Fight erupts over training hours for pilots
A controversial push to change the training requirements for pilots is gaining speed under the Trump administration.
A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) panel recommended last week that the government cut back dozens of aviation regulations, while a top Senate Republican is leading a charge to ease pilot training requirements. The industry has long pushed for some of the rule changes.
But safety advocates are sounding the alarm, fearing the changes could make the skies less safe. They attribute the country’s airline safety record to heavy federal oversight.
“Regulations work in aviation matters,” said Steve Marks, an aviation attorney for Podhurst Orseck who has represented plane crash victims and their families. “There is no reason to drop the flight-training requirement. You’re just going to see less experienced pilots put in emergency situations.”
At the center of the fight is a rule regarding the minimum training requirements for commercial pilots.
Following a deadly 2009 Colgan Air crash in New York, in which pilot error and a lack of experience was to blame, victims’ family members lobbied Congress for stricter regulations for regional air carriers.
Lawmakers ended up adding language to an aviation bill that increased the minimum number of flight training hours from 250 to 1,500 for first officers who want to obtain a license to fly commercial passenger airliners.
Regional air carriers say the standard has fueled a pilot shortage and has made it harder to find qualified pilots, forcing them to cancel flights in some cases.
Rural communities have been calling on Congress to help safely address the unintended consequences of the requirements.
And the industry has proposed allowing co-pilots to use alternative ways to earn credit toward the 1,500-hour requirement, such as substituting classroom training for flying experience. The FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee endorsed that idea last week.
The industry-led panel approved a report recommending that the Trump administration roll back or ease dozens of aviation safety rules, including the 1,500-hour training requirement. The effort was billed as a way to comply with the White House’s push to reduce regulations.
The report suggested allowing pilots with less than 1,500 hours to qualify for an “air transport” license if they receive academic training from their airline.
Pilot unions and safety groups decried the move. They fear that weakening the training standards will undermine safety. They also point out that the Colgan crash was the last fatal crash involving a U.S. passenger airline.
“Trust me, there is no training substitute for actual flying time and real-world experience,” said Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the former US Airways pilot who famously made an emergency landing in the Hudson river in 2009. “Efforts to reduce flying hours fly in the face of evidence and logic, and put millions of lives at risk.”
The issue is a sensitive subject for members of Congress — especially those who represent the family members of Colgan crash victims.
That’s partly why efforts to change the requirements for the 1,500-hour pilot training rule have met fierce resistance on Capitol Hill.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, attached language to a long-term reauthorization of the FAA earlier this year that would have allowed pilots to receive flight-training credit through alternative means.
The agency already allows certain academic training courses to count toward the 1,500-hour requirement. But Thune’s provision would expand the types of non-flight training that can be eligible for training credit, as long as the FAA finds that it enhances safety.
Thune said he introduced the amendment to help address pilot shortages, and stressed that the provision would put a greater emphasis on the quality of training hours instead of just quantity.
“This modest reform promotes safety, increases training opportunities for aspiring commercial co-pilots, and keeps the core mandate of the 1,500 hour requirement intact,” said a spokesman for Thune.
Proponents of the idea also point out that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and other experts have concluded that more flight hours do not necessarily translate into safer pilots.
But Democrats worry that pilots will receive inadequate training, such as sitting in a ballroom watching a training video, under Thune’s proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other lawmakers threatened to block the FAA bill, which is needed to keep the agency running, if the pilot training language was included.
“There is a reason pilots often say FAA regulations are written in blood — if a pilot isn’t fully prepared to handle any unexpected weather or flying condition, human lives may be in jeopardy,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Thune tried to work on compromise language with Democrats in order to bring the bill to the floor, but they were unable to reach an agreement.
With the FAA’s legal authority expiring at the end of next week, Congress will instead vote on a short-term extension that does not include the controversial pilot provision.
And now opponents of the rule change are urging the FAA to rebuff the panel recommendations as well.
“In the interest of government efficiency, we call on them to waste no time in giving these recommendations the treatment they rightfully deserve — a quick toss right into the circular file,” said John Kausner, who lost his daughter in the Colgan crash.
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