The FAA's new regulations for commuter airlines will hit regional carriers hard.

Graham Warwick/ATLANTA

US regional carriers could end up paying dearly for the loss of 83 lives in the two recent American Eagle crashes, which prompted the US Federal Aviation Administration to undertake to eliminate the differences between regulations governing commuter and major airlines.

According to the US Regional Airlines Association, "...everything is on the table" in the current FAA review of commuter safety, to be completed within 100 days of the 13 December crash of an American Eagle Jetstream 31. The FAA has moved already to remove differences between commuter- and major-airline training, issuing a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM).

The current review is expected to result in further rule making. Its goal is to eliminate differences between the regulations governing Part 135 (commuter) and Part 121 (major) carriers and to provide one level of safety for airline passengers. The review includes an examination of the different certification standards applied to aircraft with fewer than 30 passenger seats (Part 23) and those with 30 or more seats (Part 25).

That any new rule making will cost the airlines money is inevitable, although the FAA says that it will strive to make the changes "as palatable and reasonable as possible". The agency estimates that its training NPRM will cost commuter and major airlines between $510 million and $616 million over the next ten years, but this could pale into insignificance, if changes to aircraft-certification standards are recommended.

The FAA cautions that the review is still under way and its results are not known, but options being considered if Part 23 aircraft are found to be unable to meet the tightened safety standards range from retrofit to retirement. As almost half the US commuter fleet consists of aircraft with between ten and 30 seats, the prospect of having to phase out some 1,000 Part 23 aircraft, even over a "reasonable" period, is cause for concern.

Although the review has not been completed, the FAA says that the results will follow generally the recommendations of the US National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) nine-month review of commuter-airline safety, published in November soon after the crash of an American Eagle ATR 72. The FAA has said that it will comply with the Board's recommendations, none of which call specifically for changes to aircraft-certification standards.

The least that airlines will face is the cost of complying with the training NPRM, which has two parts: requiring certain Part 135 operators to comply with more stringent Part 121 training standards; and mandating that crew-resource-management (CRM) training be performed by all Part 121 and certain Part 135 operators. All Part 135 carriers operating aircraft with ten or more passenger seats on scheduled commuter services are affected.

In its recommendations, the NTSB argues that Part 135 regulations have not kept pace with changes in the commuter-airline industry, primarily in the areas of crew qualification, training and duty times. The Board argues that Part 121 training, with its increased use of simulators, is more appropriate to the type of aircraft, and operation, now flown by regional airlines.

Many Part 135 operators already train to Part 121 standards, but they do so under exemptions to the present rules.

This includes the use of flight simulators, which is not specifically allowed under Part 135 and can be accomplished only under an exemption. Other differences relate, to the amount of training a pilot receives, as Part 135 does not specify a minimum number of hours.

One aim of the NPRM is to encourage the use of simulators by regionals, to provide their crews with training in abnormal and emergency procedures, which they cannot receive in the aircraft. This approach has eliminated training accidents among Part 121 carriers, but regionals are extremely cost-conscious and there is concern that increased training requirements, when the cost per hour of a regional-turboprop simulator and aircraft are similar, could result in increased use of the aircraft for training.

The FAA estimates that the proposed rule to upgrade training to Part 121 standards will cost affected Part 135 operators between $27 million and $36 million over the next ten years, depending on the rate at which they hire new crews. The industry's annual initial-, transition- and recurrent-training costs are projected to increase by up to $3 million.

The move to mandate CRM training will be more costly, the FAA admits, with the bulk of the additional burden falling on Part 121 carriers. The cost to major airlines is estimated at between $473 million and $569 million over ten years, while that for affected Part 135 operators would cost between $9.5 million and almost $12 million. The annual cost of CRM training for regional crews is estimated at $1.4 million.

These are just the initial costs of providing airline passengers with one level of safety. The size of the eventual bill will become apparent after the FAA completes its 100-day rule-making review. The industry is bracing itself for what could be bad news.

Source: Flight International