Regional Airlines Bill Boosts Pilot Training
New legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives (H.R. 3371, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act) will drastically improve the landscape for professional airline pilots. Among many other improvements in safety matters, minimum flight-time requirements will be raised sixfold, to 1,500 hours, for new-hire pilots. This change alone will have a monumental impact on the practice of on-the-job training for many junior pilots who fly for regional airlines.
Unfortunately, it took the February 2009 crash of Buffalo-bound flight 3407—operated by Colgan Air, a Continental Airlines feeder—and the loss of 50 lives to spur our government to move toward making critical changes. Even so, many professional pilots are applauding these overdue revisions with the confidence that they will help build a more sustainable future for all of our airlines.
The outsourcing of pilots via regional airlines
The legislation begins to correct a series of ill-fated decisions and oversights that began years ago. Trapped in an ever tightening budgetary spiral, airlines have slashed costs in ways that put flight crews and passengers at risk from pilot outsourcing. This time, the cost-cutting measure is the expanding use of regional airlines and their jets by the major legacy carriers in the United States.
What seemed like an effective, safe means of transporting large numbers of passengers with greater frequency has proven otherwise. Instead of carrying 150 passengers on one aircraft, airlines now provide three regional jets with 50 seats or more to fly the route. Not only is this less efficient, but it further complicates the problem of air traffic congestion that has contributed greatly to poor on-time records across the industry.
As many business travelers can attest, there has been a marked increase in the use of regional aircraft to fly routes previously serviced by major airlines. One in four passengers in the U.S. now flies with a regional airline. Through code-sharing or fee-for-departure (FFD) agreements with the smaller regionals, legacy carriers have amassed virtual airline networks, which enable a greater reach with lower management and labor operating costs.
A scenario that encourages on-the-job pilot training
The major airlines typically award contracts to the regional airline that can serve a route at the lowest possible price. These contracts are often for very short periods, so, in an effort to maintain the terms or be granted an extension, regionals trim salaries and training costs to the barest minimum.
All of this is done under the brand name of the established legacy airline—so when passengers buy a ticket for a seat on that carrier’s plane, they might not get what they expected. In an Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) white paper, “Producing a Professional Airline Pilot” (September 2009), the authors had this to say about the experience levels at many regional airlines: “Today’s archaic regulations allow airlines to hire low-experience pilots into the right seat of high-speed, complex, swept-wing jet aircraft in what amounts to on-the-job training with paying passengers on board. Investigations of recent accidents reveal that safety margins have been eroded at some carriers as a result.”
According to accident statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), pilot ability was a likely contributor in six out of the last seven fatal regional airline crashes in the U.S. since September 11, 2001. Investigations further revealed that in eight out of the last nine regional accidents in the U.S., at least one pilot in each mishap had failed multiple flight tests.
It is important to note that the blame should not be placed on the individual pursuing a career with a regional airline. These new pilots are merely taking advantage of a flawed system that has poor federal oversight.
Airlines that hire the majority of low-experience pilots do not have the resources to offer competitive compensation packages. Most young, inexperienced pilots use the regionals as a stepping stone to the major airlines. This arrangement worked in the past because of a rapidly expanding industry, but today, none of the domestic major airlines are hiring. This has stopped the upward movement dead in its tracks. Stagnant seniority lists—a result of the pilot retirement age having been raised to 65—are compounding the problem as well. But this still doesn’t entirely explain the issue of safety.
How the legislation will help
In a letter to the members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the ALPA president, Captain John Prater, made the following comments about the legislation (H.R. 3371) that was about to come up for a vote: “Industry turmoil has had a negative effect on the desirability of the airline pilot career. Career quality and uncertainty, combined with a markedly changed pilot-hiring pool, has created additional challenges for airline pilot hiring practices. In short, many pilots in the current pool of applicants lack the level of experience that generations of pilots ahead of them had when they came into the airlines.… H.R. 3371 makes much needed changes to pilot screening practices and pilot training and qualification requirements. It also builds on industry best practices and mandates professional development programs at all airlines.”
I agree with Captain Prater’s conclusion about the legislation: In the end, an experienced and motivated professional pilot is the best safety measure an airline can provide. H.R. 3371 means a significant step toward establishing a single industry-wide standard for safety.
New rules would create safer skies
Pilot training is addressed by H.R. 3371. Some highlights of the bill:
• Requires airline pilots to hold an FAA ATP license (1,500 minimum flight hours required, a six-fold increase). Under current law, first officers need a Commercial Pilot License, which requires 250 flight hours.
• Requires the FAA to ensure that pilots are trained on stall recovery and upset recovery, and that airlines provide remedial training.
• Establishes comprehensive pre-employment screening of prospective pilots, including an assessment of a pilot’s skills, aptitudes, airmanship and suitability for functioning in the airline’s operational environment.
• Creates a Pilot Records Database to provide airlines with fast, electronic access to a pilot’s comprehensive record.
• Directs the FAA to update and implement a new pilot flight and duty time rule and fatigue risk management plans.
• Mandates that any website selling airline tickets must disclose the air carrier that operates each segment of the flight.
CHRIS COOKE is a pilot with a major domestic carrier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.