Faced once again with a pilot shortage, some regional airline executives renewed their plea this week for relief from the 1,500-hour flight-training requirement that they say is ineffectual and imposes unnecessary barriers to entry into the profession.
However, the remarks of one influential congressman offered the carriers no reason for optimism.
"Having been there when we wrote the rule, I feel very obligated to it, and we should," House Subcommittee on Aviation chairman Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said during a question-and-answer session at the Regional Airlines Association (RAA) Leadership Conference in Washington Tuesday.
Some regional carriers say they are already feeling the pinch from a re-emerging pilot shortage, which prior to the pandemic had forced many of them to reduce their schedules while contributing to industry bankruptcies and closures.
"We're truly hearing a big sucking sound now," Cape Air president Linda Markham said at the conference.
The consulting firm Oliver Wyman has estimated that U.S. pilot demand in January will exceed supply by more than 9,000, a number that will increase to more than 12,500 by January 2023, according to the estimate.
The re-emerging shortage has many of the same causes as the pre-Covid shortage -- a large number of pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65, a reduction in the number of military-trained pilots who could quickly be hired and expectations of industry growth.
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But the shortage over the next few years will also be fueled by the approximately 5,000 pilots who accepted early retirement offers from mainline U.S. carriers during the first several months of the pandemic.
With those carriers hiring many pilots from the regional ranks, it is regional operators that will feel the first and biggest impacts as the airline industry recovers.
Their situation also won't be helped by the sharp drop this year in the number of individuals who are expected to complete the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certification that is required to fly for a commercial carrier. The FAA's estimate for this year of 3,800 new ATP certifications is 42% lower than the 2019 figure, according to Drew Jacoby Lemos, the RAA's senior director of government affairs.
During the conference, regional airline executives criticized the 1,500-hour rule, which was put into effect in 2013 as a response to the February 2009 crash of a Colgan Air flight (marketed as Continental Connection) near Buffalo that killed 49 people.
"We all know you can get a very qualified pilot in far less time that it takes today," said PSA Airlines president Dion Flannery. Critics of the 1,500-hour rule say that pilots can be better trained in fewer but more tailored flight hours.
Prior to 2013, pilots could begin flying for regional airlines with as few as 250 hours of flight time.
Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airlines, said he'd like to see a path for ATP certification that includes 300 hours of flight-school flying and another 300 hours of highly structured flying.
But Bedford also said the regional carriers aren't pushing for Congress to simply do away with the 1,500-hour rule. Instead, carriers are pushing for the rule to be liberalized through the creation of new training pathways that would have fewer flight-hour requirements.
Bedford asked Larsen if he believes the FAA has the authority to promulgate alternative pathways independently of Congress.
"No. I don't think the FAA has that authority," Larsen said. "But I'm not an attorney either. But I also think the FAA would be wise to come talk to Congress if they were to look at those paths."
Over the course of the two-day RAA conference, speakers and airline executives emphasized the importance of broadening pilot recruitment strategies and of increasing federal loan limits for aspiring pilots.
"We have a shortage. We have a lack of diversity in the industry. And we've got a very expensive training path without funding in place," RAA CEO Faye Malarkey Black said.
Rep. Danny Davis, (D-Ill.), told conference attendees that he will soon introduce a bill in the House addressing pilot loans.