Senate bill would make it easier to become a commercial airline pilot

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Photo Credit: Poidl/Shutterstock

The Senate transportation committee moved its version of the FAA reauthorization bill forward on Thursday, and it includes a provision that would make it easier for pilots to receive a license to fly a commercial airliner.

The current rule requires candidates to log 1,500 hours of flying experience before obtaining their ATP license, which they must have to serve as a pilot on a scheduled air carrier. 

Only military pilots and graduates of qualified bachelor-degree aviation programs can obtain a commercial license with less than 1,500 training hours. Academic graduates, for example, are eligible for a license after 1,000 flight hours.

The provision in the FAA bill, introduced by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), is likely to stir controversy. It would give the FAA authority to broaden exceptions to the 1,500-hour rule to include non-academic training programs, such as ones run by flight training schools or, potentially, the airlines themselves.

Opponents of the 1,500-hour rule say it is excessive and one cause of the pilot shortage that has contributed to bankruptcies or forced operational changes at several regional airlines.

Prior to 2013, trainees needed just 250 flying hours to obtain an ATP flight certificate.

The 1,500-hour rule, however, is strongly backed by the Air Line Pilots Association union as well Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

It also has the vocal backing of family members of the 50 people who died in the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 on approach to Buffalo Niagara International Airport. That crash was what led Congress to create the 1,500-hour rule.

The reauthorization bill also includes several consumer-protection measures. Among them, it would prohibit airlines from removing a paid passenger from a plane for reasons not related to safety or security.

It would also require the FAA to review the minimum space between rows on commercial aircraft. And it would instruct the Department of Transportation to develop regulations requiring airlines and ticket agents, including travel agents, to prominently disclose a flight's baggage fee, cancellation fee, change fee, ticketing fee and seat selection fee prior to purchase.

Unlike the House's FAA reauthorization bill, the Senate's does not call for the privatization of air traffic control (ATC).

Republican senators, who on a whole cater more heavily to rural interests than their counterparts in the House, have remained hesitant to embrace privatization even though it is supported by President Donald Trump and House transportation committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

Driving the reticence of senators are the concerns of small rural airports and the general aviation community in general, which fears that privatization will favor commercial airlines.

The reauthorization bill, which would fund the FAA through 2021, passed the committee via a voice vote. It will next be heard on the Senate floor.

To avoid a funding gap, Congress must pass an FAA reauthorization bill by Sept. 30 or pass a short-term extension.

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