Monday, February 15, 2016

Deregulation, Essential Air Service, and the “Air Taxi” Pilot

By: Eric Auxier / Published: February 15, 2016

New York. Paris. Rome. Show Low.

Show Low?

Since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, U.S. airlines have been free to set their own routes according to market forces. In order to maintain service to smaller communities—such as Show Low, Arizona—Essential Air Service (EAS) was concurrently established. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), the U.S. government "currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service."

Boutique-1So, what is a "commuter airline," exactly? Well, if we think of an airliner as a bus, then a commuter would be its taxi equivalent. Indeed, Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 135, the Federal laws governing "Commuter and On Demand Operations," is often referred to as "Air Taxi." As the name implies, these smaller, "Regional" airlines may fly scheduled routes, on-demand charters, or a combination of both. They may do so in small (originally 19 passenger seats or less—more on that in a minute), regional "RJ" type jets, single- or twin-engine turboprops or piston engine airplanes. They also may have one or two pilots, depending on the size and nature of the operation. This type of air service is crucial for the residents of Alaska, for example, a state with many communities so remote that they are only accessible via small plane—often on floats or skis—or dog sled.

skywest-crj200-1.jpgMany regional carriers operate under the auspice of the major airline's banner that they feed, with some even sporting more than one brand. For example, Comair operates as Delta Connection, Mesa Airlines as both United Express and American Eagle, and SkyWest as American Eagle, Alaska, Delta Connection and United Express. These airlines—while sporting their larger brand names—may or may not actually be owned by them. Still other airlines operate completely independent of this major-regional relationship, choosing to serve communities based solely on market forces and, of course, encouraged by EAS subsidies.

While U.S. commercial aviation of any kind is among the world's safest, the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash of February 12, 2009 brought to light many issues such as pilot fatigue, training and experience requirements for these regional airlines. It also prompted—rightly or wrongly—the creation of a minimum 1,500 hour requirement for all pilots of commercial planes over ten seats, and not just the captains.

1024px-Republic_Airways_for_United_Express_-_N356NG_(8411650207)A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) press release states, "The new regulations stem in part from the tragic crash of Colgan Air 3407 in February 2009, and address a Congressional mandate in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 to ensure that both pilots and co-pilots receive the ATP certification. . . . The rule requires first officers — also known as co-pilots — to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, requiring 1,500 hours total time as a pilot. Previously, first officers were required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 hours of flight time."

While this prompted a requirement for Air Carriers such as United and Delta to give their already-qualified First Officers Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) "type rides" in the jets they flew, the new requirement sent the 135 world into a tizzy.

Many aviation insiders—this author included—believe that this 1,500 hour rule, while well-meaning, was a political bandaid that did little to improve safety, and has in fact drastically exacerbated the pending pilot shortage. (Note: both pilots in the Colgan crash had well over 1,500 hours.)

Indeed, another unintended consequence of the new act has been the arbitrary lowering of the maximum 19-passenger seat requirement of Part 135 ops to nine seats, prompting some air carriers such as Great Lakes to take the absurdly drastic measure of not only laying off 30 previously-qualified line pilots, but also ripping out 10 seats from their 19-passenger Beech 1900's to keep their cockpits stocked with qualified pilots.

While Part 135 regulations may have been dramatically tightened, they are still somewhat less stringent—and therefore more flexible—than their Part 121 Air Carrier equivalent.

Enter Boutique Air, a San Francisco-based airline that owes its aviation roots to the aerial fire fighting business. Flying the Swiss-built, high performance, single engine turboprop PC-12 Pilatus, through EAS, Boutique serves such communities as Carlsbad and Silver City, New Mexico, and, yes, Show Low, Arizona.

IMG_5776 copy IMG_5796 copy IMG_5795 copy IMG_5822 copy

The following is a four-minute video by the author, following the Boutique Air crew through a typical "day on the line"—or, rather, a night on the line, flying a 13-hour duty period on the backside of the clock.

AuxCockpitGateHiEric Auxier is an Airbus A320 Captain for a major U.S. airline with over 21,000 hours of flying in a career spanning 35 years. His flying career has taken him from the Alaska bush to the Caribbean Islands and everywhere in between. A popular aviation blogger at "Adventures of Cap'n Aux" and author of six books, in 2013 he captured the coveted Amazon Top 100 Breakthrough Novels Award for "The Last Bush Pilots."

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The post Deregulation, Essential Air Service, and the "Air Taxi" Pilot appeared first on Airchive.


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