Pilot Training Deadlock in Senate Spills Into Nominee’s Hearing

By Shaun Courtney

Disagreement over how commercial airline co-pilots can meet training requirements continues to bog down Senate legislation, and the controversy spilled into an Oct. 31 hearing for a National Transportation Safety Board nominee.

The issue emerged in June when Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) amended his committee’s Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill (S. 1405) to create greater flexibility for co-pilots to reach the federally mandated 1,500 hours of in-flight training—such as counting some time in a simulator instead of in the air.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned Republicans at the time that he would block the bill with the training language included. The bill hasn’t come to the floor since being approved in committee along party lines with the provision, and Schumer told reporters Oct. 31 he and Thune have made no progress on resolving the matter.

Airline industry groups claiming a pilot shortage should look no further than the low pay some co-pilots earn on small, regional airlines, Schumer said.

Landsberg Hearing

During the Oct. 31 Commerce Committee confirmation hearing, Democrats asked NTSB nominee Bruce Landsberg to explain earlier remarks in which he suggested 1,500 hours of in-air training might not be necessary.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former military pilot, asked: “Are you committed to providing independent recommendations for pilot and first-officer training certification requirements that would achieve the safest civil aviation system, not what is the safest system balanced against industry claims of pilot shortages, just simply what is safest?”

Landsberg said he would, but also maintained that 1,500 hours may not be the magic number. He said he favors high standards but wants them to be performance-based.

“I believe in the performance of pilots and I think that setting an arbitrary number is not necessarily the best way to go,” said Landsberg, former president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Air Safety Institute.

He pointed to military pilots, who receive 200 to 300 hours of training but have high performance standards, as an example.

Talks Continuing

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Commerce Committee ranking member, told Bloomberg Government no progress has been made on resolving the training issue, consistent with Schumer’s comments.

Thune sounded an optimistic note, however.

“We’ve got a little bit of time, we are trying to work it out,” he told Bloomberg Government. “We’d like to get to a place where we have a solution that works. So we’ll be working with the administration and with [the Transportation Department, which includes the FAA] on that and we’ll see where it end up.”

The FAA’s six-month authorization extension runs through March 31.

The pilot training controversy faded after the markup as the focus shifted to the House’s FAA bill (H.R. 2997) and its contentious air traffic control spinoff provision. However, the House bill’s lack of movement has prompted Thune to aim for passage of his own bill, possibly in a year-end vehicle or early in the new year.

“I don’t want another extension of the FAA bill,” Thune said.

FAA Panel Releases Report

Thune called on the FAA in an Oct. 25 letter to release a report from an industry working group that addresses alternative training options for co-pilots. The agency released the report the next day.

The Air Carrier Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) offered detailed proposals on how pilots could earn an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate with fewer than 1,500 hours of in-flight training. The recommendations suggest allowing pilots with military training or who hold bachelor’s degrees and have completed a certain amount of aviation and aviation-related coursework to apply that experience toward their ATP certificate.

The ARC’s suggestions are significant, Thune said in his letter, because the FAA has “effectively used [ARC’s findings] to inform its rulemaking activities.”

“I believe that ongoing policy discussions would be greatly informed if the public had access to the recommendations of this expert working group,” Thune wrote.

— With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich

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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