By Pete Muntean and Greg Wallace, CNN
Federal regulators have soundly rejected an airline’s controversial request to reduce commercial pilot hiring standards in half to tackle the global pilot shortage.
In April, regional airline Republic Airways asked the Federal Aviation Administration to allow graduates of Republic’s own LIFT Academy to become airline co-pilots with 750 hours of flight experience, not the typical 1,500 flight hours required of new airline pilots.
On Monday, the FAA said it denied Republic’s request after the agency “determined that the airline’s new training programme does not provide an equivalent level of safety as the regulation requiring 1,500 hours of flight experience before a pilot may work for an airline.”
Republic is a regional airline based in Indianapolis that says it operates 1,000 daily flights for American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express.
What Republic Airways wanted
Republic asserted in its initial request to the FAA that its in-house training programme was on par with the rigors of military flight training. Therefore, the carrier said, an FAA regulation allowing military pilots to be hired by airlines with less experience should be extended to Republic.
“Through its rigorous curriculum and structure, this Programme will exceed the safety standards of the military R-ATP [training programme],” Republic argued, adding its program would “provide a higher level of safety.”
The curriculum includes classroom and flight time, mentorship and frequent examinations. Failing a test, Republic proposed, would put a student on the normal pathway to a 1,500-hour license.
Graduates who would have received a special pilots license under this programme would have then received a full license when they reached 1,500 hours.
Republic argued its program would increase diversity in the pilot ranks. Amassing the 1,500 hours typically involves a college degree, low-wage work and renting aircraft to fly — an expense that Republic said can cost from US$170,000 to US$220,000.
“Four-year degree programme costs can be a significant barrier for some highly qualified students and puts pilot training out of reach, especially those in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities,” Republic’s proposal said.
The Regional Airline Association, representing Republic and its peer airlines, had supported the Republic proposal. It said approving the programme would recognize “that flight time is not the only component to developing a safe and qualified pilot.”
CEO and president of the association Faye Malarkey Black issued the following statement on Monday in reaction to the FAA decision:
“We are still reviewing FAA’s decision. It is the mission of all airlines to have robust safety programmes and to improve flight training on a continuous basis.
The first focus must be safety. Expanding structured training pathways would improve access for people who can’t access a pilot career today.”
Union opposition to plan
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilot union, had strongly opposed the Republic programme.
“This decision is a huge win for aviation safety and for the flying public,” ALPA’s president, Captain Joe DePete said in a reaction statement Monday afternoon.
“The FAA’s findings confirm what we’ve said all along about Republic’s request — that it is not in the public interest and would adversely affect safety.
“Additionally, in its official petition denial, the FAA affirmed its support for the regulatory requirements that are in place to facilitate the qualification of pilots — the aviation safety law that has reduced aviation fatalities by 99.8 per cent since its implementation.”
The US requirement for 1,500 hours is far higher than the entry-level in many other countries. The Department of Transportation inspector general wrote in a report earlier this year that 18 of 29 countries it reviewed require first officers have only 240 hours.
The United States once had a lower requirement for co-pilots — 250 hours — but lawmakers set the higher bar after the 2009 Colgan Air crash that killed 50 people. Investigators said the commuter plane’s pilots did not properly recognize and respond to the plane stalling a few miles out from Buffalo-Niagara International Airport.
Opponents of decreasing the first officer hours include Sully Sullenberger, the retired airline captain who famously landed a US Airways jet on the Hudson River in New York.
“There are no shortcuts to experience. There is no shortcut to safety. The standards are the standards because they are necessary,” he told a congressional panel in 2015.