WASHINGTON – A key safety measure recently passed by Congress in response to a deadly regional airline crash last year is facing opposition from industry officials concerned that it could lead to higher salaries for airline pilots.
A Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel dominated by airlines, companies that employ pilots to fly corporate planes and university flight schools wants to reduce by two-thirds a requirement that airline co-pilots have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience — the same experience threshold that captains must meet.
The key issue is money, according to officials familiar with the panel's deliberations. Airlines worry that if the FAA raises the threshold for co-pilots — also called first officers — from the current minimum of 250 hours, airlines will be forced to raise pilot salaries and benefits to attract more experienced fliers, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
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.
University flight schools are similarly concerned that if beginner pilots have to accrue 1,500 hours of flight experience before they can be hired by an airline, they'll skip expensive university training in favor of amassing flight time through per-hour instruction.
Using a provision in the new law that allows the FAA to give prospective pilots some credit for flight school training, the panel proposed allowing airlines to hire university-trained first officers with as few as 500 hours, according to a copy of the panel's recommendations. Prospective pilots trained by nonuniversity flight schools would have to have more than 500 hours, but less than 1,500 hours, depending upon the type of school.
The roles of airline captains and first officers have changed over the years. Today, both pilots are expected to be able to fly a plane equally well and to share duties.
The FAA formed the committee this summer just before Congress passed a far-reaching aviation safety bill, including the boost in required flight hours.
The law was prompted by a regional airline crash near Buffalo, N.Y., in February 2009 that killed 50 people. The flight's 24-year-old first officer earned about $16,000 in the year before the accident. She lived at home with her parents near Seattle but flew across the country to reach the airline's base in Newark, N.J., in time for the flight.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded the first officer and the flight's captain were probably suffering fatigue at the time of the accident. Neither had slept in a bed the night before — the first officer napped in a cockpit jump seat, the captain in a crew lounge where sleeping was discouraged. Pilots, particularly at regional airlines, often can't afford to live in the communities where they're based. Some share cheap apartments near their base so they can grab sleep before flights. Others simply nap wherever they can.
Lawmakers who proposed the 1,500-hour requirement last year said at the time they hoped it would lead to higher salaries.
"The new safety law explicitly requires 1,500 flight hours," Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee, said this week. "Any modification of that number has to be justified as making safety stronger than current ... requirements."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who pushed the requirement in the Senate, said Congress was "crystal clear" that 1,500 hours was to be the minimum level required for co-pilots.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said in a statement that the panel's recommendations won't be the sole factor in the agency's determination of how to implement the new law.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, a former airline pilot, has expressed skepticism about the 1,500-hour requirement, saying it is more important to improve the quality of the pilot training than to increase the amount of experience in the cockpit.
That has also been the industry position. "The number of hours flown should not be the sole measure of qualification and proficiency," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association.
Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said money had nothing to do with the recommendation. He said academic training is "far more useful in training pilots for modern airline operations" than hours amassed "towing banners above the beach."