Kyrsten Sinema Moves to Slash Pilot Training After Taking Airline Cash

The airline-backed amendment to radically alter pilot training requirements is opposed by pilot and flight attendant unions.

UNITED STATES - MARCH 15: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., attends a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee markup in Dirksen Building on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., attends a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee markup on March 15, 2023. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

In a blistering attack on her Senate colleague last week, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., warned independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema that a proposal to reduce the number of required in-flight training hours for pilots would result in “blood on your hands.” The attack from Duckworth was prompted by an amendment supported by Sinema and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would allow pilots to meet training requirements by substituting hours spent in a flight simulator for actual flight time.

For Duckworth, who lost both of her legs to a rocket attack on the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in 2004 during the Iraq War, the issue is personal. “Now is not the time to put corporate profits ahead of the lives of our constituents who may want to board a commercial flight in the future,” Duckworth said. “A vote to reduce a 1,500-hour rule for pilot training will mean blood on your hands when an inevitable accident occurs as a result of an inadequately trained flight crew.”

The eleventh-hour amendment in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation comes as the September 30 deadline to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Act looms.

Sinema’s campaign received an influx of cash over the last year from the airline industry. The donations would be crucial to the senator as she strikes out as a newly christened independent during a challenging reelection bid. Without her Democratic Party affiliation, Sinema heads into the 2024 race without the political or financial backing of her former party. 

“Any change to the rule must have sign off from the pilots or we don’t trust it. It’s that simple.”

Sinema’s amendment is being opposed by pilot and flight attendant unions. “Any change to the rule must have sign off from the pilots or we don’t trust it,” Sara Nelson — president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing 50,000 flight attendants — told The Intercept. “It’s that simple.”

According to campaign finance data compiled by OpenSecrets, Sinema raised over $150,000 from the airline industry over the past two election cycles, with the majority of that money received over the last two years. Sinema’s donors include the largest air carrier trade group Airlines for America, in addition to regional carriers like Alaska Airlines. Sinema’s office did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.

Sinema has cast herself as a maverick in Washington, but her time there has produced the same sort of swampy network as a traditional senator. Her former aides have become lobbyists for the airlines, and her amendment put her in line with advocacy from industry associations.

Kate Gonzales, a former legislative aide to Sinema, now works on transportation issues for the lobbying shop Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. She spoke on a company podcast about the Federal Aviation Act reauthorization in March, saying, “Folks who are interested in any priorities need to start the conversations and get their foot in the door, at the very least.”

Beginning in 2022 and stretching into 2023, Alaska Airlines paid Gonzales and other lobbyists from Brownstein over $180,000 for lobbying in the House and Senate to “address issues related to workforce and staffing challenges in the aviation industry” and “issues related to [Federal Aviation Act] Reauthorization,” according to lobbying disclosures.

Gonzales did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment on whether she had discussed pilot training requirements or otherwise helped clients get a foot in the door with Sinema when it came to Federal Aviation Act reauthorization.


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Faye Black, president of the Regional Airline Association, which has lobbied to scale back pilot training requirements, testified before Congress in April to support the same changes in the amendment backed by Sinema. “Fear and emotion are injected into the conversation that should be based on facts and data,” Black said. “For over 10 years, this has prevented incorporating advancements in pilot training methods, curriculum, and technology into the 1,500-flight-hour framework.”

That fear and emotion surrounds Flight 3407, which crashed outside of Buffalo, New York, in 2009, leaving 50 dead. After the accident, which stands as the last multi-casualty crash of a U.S. airline, Congress enacted sweeping reforms to protect the safety of both airline customers and crew under the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act in 2010. The bill spurred Federal Aviation Administration efforts to increase pilot training hour requirements, revise flight-simulator training guidelines, change pilot fatigue rules, and create a rigorous system for screening pilot backgrounds.

Despite the enhanced oversight the 2010 reforms place on aspiring pilots, the Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing tens of thousands of airline pilots, wrote to the Senate in an effort to head off Sinema’s amendment, which they say could cause extreme danger to pilots and passengers.

“This poison pill amendment undermines the current aviation safety regime that has resulted in the safest period in air travel in history,” the union wrote. “The proposal codifies a training regime that is unstructured and introduces an unacceptable risk to our air transportation system.” The group complained that a lack of specifics in the amendment could result in subpar training, “including types of emergency training.”

In addition to pilots, the airline attendants union also voiced their concern over the changes proposed in the amendment.

“We do not support the amendment,” said Nelson of the flight attendants union. She added that she is not uniformly opposed to allowing rigorous flight simulation to take an expanded role in training, but said it has to be genuinely rigorous. “The fact is that U.S. aviation has experienced its safest decade since this rule was put into place,” Nelson said. “As our flight deck counterparts have noted repeatedly, there may be a revision to the rule with full simulator experience that could even exceed current standards. But that must be under terms that ensure this.”

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