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Not in the big city? Your pilot may have less training, thanks to Sen. Thune

I’m a fourth-generation pilot. My great-grandfather flew out of the Atlanta airport when its runway was simply dirt. My grandfather flew for the U.S. Navy and later enjoyed a 38-year career with Delta Air Lines. My father flies for American Airlines. And I’ve wanted to follow in their footsteps since I was 15. But it wasn’t until 12 years later that I started flying with a major airline because first I had to obtain a series of critical certifications.

I flew solo as a student pilot at age 16 and a certified private pilot at 17. By age 19, the FAA further rated me to fly multi-engine aircraft in inclement weather and furthered my pilot certificate with commercial pilot privileges. These certifications required years of classroom instruction and hundreds of hours of accumulated flight time. And that’s the easy part. 

{mosads}Then, I had to earn my Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, considered the gold standard for pilot certification. In the process, I gained four FAA flight instructor designations and had to notch at least 1,500 hours of flight time and satisfy physical and mental examinations. By the time I finally flew my first route with a major airline, I had gained another 5,100 hours of flight experience. Altogether, I had spent a dozen years in training and preparation while paying for my education through student-loans and second jobs.


It isn’t easy to become a pilot in the United States — and it shouldn’t be. Pilots are responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers on countless flights day in and day out. 

I believe all pilots should be 100 percent qualified, whether they are flying New York to Los Angeles or Colorado Springs to Salt Lake City. A part of what has made air travel so safe in the United States is our rigorous training standards, which were enhanced in 2010 with the passage of the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act.

The act established one level of safety across the U.S. airline industry. It said that whether you were a pilot or first officer flying on a big national carrier or a smaller regional airline, you had to obtain the Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. 

Now some in Congress want to weaken these enhanced safety requirements. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has introduced an amendment that would eliminate the single safety standard and replace it with a two-tiered system: one safety standard for major airlines and a different standard for regional airlines. As someone who flew regional jets, this is no comfort to me and shouldn’t be to potential passengers. 

The Thune amendment would reduce the number of flight hours needed for certification of first officers and would allow pilots in training to count computer simulator courses towards their flight hours (instead of more hours in the cockpit). The amendment even allows non-aviation education to count towards the Airline Transport Pilot certificate.

Any pilot can tell you, having both training and real-world flying experience is essential for building the knowledge, skills and judgment required to be a professional pilot. Sitting in a simulator isn’t the same as sitting in a cockpit and meaningful life-experience cannot materialize without practical contact with and observation of aeronautics.

Imagine if this standard were applied to other industries. Would we accept a system where doctors practicing in New York had to go to medical school, but doctors in Omaha could practice after taking a class online? Should patients in smaller cities and towns accept a double standard? Of course not. The safety of regional flyers matters just as much as that of coast-to-coast jet setters.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The 2010 Act was enacted following years of lower training and safety standards on regional airlines. It took the tragic crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York in 2009 to adopt higher standards for regional pilots and passengers. We can’t afford to go back now.

Some claim there is a pilot shortage, and that lower safety standards are a necessary price to fix it. However, according to a Government Accountability Office report, these concerns are significantly overblown. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that major airlines attract many more applicants than there are jobs available.

I’m not willing to sacrifice safety standards. Are you?

I didn’t get my pilot’s license to get into politics. But in my opinion, Congress should reject Thune’s amendment to the FAA Authorization Act and keep high standards for our pilots intact regardless of where they fly. The safety of passengers nationwide depends on it.

First Officer Rick Brown III currently serves as a first officer with American Airlines and is a member of the Allied Pilots Association. His aviation experience encompasses over 18 years with more than 8,000 total hours of flight time. 

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

Tags Airlines John Thune Training Transportation

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