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New Rules Needed to Attract Better Pilots, Aviation Experts Tell Congress

The days of experienced, skilled pilots like the heroic Capt. Sullenberger, who successfully crash landed a U.S. Airways jet on the Hudson River earlier this year, are almost gone, the head of the Air Line Pilots Association said Wednesday.

Capt. John Prater was one of several witnesses at a House Transportation aviation subcommittee hearing on improvements needed in pilot training and rules. 

Aviation experts said pilots need standardized training, more flight time and better entry-level salaries to attract more qualified candidates. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed legislation that calls for new standards on training and monitoring of possible pilot fatigue. Currently FAA regulations impose an eight-hour limit for pilot flight time during a 24-hour period. New rules would make a distinction between day and night travel and take sleep rhythms into account.

Only "two-thirds of the carriers (are) operating under the traditional regulatory requirements for pilot training," FAA chief Randy Babbit testified. He called upon the remaining carriers to implement such systems.

Babbit said reviews of pilot history and were well underway and were expected to be completed by Sept. 30. The FAA, he said, was also exploring mentoring programs in partnership with the industry.

Prater highlighted the growing problem of inadequately trained young pilots being certified by smaller carriers with too few flight hours in the air. 

The new legislation the FAA and Air Line Pilots Association is calling for would necessitate that pilots all held ATP certification, which requires 1,500 hours of flight time. 

However, Tim Brady, representing The University Aviation Association, argued that quality of airtime, not quantity, is more important and that 1,500 hours would mean requiring graduates "to spend an unnecessary number of years building their flight time so as to qualify for an entry-level first officer position."

Jeffrey Skiles, vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots, testified that "over the past several years there has been a dramatic drop in the experience level of new hire pilots in our nation's cockpits as airlines sacrifice experience for the bottom line." 

He noted that the co-pilot on Flight 3407, which crashed in Buffalo in February, drew an annual salary of only $16,200. 

"In an effort to attract pilots at these poverty level wages, minimum hiring qualifications have dropped to the lowest bar possible."

Another witness was John Michael Loftus, whose 24-year-old daughter Madeline died in Flight 3407. Loftus, a former Continental Airlines pilot, and other family members are calling not only for stricter rules on pilot training standards but more realistic controls on how many hours pilots should remain on duty.

Loftus and other witnesses also highlighted the problem of commuting - pilots who are forced to make long journeys, often cross country, to and from departure points or for pilots that simply cannot afford to live near their base airports due to poor pay. When queried about this issue, major airline operators tend to describe it as a " lifestyle choice".

Loftus called for a united front on industry standards, including a comprehensive pilot database for use in the hiring process, a request both he and Prater made. 

"Instead of looking to shift the blame, we feel that everyone needs to come together and accept responsibility, from regional carriers to the major carriers to the FAA to Congress and figure out what went wrong and work together to fix it," Loftus said.