The House of Representatives passed a comprehensive piece of aviation safety legislation that contains a fatal flaw and the whole initiative may be undermined by entrenched opposition.
On 14 October 2009 the House passed H.R. 3371, the “Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act” by an overwhelming majority: 409 to 11. A similar bill in the Senate, S. 1477, is expected to pass as well. The final legislation could be considered as an amendment when the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act (H.R. 915) goes to the Senate floor.
The bill contains far-reaching provisions intended to boost the safety of airlines, and is Congress’ response to the 12 February 2009 crash of regional airlines’ Colgan Air (Continental Express) Flight 3407, a Dash 8-Q400, near Buffalo. The airplane was doomed by an icing induced stall that was poorly handled by the inexperience flight crew. (See Aviation Safety Journal, ‘Hearing Reveals Tepid Industry Response to Voluntary Safety Initiatives’)
The bill requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require all pilots hired by the airlines to first obtain an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license, which requires 1,500 hours of flight time. Currently, entry-level pilots are required to have only 250 hours of flying experience.
The bill also seeks to ensure that pilots are fully trained to operate the safety gear in the planes they fly, and would close a loophole that has allowed pilots to conceal failed flight tests (check rides) from potential employers. Indeed, the bill seems to have been crafted based on revelations revealed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) initial May hearings into the causes of the Colgan Air crash.
Executives of Colgan Air at the NTSB’s 12 May hearing.
House passage of the bill was hailed almost universally as a big step towards greater safety. Here is a reaction from a retired corporate pilot:
“This Bill is TERRIFIC!!! It is about time we take these unqualified 250-400 hours pilots out of jets. Take a look at these commuter crews the next time you are in an airport that serves commuter airlines. The crews are tired looking, dogged, soiled uniforms, female pilots with no makeup/messy hair, scruffy shoes, grooming a mess. Yes, I totally agree with this move. I remember where I was at 250 hours and I would never have been qualified to fly a regional jet. Only cheating myself.”
The House of Representative certainly and pilots unions naturally regard the bill as a step forward. Herewith, some sample statements:
From Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, one of the bill’s ardent advocates:
“This bill ensures that pilots flying for regional and mainline air carriers are trained to the highest standards, and requires all airline pilots, including first officers, to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which requires pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours. Currently, a first officer on a commercial passenger flight only needs a Commercial Pilot certificate, which requires 250 flight hours, or as few as 190 [hours] in some cases. The ATP certificate also requires additional aeronautical knowledge, crew resource management training and greater flight proficiency testing.”
From Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee:
“(The bill also directs) the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to review and redefine what training and requirements are necessary for the ATP – which has not been done since 1969.”
From John Mica (R-FL), ranking minority member of the full committee, who voted for the bill despite opposition of aviation universities, one of which (Embry Riddle) is in his district:
“While large passenger aircraft in the U.S. are experiencing an unprecedented safety record, without a fatality since November 2001, commuter airlines have suffered a number of fatal crashes since January 2003 which have tragically taken 155 lives. Airline passengers need to know they can board any commercial aircraft in America and that the pilots in the cockpit are equally qualified.”
From Captain John Prater, President of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union representing 58,000 pilots:
“This bill raises the safety bar for all U.S. airlines. Now, every airline will have an incentive to hire the best-qualified candidates and provide their pilots with the high-quality training they seek and require to maintain the highest possible standard of safety.”
Captain Prater testifies before Congress in support of H.R. 3371.
From the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations (CAPA), a union that represents 28,000 airline pilots:
“A late change was made to the legislation allowing ‘credit’ toward flight hours for specific academic training, which CAPA is opposed to, but overall H.R. 3371 goes a long way to address important safety issues.” (More on the late change, inserted to gain Mica’s support, below.)
Roger Cohen, President of the Regional Airline Association (RAA), issued a muted reaction to the bill’s passage:
“We look forward to working with all stakeholders to implement the requirements of the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act. This bill has many elements mirrored in our own Strategic Safety Initiative, including a thorough study of pilot commuting and fatigue.” (Both pilots in the Colgan Air crash commuted before assuming duty, the captain from Florida and the first officer from the West Coast.)
