3As most aspiring professional pilots are probably aware, in 2010 Congress passed the “Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Act of 2010” which would ultimately implement sweeping changes to the Part 121 airline industry, including new rest requirements and duty regulations, training regulations and the infamous “1500 Hour Rule” for pilot experience requirements. Since that time, this legislation has been a major focus of both proponents of and critics against the legislation. It was inevitable that the debate would heat up as a massive pilot shortage begins to take hold on the U.S. airline industry.
The rules are complex, far reaching, and certainly beyond the scope of a single article; though there is plenty written out there presenting various viewpoints.
The topic has surged back to the forefront of public awareness as Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) has proposed a series of measures that would dial-back the protections on flight time experience requirements from that original 2010 bill and the resulting regulations.
Not unpredictably, in today’s political environment, the sentiments on the regulation split right down the middle with groups either vehemently opposing it, or vehemently supporting it. Also, not surprisingly, industry groups pushing for a greater pilot pool, accessible labor and economic gain, stand on one side of the fence and labor groups, safety groups, and many safety experts, solidly align on the other side of the fence. So, is this a battle of profits vs. safety, or is it perhaps more complex than that? The short answer is yes, and yes.
One of the more notable outcomes of that 2010 bill was the requirement for crew members serving on a Part 121 (scheduled air carrier) flight deck to have more than “1500” hours of experience before eligibility for an Air Transport Pilot certificate, which previous to the bill was the certificate required to be a captain for a scheduled airline. It also extended the requirement to obtain this certificate to any first officer candidate who might be hired by an airline, where previously they only needed a Commercial Pilot Certificate and 250 hours of total experience. Overnight, this lead to a six-fold increase in the experience required to be a crew member on an airline flight deck.
It should also be noted that the regulations that required the 1500 hours of experience also made specific exceptions for “accredited” training programs such as military flight experience, university accredited flight departments and some other flight training programs. The exception reduce the hours of experience from 1500 to 750, 1000, or 1200 hours depending on the program. The premise behind this exemption was that these programs offere a higher standardization and quality of training and thus, those graduates would be generally proficient and competent with less total flight time. The process of approval for these programs was often more intensive, and since many of them were at major universities, the military or large flight schools, there was usually more oversight and standardization associated with the training delivered by these programs.
But did the bill positively influence safety? That has been a debate that hasn’t been resolved as easily.
What has been addressed easily is that the increase in training time, experience building and resulting expense has accelerated what was already an inevitable pilot shortage in the U.S. aviation industry. Post September 11, 2001, the number of ratings being issued has steadily declined and the average age of the pilot group has steadily increased. The number of foreign pilots training in the U.S. on training contracts for foreign airlines has also steadily increased, which may skew the numbers slightly, as many of them will never fly with U.S. carriers. However, one thing is certain; an increase in time requirements, an increase in training costs and a decreasing pool of candidates has drastically increased the demand for pilots and driven a commensurate increase in wages, other compensation and quality of life for those pilots.
Prior to the enactment of the 1500-hour rule, the average starting wage in the industry varied from just over $16,000 a year on the low end, to just over $20,000 a year on the high end. Today, starting wages are hovering around the $40,000 a year mark with additional money in signing and retention bonuses, increased benefits, recognition of previous longevity and other incentive programs designed to attract candidates to the various regional airlines. To secure the funding necessary to increase pilot compensation, several airlines have either shrunk massively, declared bankruptcy, or both.
On the other side of the equation, the airlines suffering the largest impact of the shortage are the “Fee-For-Departure” (FFD) carriers, commonly known as “regional” airlines. Cited in a June 2017 presentation by the Regional Airline Association, these carriers accounted for 44% of all passenger departures. Since they also provide the only service to 65% of airports that receive commercial air service, their impact on the airline industry, and aviation accessibility in general, is substantial. And, the airlines they contract for, typically the major airlines, gain access to that pilot pool. Obviously, in a profit-driven industry where consumers have undeniably demonstrated that they buy the cheapest airfare available, there is a lot of incentive to avoid massive and sudden increases in labor costs.
With a little bit of background on the issue, it is possible to discuss the two sides of the debate. On the one side, are the airlines, airline trade groups and industry advocates that want to continue with labor in steady and cheap supply while air service remains accessible. This group has vociferously opposed the legislation since it was originally proposed and has continually pressured law makers to reduce the requirements for pilot hiring. Testifying before Congress recently, the CEO of the largest regional airline cited that due to forecasted demand and a lack of new recruitment, the regional airline industry would not be able to meet the need for pilots as the shortage continued to grow. He proffered that relief is needed from the rules to aid recruitment despite large increases in compensation.
The changes propose increased access to “approved” methods of reducing flight time. There are not a lot of specifics in the proposed legislation, only that any methods would have to “pass the safety muster of the FAA.” Essentially, this would extend benefits similar to what the accredited programs provide without necessarily being accredited. Does this reduce safety? Not necessarily, but it should be considered that there is that potential, dependent upon where the “safety muster” of the FAA moves on any given day, and such things can be influenced by political pressures.
