The US Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday will propose that airline first officers be required to hold an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate rather than a commercial license, a mandate that will boost the minimum required flight hours for the right seat slot from 250h at a minimum to 1,500h, with certain exceptions.

The action satisfies a mandate set by the US Congress as part of a 2010 FAA budget extension bill, which required the agency to boost the first officer hours and introduce other new requirements within three years. The congressional move came in direct response to concerns over regional airline pilot qualifications in the wake of the fatal February 2009 crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 near Buffalo, New York.

Along with satisfying Congress, the proposed rule will also address recommendations from an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC), the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA's own "Call to Action" safety improvement programme, said the agency.

In addition to a more rigorous ATP process, first officers under the new rule will have to earn a type rating specific to the aircraft they will be flying. The ATP curriculum will be modified with "enhanced training requirements", including a minimum of 50h of multi-engine flight experience and completion of a new FAA-approved training programme, the agency said.

Captains will be impacted as well, with a new requirement that they possess a minimum of 1,000 flight hours in air carrier operations requiring an ATP license.

Exceptions to the rule are set out for pilots who have an aviation degree or military flying time.

According to the FAA, former military pilots would be able to apply for a "restricted privileges" ATP certificate with 750h of flight time.

Graduates of a four-year college aviation degree program would be able to obtain the ATP with 1,000 hours of flight time, providing they also obtained a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating from a pilot school affiliated with the university or college. A "restricted privileges" ATP could be used for the first officer position only.

"Safety in all modes of transportation is our number-one priority," said US Transportation Department secretary Ray LaHood. "This proposed rule reflects our commitment to the safety of the travelling public by making sure our pilots are the most qualified and best trained in the world."

The FAA estimates the rules will cost approximately $400 million over a 20-year period to implement, with roughly a $900 million benefit in accidents averted.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news