A recently released FAA advisory committee recommendation would ease the rule that requires pilots to amass 1,500 hours of flight time before they can copilot a commercial airliner.

But despite a growing pilot shortage at regional airlines across the country, efforts to cut into the 1,500-hour rule are sure to encounter strong resistance.

Current regulations grant exceptions to the 1,500-hour rule for military pilots, who must have 750 hours of flight time; graduates of qualified bachelor-degree aviation programs, who must fly 1,000 hours; and graduates of qualified associate-degree programs, who must have 1,250 hours.

Under the recommendation put forward late last month by the FAA's Air Carrier Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee, trainees who go through what would be an airline-run training program could obtain an Airline Transport Pilot license with just 500 hours of flight time. Only military pilots and graduates of authorized four-year and two-year university and college aviation programs would be eligible.

The committee suggested that the training programs include 326 hours of aviation-related coursework. In addition, upon completion, trainees would need to have 100 hours of night flight time, 75 hours of instrument flight time and 200 hours of cross-country flight time, among other requirements. The programs would consist of 14 distinct modules.

The FAA recommendation came as the Senate Commerce Committee, under the direction of chairman John Thune, R-S.D., had included a provision in its proposed FAA reauthorization bill that would give the agency authority to reduce flight-training requirements for aspiring pilots who don't go through the usual military or academic pathways but instead get their training through other types of programs, most likely run by airlines.

In a statement, commerce committee communications director Frederick Hill said that Thune would be open to considering the recommendations of the FAA's rulemaking committee as an alternative to the current commerce panel proposal.

"Senator Thune appreciates the proposals offered" by the committee, Hill said.

The committee's proposal was brought forward as Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air became the most recent regional carrier to make headlines related to the pilot shortage.

Horizon has cut its flight schedule from September through at least January, according to the Seattle Times, and was forced to cancel 700 fights before last month. In September, Horizon canceled more that 6.5% of its flights, the third-worst number among 23 regional North American carriers tracked by the data services company Flightstats.

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.

Still, the release of the proposal does not mean the FAA will implement the recommendation. Politico reported that FAA administrator Michael Huerta told the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association in September that the agency had no plans to change anything about the 1,500-hour rule without direction from Congress.

A key player in the debate over the 1,500-hour rule is the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the country's largest and most powerful pilots' union. ALPA has long staunchly opposed any relaxation of the rule, arguing that its implementation in 2013 has increased safety in U.S. skies. Since that time, there hasn't been a single fatality on a scheduled U.S. carrier.

The FAA committee report, however, stated that ALPA, which was on the committee, had shown wiggle room on the issue. While the union opposed the recommendation of offering credits of 250, 500 and 750 hours, respectively, to military, bachelor-degree and associate-degree pilots who complete the proposed airline-run training program, it did support a more moderate credit of 250 hours across the board.

But in a letter to Huerta last week, ALPA president Tim Canoll said that the committee never completed its work, and as result, the union's views on a 250-hour credit were presented out of context.

"ALPA will strongly oppose any regulatory proposal that emerges which uses this document as a foundation for a change in first-officer qualification," Canoll wrote.

In an interview, Akins said the committee's proposal could also encounter opposition from unexpected sources. For example, university aviation programs are likely to worry about being undermined by a pathway in which two-year associate's program graduates could become pilots with the same 500 hours of training as their four-year university counterparts.

He said the 250-hour proposal that the report attributed to ALPA and the Airline Dispatchers Federation would be a more consistent approach.

Still, despite the complexities of changing the 1,500-hour rule, the growing magnitude of the pilot shortage means it could be politically feasible, said John Cox, a retired US Airways captain who runs Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting company.

Airline-run pilot training programs in Europe and Asia have long histories and have proven effective, he said, adding, "The pilot shortage is as severe as I've seen it in 47 years in the industry right now."

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