Robert Silk
Robert Silk

As Congress prepares to debate FAA reauthorization later this year, the proposal to privatize air traffic control has grabbed most of the headlines.

But while that effort threatens to scuttle the House version of the reauthorization, a less ballyhooed proposal could slow down the Senate's reauthorization effort.

The controversial measure, put forward by Senate transportation committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), isn't especially far-reaching. Currently, candidates hoping to pilot for commercial airlines must log 1,500 hours of flying before obtaining the required Airline Transport Pilot license. Only military pilots and graduates of qualified bachelor's-degree aviation programs can get a commercial license with less than 1,500 training hours. Academic graduates are eligible after 1,000 flight hours.

Thune's proposal, which he introduced as an amendment to the bill in late June, would give the FAA authority to broaden those exceptions to include nonacademic training programs, such as ones run by flight training schools or by airlines.

It's a common-sense measure aimed at biting into the nationwide pilot shortage that has forced regional airlines into cutbacks, bankruptcies and outright closures. But the bill has plenty of powerful opponents, including the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and perhaps most significantly, the group Families of Continental Flight 3407.

The genesis of the 1,500-hour rule, as it came to be known, can be traced to Feb. 12, 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407, operating as Continental Connection, crashed into a house on approach to Buffalo Niagara Airport, killing all 49 passengers and crew as well as one person on the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) eventually concluded that the crash was the result of the plane's two pilots failing to respond properly to cockpit warnings that the aircraft was about to stall.

The Colgan crash led to a re-examination of entry-level requirements for U.S. airline pilots, resulting in the passage of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. Among other measures, the bill instructed the FAA to increase the minimum number of flight-training hours for commercial pilots from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. The rule took effect in 2013.

It was a move that played well politically in Congress. After all, who wouldn't be sympathetic to the loved ones of the Colgan 3407 crash victims? And who doesn't understand the desire to see something constructive result from an incident so tragic?

But from a policy standpoint, the logic behind the law is flimsy. To begin with, both the captain and the first officer on the Colgan flight had well over 1,500 hours of flight experience. Meanwhile, Pilot Source studies, conducted by universities ahead of the implementation of the new requirements and again in 2015, have shown that trainees with less than 1,500 hours of logged flight time actually performed better in regional airline pilot training than those with more than 1,500 hours.

Those results correlated to another Pilot Source 2015 finding, which is that trainees who are less than four years removed from college graduation perform the best and that pilots with four-year aviation degrees perform better than those without degrees.

University-level flight instructors with whom I've spoken over the past couple of years are emphatic that the quality of one's training is more important than the quantity. But under existing requirements, new commercial copilots must log only 50 hours of cockpit time in multiengine aircraft. The remainder can be obtained on single-engine craft. And pilots can accrue those hours with activities such as banner flying and flight instruction, which bear little similarity to commercial flying.

But while there is scant evidence that 1,500 hours is some sort of magical elixir, there is no doubt that requiring aspiring airline pilots to accrue that many hours in the cockpit has made entry into the profession less affordable. Aspiring pilots often spend $150,000 to $200,000 on training and flight hours, the ALPA has told me.

To be sure, the cost and time it takes to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot license is just one cause of the pilot shortage. Until recently, near poverty-level entry wages at regional airlines were another factor. Over the past two years, many regional carriers, including the two biggest, SkyWest Airlines and Republic Airways, have made substantial increases in starting pay and added signing bonuses.

For a long time, as U.S. airlines suffered in the aftermath of 9/11 and again in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, lack of opportunity also served to discourage potential pilot candidates.

But there's no lack of opportunity these days. According to Dan Akins, a transportation economist and founder of the consulting firm Flightpath Economics, the U.S. commercial airline industry is short approximately 500 pilots this year. But that number will balloon to 2,000 next year and 4,000 by 2022, as some 13,000 to 15,000 pilots at Delta, United, American and Southwest reach retirement age, requiring those carriers to mine regional airlines for pilots.

Already, the shortage has had a demonstrable impact. SeaPort Airlines, which operated out of the West Coast and Midwest, closed last year. Last spring Republic Airways emerged from a pre-emptive bankruptcy it had filed in 2016 as a way of extracting contractual concessions from American, United and Delta on route cutbacks necessitated by the pilot shortage. And in March, PenAir pared its schedule in the Pacific Northwest, citing the pilot shortage.

When regional airlines scale back, it's small communities that get hurt. About 30 small U.S. airports lost commercial service between the middle of 2013 and the end of 2015. In 2016, at least seven more lost service, according to an analysis from the commercial aviation analytics company Diio Mi.

Speaking before the House Transportation Committee in March, SkyWest CEO Chip Childs pleaded with legislators for assistance in combating the pilot shortage.

"There are a lot of retirements at the mainline carriers, and there simply is not enough backfilling," he said.

Childs, whose airline is the largest regional carrier in the world, should know. Capacity at SkyWest was down 5.4% year over year through June.

Paradoxically, before the U.S. developed the 1,500-hour standard, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is the aviation arm of the United Nations, was moving in the opposite direction. In 2006, it created the Multi-crew Pilot License, which can be earned with just 240 hours of flight and flight-simulation time.

It was established to respond to the growing conviction that standard programs relied too much on lots of flying hours in small aircraft that aren't used in commercial aviation, according to an ICAO primer.

Thune's proposal doesn't get anywhere close to endorsing something like the Multi-crew Pilot License. In fact, despite the compelling case that the 1,500-hour rule is arbitrary, and despite the obvious impact that the onerous requirement has on pilot recruitment, Thune isn't seeking to get rid of the rule at all. His amendment merely seeks more exceptions to the 1,500-hour rule.

The ALPA insists that the 1,500-hour rule, as well as other pieces of the 2010 legislation, have increased safety in the U.S. skies. Schumer, who as a New York senator has lots of political motivation to support Families of Continental Flight 3407, also said in a fall 2016 press release that the regulations "undoubtedly save lives."

Indeed, it is true that since the 1,500-hour rule went into effect in 2013 there hasn't been a single fatality on a scheduled U.S. carrier. But there wasn't a fatality between the Colgan crash in 2009 and the implementation of the rule either. And the number of nonfatal accidents since 2009, and even well before then, has remained more or less steady, according to NTSB data. It's probably too late to head off the immediate pilot shortage by modifying the 1,500-hour rule. Learning to pilot a commercial aircraft will still take several years, even if more candidates are eligible for a threshold such as 1,000 flight hours. But everyone -- airlines, politicians and average Americans -- has reason to be concerned that what for now is just a temporary pilot shortage doesn't become an endemic one.

By easing the 1,500-hour rule, Congress would do something that has become increasingly rare in Washington. It would be putting policy over politics.


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