No Agreement on Pilot Hours in Senate FAA Bill

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By Shaun Courtney

A partisan Senate committee debate over co-pilot training hours that bubbled up during consideration of the federal aviation authorization bill hasn’t been resolved, two panel members told Bloomberg BNA.

Democrats oppose Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune’s (R-S.D.) amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2017 (S. 1405) to address a co-pilot shortage among regional airlines. The amendment, which was approved, would ease the current in-flight training requirement of 1,500 hours to include other forms of training at the discretion of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) informed the committee through ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that he would block the FAA bill in the full Senate if it included the Thune amendment.

Senators and pilots James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) each told Bloomberg BNA on July 12 they hadn’t had any conversations about the matter with Thune or other committee members since the markup.

“There’s not been any follow-up from the hearing. I’m ready and available,” Duckworth told Bloomberg BNA.

For Co-Pilots, 1,500 Hours

The co-pilot amendment dispute involves a provision in the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010 and the resulting FAA rule requiring 1,500 hours of in-air training for co-pilots, who previously needed 250 hours.

The 1,500-hour rule emerged in response to the deadly Colgan Air Inc. Flight 3407 crash in 2009 in Schumer’s state of New York.

Thune’s amendment would allow the FAA administrator to decide whether simulation or other “structured and disciplined training courses” could count toward the 1,500-hour total.

Smaller airports like those in Thune’s home state of South Dakota face service cuts from regional airlines, which blame a pilot supply issue created by the more stringent co-pilot training requirements.

Outlook

The FAA authorization runs out Sept. 30, and while other legislative priorities had made a multiyear reauthorization seem less likely, the move to extend the Senate session into the first two weeks of August could benefit the bill.

“FAA is one of the many bills we have to try and get across the finish line before the end of the fiscal year, so I hope that we’ll have an opportunity over the course of the next few weeks to see what we can work out,” Thune told reporters.

Thune said after his committee’s markup that he thinks regional airline co-pilot supply needs to be addressed, but he would work with his colleagues to see if a different tack could work.

Inhofe told Bloomberg BNA of the Thune amendment added to the bill at the markup: “I know that was a sticking point and there’s no reason it should be along party lines, but it seemed to be that way.”

Duckworth said she is open to discussing financial incentives to keep regional airlines servicing small airports.

“You know the issue is not to weaken the flight requirement. What we need to do is actually improve the incentives for regional airlines to come into these small airports,” Duckworth said. “I’m happy to talk about that.”

A similar bill in the House (H.R. 2997) might get a floor vote the week of July 17, which could push the Senate to advance Thune’s bill before the delayed August recess.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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