FAA Requires Expanded Copilot Training

In a few days, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will issue new rules covering qualifications for first officers (copilots).

The main provision of the new rules is that, effective immediately, first officers must hold an ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) certificate, which in turn means passing written tests and having logged at least 1,500 total hours as a pilot, with a few exceptions based on prior education.

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Previously, first officers needed only 250 hours of flying and a commercial pilot's license. The FAA adopted the new rules primarily in response to Coglan Air's Buffalo crash, which the National Transportation Safety Board blamed, in part, on failure of the pilot to follow appropriate procedures. Experts have also linked the problem of pilot error to the more recent Asiana crash at San Francisco

According to industry reports, the new regulations will not have much effect on mainline airline operations, where both first and second officers typically qualify already under the new rules as well as the old. But the change could have a substantial impact on regional airlines, such as Coglan, which often function as de-facto "minor leagues" for pilots planning to move up to a "big league" mainline carrier once they have the requisite experience.

Nobody can quantify the improvement in safety the new rules will actually provide. After all, even a seasoned pilot can screw up given the right (more accurately, wrong) circumstances. But, presumably, one can't argue against the concept of better trained pilots and first officers flying the nation's planes.

One can, however, speculate about unintended consequences. Some experts have posited that tighter rules will soon result in a pilot shortage—that regional carriers will be unable to operate full schedules, and small communities may lose regional service. Certainly, tougher requirements will make potential pilots pay a lot more for their academic training and flying experience; this could discourage them from even considering a career with regional airlines, where starting copilot salaries can be as low as $24,000 per year.

The rule will go into effect in a few days. Unintended consequences, if any, will take longer.

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