Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
The regional airlines that provide half the country's flights want Congress to reduce a requirement that all commercial pilots have 1,500 hours of flight time when Federal Aviation Administration legislation is renewed later this year, but families of air crash victims plan to fight back.
Regional carriers contend the congressional requirement caused a pilot shortage and forced them to cancel flights. Airlines have complained for years about difficulty finding trained pilots to hire. But pilots say airlines would have no trouble finding qualified pilots if they hiked starting salaries.
As the Sept. 30 expiration date approaches for FAA policy legislation, regional airlines are "pushing very hard" against the 1,500-hour rule, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee said. He said he expects other lawmakers to offer amendments to reduce the requirement when legislation is considered this fall.
"They've got a number of my colleagues in a panic," he said. Carriers threatened to reduce flights to congressional districts, he said.
"We're going to have to fight to keep that."
Congress adopted the requirement that every pilot have at least 1,500 hours flying in 2010 after the last fatal crash of a U.S. passenger airline, the February 2009 Colgan Air flight 3407 that crashed near Buffalo during a snowstorm. The rule, which took effect in August 2013, raised the experience level for first officers from 250 hours to the 1,500 hours that captains must accumulate. FAA made exceptions for former military pilots who have 750 hours and graduates of four-year schools who have 1,000 hours.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the Colgan crash on the captain's inappropriate response to a warning that the Bombardier Q400 turboprop was going too slow to remain aloft. The pilots lacked training to avoid the aerodynamic stall and were fatigued, the investigation found. The Colgan pilots had 3,379 hours and 2,244 hours of flying experience.
Colgan Air 3407 crashed near Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, killing 50 people. The pilots were faulted for stalling the plane in a snowstorm basically by pulling up too much on its nose and losing speed before crashing. (Photo: Dave Sherman, AP)
FAA regulations that grew out of the Colgan crash required greater simulator training to avoid aerodynamic stalls and increased rest periods between shifts. Six regional-airline executives told a House hearing in April 2014 that the 1,500-hour rule mistakenly favors quantity of training over the substance of what pilots need to learn.
Relatives of the crash victims who fought for the changes say they are prepared to defend them.
"Our antenna's up," said Scott Maurer of Palmetto, Fla., whose 30-year-old daughter Lorin died in the Colgan crash. "You've got to keep watching – there are so many snakes in the grass."
In addition to more flight hours, a mandatory retirement age of 65 and a growing need for pilots each contribute to fears of a shortage. Boeing, the plane manufacturer, projected a need for 558,000 new pilots worldwide during the next 20 years, including 95,000 in North America.
A Government Accountability Office report in February 2014 found that airline demand hadn't yet outpaced the supply of pilots. But 11 of 12 regional airlines contacted by GAO reported trouble filling openings.
"Americans have to brace themselves, especially in the small- and medium-sized communities, for one of two things: withdrawal or reduction of service, or higher ticket prices," said Jim Higgins, an associate professor at the University of North Dakota's aviation department, who studied the shortage.
Republic Airways, which serves American, Delta and United airlines, lost half its stock value in July after announcing a pilot shortage forced it to cut 4% of its flights in April, May and June.
Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways, told a House hearing in April 2014 that the rule would fail to improve safety and "would hasten the growing pilot shortage and imperil air service at communities across the country."
In February 2014, United, Republic, Great Lakes and Silver airlines blamed service cuts at least partially on a shortage of pilots caused by the tougher federal training requirements.
"Collectively, these new regulations have put many of us in the position of having to park airplanes, cut flights and eliminate cities," John Sullivan, CEO of Champlain Enterprises, which operates as CommutAir and flies as United Express, told lawmakers in April 2014.
But the Air Line Pilots Association, a union with 52,000 members, questions whether such a shortage exists.
"We reject that out of hand," said Capt. Tim Canoll, the union president.
Pilots say more people would spend the $150,000 to $200,000 to acquire a commercial license if regional airlines paid more to starting pilots. The five lowest-paying airlines pay first-year pilots less than $21,000 per year, according to the union. To bolster salaries, some regional airlines offer signing bonuses. For example, Endeavor Air – a regional affiliate for Delta Air Lines – offers a $20,000 annual retention payment through 2018.
To recruit more potential pilots, airlines must show pilot recruits a clear path to a career in aviation that could result from significant training expenses, Canoll said.
“It’s been two years" since the rule took effect, Canoll said. "Anyone can accumulate 1,500 hours if they want to within two years."
University of North Dakota's Higgins, a former airline pilot, said only one fatal crash in the last 100 in the U.S. involved pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours of flying.
"It was a really good sound-bite and feel-good measure," Higgins said. "It's exceptionally safe with low-time pilots."