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  • ANALYSIS: Controversy over US pilot shortage heats up

ANALYSIS: Controversy over US pilot shortage heats up

A pilot shortage faced by US regional carriers has in recent weeks proven to have broader fallout, with a top US Air Force general supporting possible changes to pilot qualification rules and with two pilots unions dragging airlines into court.

Now, efforts may be underway to push for modifications to the controversial 2013 pilot qualification rule, which many people credit with making an existing pilot shortfall significantly worse.

On 7 March, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) sent a letter urging lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee "to resist special interest attempts to weaken aviation safety" as they write the next the US Federal Aviation Administration spending bill.

The letter specifically called attention to the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which is the law that required regulators to write the 2013 pilot qualification rule.

The Regional Airline Association, a trade group that has long taken issue with the pilot qualification rule, did not respond to requests for comment from FlightGlobal.

But considering President Donald Trump's vow to cut burdensome regulations, at least one regional aviation chief executive thinks now is the time to push for broad changes to the rule.

"With the new administration… we should take a much more aggressive and different approach," Mesa Air Group chief executive Jonathan Ornstein tells FlightGlobal.

The 2010 law arose out of the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, a Bombardier Q400 that plummeted from the skies near Buffalo, killing 49 people on the aircraft and one person on the ground.

Investigators pinned the cause on pilot error, but cited training deficiencies and pilot fatigue as contributing factors.

The resulting law required the FAA to make broad overhauls to pilot duty time and training and qualification standards.

Among the resulting rules was the 2013 pilot qualification rule, which requires new airline pilots to have at least 1,500h of flight time and hold an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate.

In the past, new pilots needed a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating – equating to 250h of flight time.

In its 7 March letter, ALPA credits the 2010 law and resulting regulatory changes with improved air safety.

"This law significantly improved training and qualification requirements for first officers – and improved the safety of our skies. It is a measure that was written in blood, and should not be weakened in any way, shape or form," says ALPA's letter.

Regional airlines, however, have long argued that the law exacerbated a pilot shortage that has primarily affected regional carriers, and has done so without improving the quality of the nation's pilots.

"The rule is ill-conceived… It is well known throughout the industry that it does nothing to enhance safety," says Mesa's Ornstein. "The ultimate result is that it will reduce or eliminate service to smaller, rural communities. Or it will cost more."

"My concern is the quality of the pilots," Silver Airways chief executive Sami Teittinen tells FlightGlobal. "We saw weakness from new-generation commercial pilots."

More than in the past, today's new hires tend to be more removed from systematic training, Teittinen says. Many are unaccustomed with airline operations and may not have the same "cockpit discipline" as previous recruits.

"1,500h doesn't provide any higher quality candidates than what we saw before. I think it’s the opposite," Teittinen says.

The RAA agrees.

"As pilots spend time building hours needed for eligibility, many lose recency of training, which is critical for pilot proficiency," says a March presentation released by the group. "High-time pilots did not perform as well in initial training as their lower-time classmates."

AIR FORCE SUPPORT

In early February the US Air Force chief of staff thrust himself into the 1,500h controversy.

"My personal sense is that it may not be required," general David Goldfein said of the 1,500h requirement, according to a report from military publication Stars and Stripes.

He suggested the 1,500h rule could be amended to help alleviate a pilot shortage that also affects the military. Many pilots join the Air Force as a means to accumulate hours, then leave the service for the commercial sector after reaching the 1,500h mark, Goldfein said.

The Air Force has already discussed with major airlines ways to alleviate the pilot shortage, and more discussions are scheduled for May, according to reports.

Alan Stolzer, dean of the college of aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, agrees that flight hours are not the best measure of pilot proficiency.

"We were initially skeptical of the rule because we are not big fans of defining quality by number of hours," Stolzer tells FlightGlobal.

He adds, however, that Embry-Riddle's enrolment is actually up slightly since the rule took effect. Also, the rule has ensured more pilots stick around after graduation to work as flight instructors.

"It gave us a very predictable instructor pool," Stolzer says. "We think the rule… to some degree saved the flight training industry. Otherwise, the airlines would have… denuded the pool of instructors."

