Structured pathways to pilot certification are safe, effective
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In an opinion piece published Dec. 2, Captain Dan Carey, President of Allied Pilots Association (American Airlines’ collective bargaining unit) praises the hours-in-flight element of the FAA’s 2013 FOQ rule without acknowledging the demonstrated safety advantages of other existing pathways. Without supporting evidence, Carey deflects to the easy but inaccurate sound bite that there is “no substitute” for hours in flight. Unfortunately, this flawed tautology has driven policy that ignores fundamental best practices in pilot training and fails to advance aviation safety. In the meantime, hundreds of communities have suffered air service reductions as the pilot shortage worsens.

Carey emphasizes the importance of pilots’ teamwork in a multi-crew cockpit without explaining that these characteristics are achieved through Crew Resource Management (CRM), aviation parlance for interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision-making protocols that help assure safety. Carey asserts: “flight simulators and classroom training” are no substitute for real world experience. Yet, pilots learn and practice CRM protocols during structured training, where a combination of flight and simulator time, accompanied by the appropriate classroom rigor, exposes and trains pilots to respond not just to the fair-weather scenarios they will encounter as they build flight time, but to situations they may never encounter during a lifetime in the cockpit, but must nonetheless overcome in a single, startled moment if called upon.

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Last year, several independent, aviation universities undertook Phase IV of the Pilot Source Study to examine the effects of the FOQ rule. Researchers studied the training records of 6,734 regional airline First Officers hired since the rule went into effect and uncovered a troubling fact: rather than gaining proficiency while assimilating required flight hours, pilots are sacrificing their training recency (critical for proficiency) and losing skills during this period.

As a result, the quality of the eligible pilot hiring pool has been degraded, with pilots hired after the rule performing worse in airline training programs (measured by non-completions and need for extra training) compared to before. In fact, the higher a pilot’s flight time upon entering training, the worse that pilot performed. The study affirmed the observations of airline training departments, which have reported taking dramatic measures to uphold the highest level of safety – providing additional training to ensure candidates get the extra support needed, but also screening out and failing out more candidates than before.

Researchers also found that pilots with lower flight time but more highly structured backgrounds performed better than higher time pilots. These pilots, hired under what Carey referred to as a “sliding scale,” followed an alternate pathway established by PL 111-216 (the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010), which allowed the Administrator to award flight-hour credit toward a pilot’s 1,500 hours for structured training pathways that enhance safety more than requiring the pilots to build total flight time. The subsequent, demonstrated success of these candidates compared to their higher time counterparts affirms the safety value of these pathways.

With this in mind, RAA has proposed an airline-invested alternate pathway, which places high emphasis on relevant experience and structured training, reconnecting the broken pilot career path through a new, specially-designed First Officer training program that would achieve the rigor, strength, characteristics, competencies, and most importantly – enhanced safety –required of alternate pathways, by law. 

As Carey perpetuates the myth of plentiful pilots and calls the shortage pay related, he downplays wage increase trends (RAA member average first year First Officer total compensation have jumped 105 percent since early 2015). Carey further counts as “available,” those pilots who hold only commercial pilot certificates; yet, these very candidates were rendered ineligible by the FOQ rule. The growing pilot shortage is indisputable. While salary increases are one of many measures airlines have already undertaken to attract more candidates, lawmakers must help address the artificially high barriers of entry deterring new pilots from entering the career path.

Policymakers, stakeholders, and engaged members of the traveling public must ensure aviation safety measures are based on facts and empirical data, not easy sound bites. Sustainable community air service, competitive wages for airline pilots, increased First Officer proficiency, and safety-first solutions that reconnect the broken pilot pipeline through proven alternative pathways are not mutually exclusive. A solution to the pilot shortage is within reach if we begin working together. 

Faye Malarkey Black is president of Regional Airline Association.


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