Tuesday, July 16, 2013

New FAA Rule Will Hurt Small City Air Service

Small airports have lost a lot of service over the last several years, and a new rule by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now very likely going to make things even worse. The new rule will dramatically increase the number of hours required for pilots to be able to fly commercially in the US. This is theoretically being done in the name of safety, of course, but I’m not convinced that’s what this plan will achieve.

Express Pilots

You’re probably wondering how I’m connecting the dots here between the number of hours required for a pilot and reduced small city flying, right? Let me walk through this the way I see it.

The entry level role for a pilot at an airline is as a first officer. Today, to even be considered for that you have to have your commercial pilot certificate. To get that you need (in most cases), 250 hours of flight time.

In the wake of the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo, Congress decided it was time to toughen up pilot rules back in 2010. It’s taken awhile, but the FAA has now finally put the rule into place that follows what Congress directed the administration to do.

The new rule will require that first officers get their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate and that means, with few exceptions, you need to have an incredible 1,500 hours of flight time before you can even be considered for a job flying paying passengers. Think about that. If you went up for 2 hours a day, every single day, it would still take more than 2 years. And this is flight time, so none of the time getting to the airport, studying, preparing the airplane for flight, etc will count.

And what’s the pay off? Well today, if you get hired, it’ll probably be by a regional airline. And those regional airlines pay very little. For example, a first year first officer at SkyWest, one of the largest regionals in the US flying for pretty much every major airline earns $22 per flight hour. If you fly 80 hours a month, you’ll make just over $21,000 a year.

Now let’s think about this. If you’re a pilot, are you going to spend a ton of time and money to get those 1,500 hours just to be able to fly around for peanuts? That’s a tough sell. It’s easier to justify today if you need only 250 hours, because then you can at least get a job and work your way up more quickly. But getting to 1,500 hours is a whole different story. People have worried about pilot shortages for years, but this rule change makes it a near certainty.

So if that’s the case and airlines have trouble finding enough pilots, what happens? Well, the big airlines won’t have a problem. They look at the regionals as their farm teams, effectively. So they will continue to have a pipeline from the regionals for many years to come. But the regionals are the ones hiring fresh young faces. And if those faces stop showing up, then something has to give.

That “something” will inevitably mean regionals will have to spend more money in one of two ways.

Some regionals may end up spending money on training programs. They can offer to train pilots up and then have them start flying when they’re done. This will mean that it’s less costly for a pilot to get started even if a huge number of hours is still required. The other way to get more pilots flying is to spend more money on wages. Make the piloting profession more attractive and people will eventually decide it’s worth getting the 1,500 hours.

If regionals have to spend more money, then that cost has to be passed on to the major airlines they fly for. Contracts today are generally at a fixed fee with certain pass-through items that fluctuate based on cost, like fuel. If regional costs are higher, then they will have to charge their big partner airlines more to provide that service. And if they charge those airlines more, then those big airlines are going to have to decide if all the cities that receive service today can still support that level of service if costs are higher.

And that’s why small city service would take a hit.

The prospect of higher wages and bigger money naturally appeals to pilots, and the unions support this, as you would expect. What I just don’t know is whether this rule will actually contribute to improved safety or not. There is something to be said for having more hours, but look at the safety record in the US over the last decade and it’s hard to argue with the numbers. It’s not clear to me that having more hours would have even prevented the Colgan accident. There you had exhausted pilots, one of whom failed multiple check rides and may not have been adequately trained. The number of hours doesn’t jump out as the problem to me.

I would love to hear from the pilots here about your thoughts on this. I can see what the impact on the industry will be, but I just don’t know if it’s truly justifiable. What do you think?

[Original pilot photo via Shutterstock]

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