The DOT has unveiled a research initiative aimed at helping military veterans become commercial pilots.

The program, called Forces to Flyers, is slated to begin as commercial airlines in the U.S. face a growing pilot shortage.

"In order for America to continue to be a world leader in aviation, we must search for ways to address our country's pilot shortage, invest in our nation's workforce and ensure that our veterans have the support they need as they transition to the next phase of their careers," Transportation secretary Elaine Chao said in prepared remarks Thursday.

Under the program, veterans will be offered flight training up to the point where 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 Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate that is required of U.S. commercial airline pilots.

The department said as many as 40 veterans would be accepted into the program.

Under regulations put in place in 2013, aspiring pilots must obtain 1,500 hours of flight time to be eligible to sit in the co-captain's seat of a commercial aircraft. The expense of obtaining those 1,500 hours is regarded by many as a significant cause of the pilot shortage. Under the rules it replaced, pilots could launch their careers at regional carriers with as few as 250 hours in the cockpit.

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.

According to Boeing's 2016 Outlook, North American commercial carriers will need to hire 112,000 pilots by 2035 to meet demand.

Meanwhile, the pilot shortage has already led to closures, bankruptcies and service cuts at regional airlines and corresponding cuts in air service to small U.S. communities.

The shortage has some policy makers examining ways to ease the 1,500-hour rule. 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 put out 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.

In addition, the Senate Commerce Committee, under the direction of chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), has included a provision in its proposed FAA reauthorization bill that would give the agency 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.

Such proposals, however, face entrenched opposition, including from the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the most powerful pilots' union in the country, which argues that the 1,500-hour rule has increased safety in U.S. skies.

The DOT said that during the three-year-long 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."

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