In 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407, operating under the
banner of Continental Connection, crashed into a house on approach to Buffalo
Niagara International Airport, killing all 49 aboard and one person on the
The National Transportation Safety Board would eventually
conclude that the crash had resulted from the errors of the plane’s two pilots,
who did not respond properly to cockpit warnings that the aircraft was about to
The Colgan crash led to a reexamination of training
requirements for pilots at regional airlines, resulting in a rule mandated by
Congress and the FAA in 2013 requiring that U.S. commercial pilots hold an Air
Transport Pilot certificate, requiring 1,500 hours of flight experience.
Previously, they had to hold just a commercial certificate, requiring 250 hours
of flight time.
Now, as regional airlines and the small airports they
serve find themselves increasingly hampered by a pilot shortage, the airlines
broadly agree that the 1,500-hour rule is one cause of the problem. The rule,
both they and airport representatives say, needs to be modified in order to
make entry-level recruitment more manageable.
But the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA),
the world’s largest pilots union, disagrees, asserting that the rule makes
commercial air service safer. The real cause of the problems that regional
airlines are experiencing, the union says, is not a shortage of pilots but
rather the low pay they are offering. Central to the debate are the rule itself
and the indisputable fact that regional airlines and airports, for whatever the
reason, are struggling.
Among the major regional airline players, SkyWest and
Republic Airways, both of which fly routes under contract with American, Delta
and United, reduced capacity in 2015 by 6.1% and 11%, respectively, company
In October, citing pilot shortages, Seaport Airlines
stopped flying from Memphis to Tupelo, Miss., and Muscle Shoals, Ala., even
though they were under contract with the federal government and receiving
subsidies as part of the Essential Air Service program, which was designed to
maintain the access of small towns to the aviation network.
Meanwhile, since the second quarter of 2013, 29 small
airports in the continental U.S. have lost commercial service, according to the
trade group American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE).
In a recent financial report, Great Lakes Airlines said
that post-Colgan regulations, including stricter mandates on pilot rest and the
1,500-hour rule, had “created an industrywide shortage of qualified pilots,
negatively affecting our level of operations and financial performance.”
But not everyone believes that the 1,500-hour rule is
having that much impact on pilot recruitment.
For one thing, the rule includes exceptions. Military
pilots can become commercial co-pilots with 750 hours of flight time, and
graduates of qualified bachelor-degree aviation programs are eligible after
Significantly, both Ken Byrnes, chair of the flight
department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and
Chad Kendall, an assistant aeronautics professor at Florida’s Jacksonville
University, said that regional airlines have often required minimums of well
above 250 flight hours by their own choosing. Kendall, for example, said he was
required to have 1,000 hours of flight time before gaining entry into the
business in 2006.
“The airlines would change the requirements based upon
the market,” Byrnes said.
Under the existing requirements, new co-pilots must have
logged 50 hours of cockpit time in multiengine aircraft, but the remainder can
be attained on single-engine craft such as the tiny Cessna Skyhawk. In order to
obtain the Air Transport Pilot certificate, pilots also must complete
certificate course work and testing, including 10 hours in a simulator, Byrnes
He said it’s too early to determine if the stricter
training requirements have increased safety in the U.S. skies, though he
pointed to the 2012 Pilot Source Study, conducted ahead of the 2013
implementation of the new requirements, which showed inconclusive results on
whether pilots who had logged more than 1,500 hours performed better in
regional airline pilot training than those who had 500 to 1,500 hours.
What the study did show is that pilots with four-year
aviation degrees perform better than those who don’t have them.
Both Kendall and Byrne are emphatic that the quality of
one’s training is far more important than the quantity when it comes to
preparing pilots for commercial service.
There is one thing about the 1,500-hour rule that ALPA,
regional airlines like Great Lakes and the American Association of Airport
Executives agree on: The economics of it don’t work. Aspiring pilots often
spend $150,000 to $200,000 on training and flight hours, said ALPA Resource
Coordinator Paul Ryder.
Despite agreeing on that, the various entities disagree
on the solution. ALPA blames the airlines for low entry-level pay and says that
there are more than enough certified U.S. pilots to go around.
Under a deal that Republic reached with it pilots’ union
in October, new pilots will get $40 per flight hour. But that’s
industry-leading, and according to the online forum Airline Pilot Central,
Republic, like other regionals, only guarantees 75 hours of flight time per
month, meaning its pilots could earn less than $36,000 per year.
As of September, ALPA estimated that first-year pay at
SkyWest affiliate ExpressJet, as well as regionals Mesa and Atlantic Southeast,
at less than $21,000.
Ryder said one thing that has increased recruitment
difficulties at regional airlines is the wide availability of information on
their pay rates on the Internet.
“The regional carriers run a business, and their business
plans have to be predicated on sound economics,” he said.
Even so, the Regional Airlines Association (RAA) and the
AAAE say that tweaks to the 1,500-hour rule would help with recruitment. The
RAA is careful to note that it is not asking Congress to change the 1,500-hour
rule. What it does want is for the FAA to approve an alternative airline-based
training path, which, like college programs, would provide a lower flight-hour
The program would “provide better experience for pilots
through gold-standard training programs, presenting considerable improvement in
safety over the current system,” RAA President Faye Malarkey Black said.