The National Transportation Safety Board had said in 2012 about the then-proposed rule: "Total flight hours or an airline transport pilot certificate does not necessarily equate to the level of knowledge, skills and professionalism required for consistently safe flight operations."

The 2013 rule came just as the US airline industry was rising from the most-recent economic recession into a period of low fuel prices, substantial expansion and record profits.

Meanwhile, many regional airlines struggled financially, and have pointed to the pilot qualification rule and the resulting pilot shortage as a contributing factor.

Republic Airways Holdings chief executive Bryan Bedford, for instance, cited the pilot shortage as among factors that led to Republic's February 2016 bankruptcy filing.

According to the RAA, the pilot shortage, exacerbated by the 2013 rule, is among factors that caused a reduction in air service at hundreds of US airports in the last three years.

Since 2013, about 50 airports have lost all passenger air service, the RAA says.

The group cites FAA figures showing that some 207,000 pilots held either ATP certificates or commercial pilot certificates in 2016, down about 3% since 2013 and 10% since 2009.

The group also cites a 2016 University of North Dakota study showing that the US aviation industry will require 18,700 new pilots by 2020 – about the same number currently employed by US regional airlines – and nearly 50,000 new pilots by 2026.

The shortage, if it continues, would require US airlines to park some 300 aircraft by 2020 and 1,400 aircraft by 2026, RAA says, adding that its members currently operate about 2,100 aircraft.

EASING THE STRAIN

In the last year, regional carriers have sought to head off the crisis by raising wages and paying increasingly more attractive signing bonuses to new pilots.

Some airlines started at $5,000 bonuses, but bonuses at some carriers now exceed $20,000. Also, in 2016, Piedmont Airlines, PSA Airlines and Envoy Air – all of which are subsidiaries of American Airlines – announced that new pilots could now earn about $60,000 in their first year.

Regional airlines have also upped tuition reimbursements, partnered with flight schools and launched programmes aimed at helping military pilots transition into the private sector.

Phoenix-based Mesa now pays new pilots up to $42,100 in bonus incentives, including up to $22,000 after completing aircraft training, $5,000 after the second and third years of employment and $10,000 after the fourth year, according to Mesa's website.

Though carriers say they need bonuses to combat a pilot shortage, the payments have recently landed two carriers in court, facing lawsuits from pilots' unions.

In January, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and its Airline Professionals Association unit sued regional carrier Horizon Air, in an effort to force Horizon to end recently-implemented bonus programmes.

Under the programmes, Horizon, a division of Alaska Air Group, paid new-hire pilots up to $10,000 in bonuses and $10,000 in tuition expenses, according to the lawsuit.

The union says the payments violate the pilots' employment contract and the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline labour relations.

Then on 2 March news broke that ALPA filed a similar lawsuit against Mesa.

Speaking to FlightGlobal, ALPA representative Paul Ryder calls the bonuses a "short-term solution to a long-term problem" and says they mask the underlying issue of low pilot wages.

"The reason they are paying these bonuses is [because] the previous wages were not competitive," Ryder says. "The regional airlines have struggled to make an argument why someone would pursue a career as a pilot."

Ryder says airlines should properly address pilot hiring problems by instituting "pay raises across the board".

"What we feel is a sustainable approach is to take the compensation being offered on a short-term basis [and] putting it into wages," he says. "If [airlines] are really concerned about their supply of applicants, they need to make changes that withstand the test of time."

EASING THE STRAIN

The airline industry, however, still sees the 1,500h rule as the prime roadblock to a more robust pipeline of new pilots, and some efforts have been underway to advocate a regulatory change.

One opening lies in provisions within the rule that act as a "pathway" through which some categories of pilots with fewer than 1,500h are able to work at airlines.

Specifically, the FAA has authority to issue "restricted" ATPs to military pilots with 750h of time and graduates from aviation programmes with 1,000-1,250h of time.

Last year the RAA told FlightGlobal it was advocating the creation of another pathway called the "air carrier enhanced" ATP.

Under that proposed category, pilots with less than 1,500h would be eligible for an ATP if they complete a structured airline training programme.

The RAA did not respond to requests from FlightGlobal for additional comment, and it remains unclear how rule changes might be viewed by the Trump administration.

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