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.
When the agency missed a deadline or issued a proposed rule, the group put out press releases to keep the issue in the news.
In 2011, the family members confronted Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, over an amendment he’d attached to a bill authorizing FAA spending.
The amendment, which passed the House on April 1, 2011, may have blocked the regulatory changes they were seeking, they said. Shuster said on the House floor that it wouldn’t alter the requirements passed the year before or harm safety.
“We ambushed him” and demanded a meeting in a cafeteria, Maurer said. “He had to come face-to-face with the families early that morning to start his day. He knew with full force how we felt.”
Shuster dropped his provision in May, saying in a statement that he wanted the FAA bill to move forward.
The families also called on the expertise of Karen Eckert, the principal author of two U.S. immigration regulations. Eckert helped them lobby at the FAA and in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which must approve all regulations.
Eckert “could sit with an OMB person and she could say, ‘I’ve been in your shoes before,’” Kuwik said.
The regulations that emerged addressed what the families saw as the biggest issues underlying the Colgan crash: old rules that allowed pilots to fly tired, outdated training requirements and standards that allowed pilots to carry passengers after failing skill tests.
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, North Carolina, said in an interview.
The Families of Continental Flight 3407 is the exception, adopting traditional lobbying skills and applying relentless pressure, he said.
“They deployed those tools masterfully,” 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.”
As they look back on almost five years of work, several family members said that success offers little solace for an event that still carries so much pain.
“When I come home from DC and go to the airport parking lot at 11 o’clock at night, I’m the loneliest person in the world,” Maurer said. “Christmas is coming up. Thanksgiving is coming up. But my daughter is gone and I’m never going to see her again.”