How The 1,500 Hour Rule To Become A Commercial Pilot Compromises Safety

After the Colgan Air crash in 2009, Congress was looking to take action on aviation safety. ALPA, the largest pilot union, was ready with items from its legislative agenda that it had been pushing for years. They won the ‘1,500 hour’ rule, flight time required before a pilot could be hired as a first officer at a commercial airline.

This was adopted even though both Colgan Air pilots had.. more than 1,500 hours. The rule wasn’t meant to prevent future Colgan Air disasters. It was meant to make it harder to become a pilot.

  • Restricting the supply of pilots increases the bargaining power of pilots. A pilot shortage drives up pilot wages.

  • When United Airlines faced a pilot strike in 1985 they started hiring replacement pilots. That’s simply not possible today, a huge victory for unions.

However the 1,500 hour rule reduces safety it doesn’t increase it. (HT: @kcreedy)

  • These are unstructured hours.
  • Pilots go through training on commercial procedures and on non-normal operations
  • Then they spend perhaps a year and a half flying single engine planes in good weather building up hours.
  • They aren’t dealing with stalls, storms, de-icing, or numerous other problems that you want a pilot to be experienced in.

The 1,500 hour rule leads to less well-trained, less-experienced pilots not more experienced pilots. They get hired by commercial airlines and go through remedial training to fix the bad habits they get into building up hours for hours’ sake.

According to the FAA the 1,500 hour rule does not promote safety.

The FAA was unable to find a quantifiable relationship between the 1,500-hour requirement and airplane accidents and hence no benefit from the requirement. For most accidents reviewed by the FAA, both pilots had more than 1,500 hours of flight time and for those SICs that did not, there were other causal factors identified by the NTSB.

The NTSB doesn’t think pilot hour requirements prevent accidents, either.

We’ve investigated accidents where we’ve seen very high-time pilots, and we’ve also investigated accidents where we’ve seen low-time pilots. We don’t have any recommendations about the appropriate number of hours….

If you want to ‘improve pilot training’ mere hours aren’t the answer. It should be structured training. Of course they already get that, and airlines provide it too.

ALPA wants higher pay for regional pilots – cynically putting regionals out of business. It’s one thing to spread higher pilot wages across 150 or more passengers on a mainline jet. Spreading those same costs across 30 to 76 passengers means a much higher cost per passenger.

And they push back against air carriers benefiting from rules that allow first officers with fewer hours, and recently-retired senior captains in the left seat, when operating planes with no more than 30 seats.

Combined this makes air travel to smaller cities scarce. Hundreds of regional jets are simply parked in the United States while smaller cities lose air service. This means more people drive instead of flying, and driving isn’t nearly as safe. This is another way the 1,500 hour rule for pilots, by limiting access to pilots, reduces safety.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary Leff. So much click bait to write. So little time.

    As a pilot, I love that you hate how much money we make. It just drives you nuts.

  2. A lot of interesting commentary in this article from a non aviator related to commercial flying. A quick drill into this article and you realize it has nothing to do with safety, or the lack there of, certainly nothing that the main gist of this piece claims about 1500 hour pilots being either unnecessary or more incredulously, unsafe (relative to aviators with less flight time). No, this article, like the balk of discussion on this website is about money, in this case how (by the reasoning of the author) the requirements of becoming an airline pilot (incorrectly attributed to flight hours) are creating a pilot shortage and only exist because airline pilots unions want to restrict the supply of pilots to increase the leverage (of unions) in raising pilot compensation. Not to further debate or agree on some of the assertions others have made, the system inherent in aviation that continues to strive to make flying safer is forefront of the mandate of the FAA to both promote aviation and push to make it even safer. Every crash of a commercial airliner and operators flying comparable equipment creates a self reflection within the safety culture mandated by the administaor (FAA) at the behest of the American flying public. When airlines were deregulated in the 1970’s airlines lost the cocoon of financial security the Civil Air Board provided airlines before 1976. Economics do not in themselves provide a motivator to do the right thing when it comes to safety, whether airlines, building cars, selling drugs, etc, etc. Regional airlines, an invention of the major carriers, provide a lower cost product (on a per unit basis) than they themselves can provide. The way it is done is having employees earn less, at all levels of the operation, from ticket agent/baggage handling to the pilots flying. When the number of pilots has been high enough, the economics of supply and demand (had) created a situation where pilots wanting to get this entry level (airline) job where making poverty wages. This over time had the effect one would expect on a work force looking at its options (before deciding to become a professional aviator). Young people looked elsewhere and took their talents to other industries. Now fast forward to 2022, post pandemic; with a reduced pool of interested and trained applicants plus a bubble of retirement at the mainline carriers and you have airlines and all professional parties that need pilots flighting over this shrunken pool. The free market responded as you might expect and people like Mr Leff, speaking as I assume for the greater industry, are crying foul. See if you can find the same industry voices crying over $15 an hour FOs flying 10 years ago and having to share living space with dozens of their colleges just to afford to live near their job.

    There might be some issues with the way pilots are trained that could produce better aviators prior to their first day in the cockpit of the jet you are riding on, but this article was never about the improvement of such. Its all about the money and keeping the pressure on wages so your ride can be cheaper, not safer.

  3. Hopefully Gary will take an introductory flight lesson at some point in time. He will come to learn the term, “Aeronautical Decision Making” (ADM).

    ADM is a never ending process which is created by a combination of real time flight experience coupled with book learning and maturity. ADM takes time to onboard and like all education, it is a building block process. People in the education space understand this core fundamental.

    The combination of ADM, maturity and quality mental and physical fitness is critical when operating planes. The same is true in many other parts of our daily lives.

    Please stop and think for a moment. Why is it that 98% of the CEOs of the fortune 500 are not 24 year olds? Because It takes time to mature and onboard the skills required to lead an organization.

    Flying aircraft is no different with respect to process. We call the cockpit of an aircraft the front office. Pilots manage the front office.

    Did you know that most airline and corporate pilots started out as flight instructors? Today, most do not have time to instruct due to their schedules. It is quite humbling to be a flight instructor. You need to be on your toes, especially with new flight students just starting out with a goal of earning their private pilot certificate.

    A flight instructor needs to be extremely situation aware. If they loose that focus, they may find themselves in a precarious position with the student pilot. Flight students do not purposely try to create an accident. However, they are newbies on a deep learning curve.

    Thus, they are not simply doing circles in the air. They are working hard.

    For anyone who is not a pilot, there is big difference between a pilot with 300-400 hours of flight time versus 1,500 hours. It may not seem like a lot but it is a huge difference.

    In America, some say airline aviation safety is pure luck. Others say it is not. American based airlines have been on a historic positive run on safety since the Colgan Air accident February 19, 2009, The safety record is not just luck. It is a combination of an improved safety system coupled with improved ADM.

  4. This article is mostly talking points from a paper that he links to from the RAA (Regional Airline Association) which is an industry lobbying group that advocates on behalf of regional airlines. Needless to say, just like any lobbying group you have to take their carefully crafted arguments with a grain of salt. Because the RAA absolutely has an agenda that’s centered around the financial interests of its members.

  5. This whole piece reads like an anti union regional airline owner propaganda piece. Carefully crafted but dishonest late stage capitalism arguments. E.g. paying a pilot adequately puts them out of business. If you can’t pay your pilots what they deserve, you need to become better at doing business. You don’t even have to shift the cost to Your customers . Your shareholders will do fine if they make a couple of fewer millions, out of hundreds, a year. You will be okay if you have to wait an extra three months to buy that yacht.

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