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
"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.
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
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."