The Families of Continental (Colgan Air) Flight 3407 hailed passage of the bill in the House and expressed strong support for Senate passage of comparable legislation. The family group observed, “Not even a month after the Flight 3407 accident, another Colgan Air Q400 bound for Burlington, Vermont, experienced a similar stall incident from which the pilots were able to recover.”
The symbol adopted by Families of Continental Flight 3407.
The problems of pilot qualifications, experience and training go beyond Colgan Air and are a national problem, affirmed Scott Maurer of the family group. He lost his daughter, Lorin, in the Flight 3407 crash.
Another Flight 3407 member, Kevin Kuwik, boyfriend of Lorin Maurer, said in a telephone interview that the final version of the bill that passed (and went to the Senate) gives the FAA administrator discretion in allowing some classroom instruction to substitute for a portion of the 1,500 hour ATP requirement. “Maybe it’s a 100-hour credit,” he said, although that 100 hours is a guess; the final credit may be more, or less, and it will be important to follow the FAA’s rulemaking on this score, he said.
Kuwik was referring to Section 11(d) of the bill (thrown in to assuage Rep. Mica) — also of concern to CAPA — which stated:
“CREDIT TOWARD FLIGHT HOURS – The Administrator may allow specific academic training courses, beyond those required under subsection (b)(2) [the minimum requirements], to be credited toward the total flight hours required under subsection (c) [the 1,500 hours actual flying]. The Administrator may allow such credit based on a determination by the Administrator that allowing a pilot to take specific academic training courses will enhance safety more than requiring the pilot to fully comply with the flight hours requirement.”
Among purists, there is a belief that there is no substitute for actual flying experience and that classroom exposure and flying requirements should be separate, not an additive mix that leads to a constructive 1,500 hour requirement. Depending upon how much classroom instruction may substitute for cockpit time, this provision of the bill could fatally undermine its intent – which is to assure that only fully certificated ATP pilots are hired.
James May, President of the Air Transport Association (ATA), representing the main line carriers, did not publicly endorse passage of the bill. Rather, on 13 October 2009, the day before the bill passed the House, he wrote the majority and minority leadership of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Aviation Subcommittee, complaining of the 1,500 hour and ATP requirements for hiring in the bill:
“By equating experience with total flight time or a level of technical certification, the mandate will punish many highly qualified pilots and significantly reduce the pool of pilot candidates, particularly for regional carriers … Additional years and additional tens of thousands of dollars spent to obtain the necessary 1,500 hours simply will not result in more competent pilots.
“In addition, those who have completed in-depth, focused airline-oriented academic and flight training degrees at nationally recognized flight training academies will be excluded from flying commercially, solely due to the 1,500-hour requirement.”
It should be pointed out that hiring a pilot at $16,000 a year, as in the case of the Colgan Flight 3407 accident first officer, is only possible because the pilot candidate is not burdened with first acquiring the 1,500-hours experience. It should also be noted that the nation’s two main pilots unions, ALPA and CAPA, wholly endorse the 1,500-hour ATP requirement for entry level hires. These unions represent pilots who have had to develop experience before being hired by the airlines. ATA represents airline management, which is to say it is concerned about the cost of having to pay more for an entry level pilot with experience. A candidate with only 250 hours of flight time can be had for less money.
The ATA opposition can be expected as the new ATP requirement goes through the regulatory process – the invitation for comments in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will precede, and influence, a Final Rule.
John Kausner, who lost his daughter Elly on Flight 3407, said in reaction to the ATA letter:
“This issue is about more than just a number of flight hours. We are talking about more quality preparation before pilots are placed in a situation where human lives are in their hands in the back of their plane.
“It would be nice to see Congress and the Obama Administration take the side of the passengers here, and send a strong message to the industry that it needs to do a better job of setting up its pilots for success.”