Transportation secretary Elaine Chao has unveiled a research initiative that will use public financing to help military veterans become commercial pilots.

Analysts, however, voiced skepticism about whether the measure, even if constructive, will lead to significant improvements in the growing shortage of commercial pilots in the U.S.

"It's a great idea. There's no downside to it. Zero," said aviation analyst Mike Boyd of Boyd Group International. "But it's not going to fix the situation that has already taken place. The 1,500-hour rule, as adjusted, as amended, is not going to change."

Boyd was referring to the minimum number of flight hours necessary to earn certification as a commercial pilot.

The program, called Forces to Flyers, is expected to begin by the middle of next year. Under the three-year initiative, up to 40 nonpilot veterans will receive free flight training until they can be licensed as commercial flight instructors.

From there, the DOT said, trainees can use paid flight-instructor jobs to obtain the remaining hours they need to qualify for the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license that is required of U.S. commercial airline pilots. Aspiring pilots need at least 175 hours of flight time to obtain flight-instructor certification.

The DOT said that during the Forces to Flyers program, "researchers will also study pathways for entering the pilot workforce, identify barriers to training and employment and design and implement an initiative that can provide flight training to individuals interested in becoming commercial pilots."

Chao unveiled the Forces to Flyers initiative as the pilot shortage has already led to closures and service cuts at regional airlines and corresponding cuts in air service to small U.S. communities and is garnering more attention from policymakers.

According to the University of North Dakota's 2016 Pilot Supply Forecast, there will be a shortage of approximately 3,500 commercial pilots in the U.S. by 2020.

Under regulations put in place in 2013, aspiring pilots must obtain 1,500 hours of flight time to be eligible to co-captain a commercial aircraft. Under the rules the requirement replaced, pilots could launch their careers at regional carriers with as few as 250 hours in the cockpit.

Aviation analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co. expressed skepticism about Forces to Flyers, noting that veterans can already get paid flight training under the GI Bill. This year, veterans can receive up to $13,000 under the Post-9/11 GI Bill to attend a vocational flight school.

In a statement, a DOT spokesman said that the department anticipates that the program will cover training costs beyond what is offered by the GI Bill.

On a broader point, Mann said Forces to Flyers appears to be another effort to address the pilot shortage without doing away with what he called "the third rail of the 1,500-hour rule."

"Everybody is trying to figure out how to put their thumb on the scale to, in effect, get people to this arbitrary 1,500 hours faster than they otherwise would," Mann said.

The rule was implemented in response to the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, operating as Continental Connection, in which all 49 passengers died in a failed landing in Buffalo, N.Y. Among its biggest backers are victims' families and the Air Line Pilots Association, which maintains that the 1,500-hour rule has increased safety in U.S. skies.

Existing regulations allow ex-military pilots as well as graduates of university and college flight-training programs to obtain an ATP license with 750, 1,000 and 1,250 hours of flight time, respectively. A proposal made last month by an FAA advisory committee would slash the hour requirement to 500 for pilots in those three categories who subsequently complete a standardized training module that would be offered by airlines.

Alternatively, a proposal contained in the Senate Commerce Committee's FAA reauthorization bill would give the agency the authority to reduce the 1,500-hour requirement for aspiring pilots who don't go through the usual military or academic pathways but instead get their training entirely through programs run by commercial airlines.


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