On the other side of the argument are the industry safety and labor groups, most of which support upholding the increased certification standards. There are some tangible safety benefits to this argument, as well. The first argument that is typically leveled against the safety side is “the pilots involved in Continental Express Flight 3407 had more than 1500 hours when they were hired and would have been hirable anyway, so the rule wouldn’t have prevented the crash.” This is true to the extent that the Colgan Airlines (operating as Continental Express 3407) crew carried that experience level upon being hired. However, it is also statistically unquestionable that higher-time pilots have fewer accidents overall, and those with many thousands of hours of 121 time also generally operate more safely. So, while it might be agreed that high-time pilots can also have accidents, it is not true that they are just as likely to have them as inexperienced pilots in the same situation, with the same training and the same background. That experience as irrelevant is just not a true or factual statement. Experience is relevant to the discussion because quality and background certainly do matter and all pilots learn through experience. What might be more relevant to discuss is how recently the candidate has built time, as that could potentially be more determining than experience or background.
Another argument leveled against the safety side is “hours spent crop dusting don’t necessarily make you a better pilot than someone with less time who flew XX type of operations to build experience.” This is also true to an extent, which is specifically why the original rulemaking allowed for decreased flight time for candidates who did come from a more structured and relevant training program. For instance, a student graduating from an accredited aviation training program with a capstone jet transition course is allowed to be hired with 30% less total flight time than a full 1500-hour candidate, and military training allows former DOD pilots to come in with up to 50% less total experience in the airplane, precisely because quality of training does matter.
A third argument used against maintaining the rule is that it isn’t really about safety, but rather about maintaining the increase in pay the industry has seen as a result of the pilot shortage being accelerated by the new time requirements. This is probably largely valid. However, there is a very real and tangible safety benefit to this as well, because instead of having flight crew members operating flights after they have commuted from Seattle because they can’t afford a crash pad in New York and haven’t slept in nearly 24 hours, you are more likely to have a crew that is well rested and isn’t as distracted, stressed or worried about the economic realities of having to service $100k-150k in debt on a $20,000 salary. In addition to the directly associated probability that rest has increased, there is also the probability that psychological stress is reduced in the flight deck.
A fourth argument that has been used against the legislation is “there haven’t been any accidents since Continental Express 3407 in Buffalo and the 1500-hour rule didn’t go into effect until 2013. This is also supported. However, it is also scientifically impossible to measure an event that didn’t happen, so to claim that no accident is proof that the rule didn’t accomplish anything is logically fallible. It is also impossible to claim that it HAS prevented anything. What we can say for certain is that no major accident has occurred since the Buffalo crash and no major accident has occurred since the passage of the rule.
Finally, the longer-term benefit of the rule is that the cost of training had already soared by several orders of magnitude before the passage of the rule, resulting in a decrease of certificates after September 11th. At that point, the basic costs of training began to increase significantly, and coupled with a subsequent decrease in student enrollment, costs increased even more. The damage on the cost side was already done, and while the additional cost of working toward 1500 hours, or obtaining certificates that allowed pilots to build the time did increase the cost even more, there are a lot of ways the time can be built while being paid, rather than having to pay for it hour-by-hour. The argument can also be made very strongly that obtaining certificates (e.g. a CFI that might not otherwise have been obtained) also increases the quality of the pilot-applicant through experience and additional learning when compared to not obtaining that rating at all. The Regional Airline Association’s presentation discussed the decrease in the pilot pool since 1990, but makes no mention of the corresponding average industry pay during that same timeframe, or changes in the cost of training during that same timeframe. However, according the Bureau of Labor statistics, there has been a large disparity between regional airline pay and major airline pay since at least the mid 1990’s. As the regional airlines exploded to nearly 50% of the total industry capacity, and major airline growth stopped, there was an unquestionably detrimental net effect of overall career compensation in the airline industry.
As a result of the diminished pool of pilots, and the resulting 105% increase in average industry starting pay, the enrollment numbers have started to increase since the passage of the 1500-hour rule in 2010, which increases the likelihood that the shortage will be solved. Of course, as in a typical free-market system, as espoused by the same CEO requesting relief from the rule, the more the compensation increases, the more stable and sustainable the career becomes. In turn, this leads to a more solid future regardless of the pace of career progression, which makes the industry more appealing to potential entrants. The 1500-rule certainly accelerated the arrival of the pilot shortage, but most indicators have shown that it was coming for decades, and as such, it was considered inevitable.
In the end, there are tangible safety benefits to a well-paid and well-trained work force, even if the long-term economic benefits of that aren’t immediately apparent. There are also such things as indirect safety benefits that can’t necessarily be measured in direct connection to the regulation. To continue to be attractive to new entrants, the industry’s average level of compensation needs to continue to increase to a level commensurate with the cost of training and professionalism required, and the career progression needs to be clear and measurable for those who may be inclined to invest toward a future as a pilot.