FAA should not relax rules for first officers
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As a longtime American Airlines captain, I’ve been paired with hundreds of first officers. Whether the pilot sitting to my right is a stranger or someone I’ve flown with dozens of times, we always work together as a team. Our goal on each flight is to get our passengers to their destination safely, so I have to be confident in my first officer’s abilities, training, and experience.

Until a few years ago, a pilot needed only 250 flight hours to become a first officer for an airline carrying passengers or cargo. But in 2013 the Federal Aviation Administration adopted a sliding scale of 750 to 1,500 hours for first officers, depending on military experience and education, thereby matching the required experience for captains. One factor in the FAA’s decision was the tragic crash of Colgan Air 3407 in February 2009, when 50 people lost their lives due, in part, to a lack of pilot training.

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The Allied Pilots Association, which I have led since July, aggressively advocated for increasing those required flight hours. Our members knew in 2013 and know now that flight simulators and classroom training are no substitute for the real-world experience that one can only achieve through extensive time in a cockpit.

But here we are, only three years later, and those more stringent requirements for first officers are in danger of being reversed. In the wake of the November elections, lobbyists are talking to members of Congress and the Obama administration about getting these rules relaxed, maybe even during the lame-duck session.

These lobbyists’ rallying cry is the supposed “pilot shortage” touted by the regional airlines. Relax the requirements, they say, and those airlines will have an easier time finding new pilots. But my union has long maintained that the regionals’ workforce problems are due to a lack of competitive salaries, not a lack of competent pilots.

A Government Accountability Office study released in 2014 found that there were almost twice as many pilots with commercial certificates in 2012 as there were pilot jobs. And that’s because, until recently, a first-year pilot’s pay would be comparable to what a fast-food worker brings home. The aviators were out there, but they were smartly opting for more lucrative careers.

Fortunately, there has been a shift on the pay front this fall. American Airlines’ three regional subsidiaries – Envoy Air, PSA Airlines, and Piedmont Airlines – have all raised their hourly rates since September. They previously paid average salaries of less than $25,000, but a first-year pilot flying regional routes for those airlines will now be able to earn nearly $60,000 annually.

Increasing pilot salaries is the proper way to ensure that this remains a viable profession, rather than relaxing rules about pilots’ minimum experience. The federal government should leave the first officer qualifications as is and give these higher pay rates time to play out.

Captain Dan Carey is the president of the Allied Pilots Association, the certified collective bargaining agent for the 15,000 pilots of American Airlines.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.