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Why Are Airlines Fighting Pilot Flight Time Reforms?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed raising the minimum number of flight hours needed to be hired as a first officer from 250 to 1,500. This would equal the experience requirements for captains. First officers and captains are more or less interchangeable in terms of ability. The main difference between the two is seniority at their airline.

But the Associated Press (AP) reports, "A Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel dominated by airlines, companies that employ pilots to fly corporate planes, and university flight schools wants to reduce [the minimum] by two-thirds."

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According to the AP, "Airlines worry that if the FAA raises the threshold for first officers from the current minimum of 250 hours, airlines will be forced to raise pilot salaries and benefits to attract more experienced fliers.

"Most airline pilots have far more experience than 1,500 hours. But industry analysts have forecast a pilot shortage if the economy starts to expand, which could create a premium for experience. The salaries of corporate and other private pilots are affected by airline salaries."

Further, flight schools worry that the increased requirement will place an extreme economic burden on aspiring pilots, who may forgo pricey university programs in favor of per-hour instruction.

Lawmakers are generally unified in their support for stronger requirements. New York Senator Chuck Schumer said it was "crystal clear" that 1,500 hours should be the minimum. In a letter released today, Schumer asked FAA chief Randy Babbit to "put the safety of the flying public ahead of the interests of the industry insiders."

According to the AP, Illinois representative Jerry Costello, who chairs the House subcommittee on aviation, said, "The new safety law explicitly requires 1,500 flight hours. Any modification of that number has to be justified as making safety stronger than current ... requirements."

However, FAA chief Randy Babbit has said it's more important to improve the quality of flight instruction than it is to focus on the number of hours accumulated.

The push for tighter requirements coincides with new rules proposed by the FAA to adjust flight crew rest and duty times. Both initiatives were prompted by the crash of Colgan Flight 3407 in Buffalo in February 2009. The flight time rules were proposed this past July, and the panel's recommendations were released earlier this month. It's not clear when the FAA will make a final decision, but the agency said the panel's suggestion would not be the sole factor considered when making its rule.

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