Pilot Training, Supply Dispute Spills Into Senate Authorization Bill

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By Shaun Courtney

Senators have waded into the dispute between pilot organizations and the aviation industry in a federal aviation authorization bill, despite a looming Sept. 30 deadline.

The bill was touted as a less controversial alternative to the House companion bill.

The latest volleys in the pilot training debate began when the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved June 29 an amendment to allow more flexibility in how co-pilots meet a 1,500-hour training rule. Then, a Transportation Department working group reported to Congress that a pilot shortage stemming from the 1,500-hour rule was a “dominant theme,” challenging small community air service.

“The working group’s report affirms that the supply of well-trained copilots, which enhances the safety of the airline industry, would benefit from the provision included in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2017 approved by the Commerce Committee,” said Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) in a statement.

The Thune amendment sets up the Senate bill for a fight as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that he would do everything he can to prevent any effort to change the rules from becoming law.

Supply Issues

At the center of the dispute is whether there is a pilot shortage and the potential effect of changing the 1,500-hour rule.

The Transportation Department working group reported: “The imposition of the new 1,500 hours requirement has drastically increased the time and cost for aspiring aviators to become commercial airline pilots, in many cases putting the piloting career out of reach. Meanwhile, the 2015 Pilot Source Study indicates that first officers hired since the increased flight hours requirement was imposed have a decreased rate of new‐hiring training completion, and ‘required significantly more extra training.’ ”

The working group said Congress should task the Federal Aviation Administration with reevaluating and increasing the type and number of non-flight training hours co-pilots need to be certified.

Thune’s amendment closely follows that tack, calling for flexibility by the FAA to allow simulation and other training to count toward required hours.

The Air Line Pilots Association, International, the airline pilots union, criticized the Senate amendment and the working group’s findings. The union said there is no shortage and that rule changes would save airlines money at the cost of safety.

The FAA has not studied the impact of the 1,500-hour rule on pilot supply and does not plan to, according to a Transportation Department Inspector General report from March.

The same report states that regional air carriers reported having a harder time finding pilots to meet the new qualifications: “According to the regional carrier officials we interviewed, the new qualification requirements, as well as new flight crew duty and rest requirements implemented in 2014, reduced the pool of qualified pilots, which affected their operations.”

Safety was the primary concern raised by Democrats during committee debate of Thune’s amendment June 29.

“Please, let’s not promote regional air service by first degrading the pilot qualification and pilot training requirements,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is a pilot.

Extension or Reauthorization

Thune told reporters after the June 29 bill markup that he was open to different language or changing his amendment, but that he saw a pilot shortage as a critical issue he wants to address in the FAA bill.

“I think that we need to look at ways we can address it that ensure and enhance safety and that’s what we were trying to do with this amendment,” Thune told reporters.

But Schumer said the amendment “strengthened” his resolve to protect the safety culture he believes the 1,500-hour rule created.

“While we all share a desire to improve rural air service, those improvements simply cannot come at the expense of safety,” Schumer said.

The interaction between Schumer and Thune comes as the Sept. 30 deadline for FAA reauthorization looms and working days are running low. Between July and September there are 25 days left when Congress is in session. An already controversial House bill that pushes an air traffic control spinoff combined with a Senate bill with the hour requirement controversy could mean a short-term extension, given the limited number of days to strike a deal.

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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