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. You keep writing about this but unless you’ve gone through this you really only know what you’ve read. You really don’t want me flying you around although I get about one offer a week. And I worked for a regional that could care less about overweight aircraft, maintenance or fatigue. I do agree that if the airlines have a structured training program they could safely train someone in less than 1500 hours. But what would that number be? Zero? Even if it was reduced to 750 hours you will still have shortages. And letting people fly until they forget they are in the airplane isn’t a good idea. Now where did I put my car keys?

  2. I think that your suggestion to have a more structured training cycle in exchange for less hours has merit.

  3. Gary has no idea what he’s talking about.

    Commercial pilot requires 250 hours to apply.

    Air transport pilot 750 hours for military (restricted ATP)
    1000 hours for pilots taught in a formal part 141 training environment along with a degree.
    1500 hours for an unrestricted.

    20 years as an instructor I can assure you , these rules help increase airmanship in the sky. Sure some people buzz around the Midwest in circles gaining time but most spend their 1500 hours in leadership positions teaching others to fly , working in much harsher conditions than flying airliners. Aeronautical decision making is the most important trait to develop and that can only happen with time and experience.

    Gary… I’d love for you to answer this question : Since 2009, how many fatal crashes have happened in the US due to pilot error and how many lives have been lost in that time with billions moved. We are in the safest period in US aviation history and those “overpaid “ pilots are why. NTSB always tells you the % of accidents caused by human error. They never tell you how many are avoided every day due to pilot skill.

    You want cheap labor and pilots with less hours ? I’m sure it will yield better results.

  4. @Christain … we already have a program in place to allow pilots a 500 hours grace if they went through a structured part 141 training program. I for one think it’s silly since all pilots have to come to the check-ride with the same set of skills and perform at the same level.

  5. @gary. Here is something to think of. Of all pilots go straight to the flight deck after about 500 hours … who is going to provide quality training to all the new pilots ? You will have no one and create the largest instructor shortage in history. You’ll have a bunch of green inexperienced pilots walking into jetliners who were taught 100% by inexperienced instructors.

  6. In many Asia countries, the pilots only needs 250-300 hours CPL to become a Boeing 777 or 747 or Airbus A350 first officer after one year training. And there is one Starlux CEO once became 777 captain with only 2500 hours. Is Asia Airlines more dangerous? Does US government limited those first officers fly to US? The 1500 hours is really about safety or just some benefits behind special groups?

  7. People will always drive more than flying. Your point that more will fly is not convincing.

  8. @Gary: Your envy over pilot wages is obvious.

    Give this one some thought: Many countries allow co-pilots with only 250-hours.

    Those are not pilots. They are button pushers. Flying for hours on end at FL370 with the auto-pilots engaged is not going to increase their skills beyond the minimal amount they learned in their first 250-hours. They will remain button pushers.

    Where have most aviation accidents been occurring? On Asian carriers who put button-pushers in the cockpit.

    As others have noted, it is quite possible to be hired with a lot less than 1,500 hours if one completes a more rigorous training regimen.

    BTW, prior to the Colgan air crash, the majors weren’t hiring anyone with less than 1,500 hours anyway.

  9. Gary,

    I read your blog and love your travel ideas, help, tips and jokes, however I do not like these repeated posts.

    I am not sure what is your agenda with this – and unfortunately it seems that you keep on reporting on this matter and you have a very bad relationship with APA/ALPA.

    The 1500 hour rule is NOT and I repeat is NOT hurting anyone. It is not hurting the supply and anyone with patience and a will can get to it very quickly. You can do it in less than a year. The amount of experience I have gained by instructing from the right side for the extra time is invaluable. Just like a doctor has to shadow for years until he is proficient, same idea here.

    The sky has never been any safer. I wish we could understand your agenda and what is behind these endless posts.

  10. The correlation of fewer accidents since 2009 is not provably causal. All the comments critical of Gary’s post have not addressed the fact that both Colgan Air pilots had over 1,500 hours and the NTSB’s explicit disavowal of 1,500 hours as a magic number.

  11. So 0 the optimal number?? I can become an airline pilot? AWESOME!

    What at waste of an article. Paid placement by airlines without proposing any evidenced-backed alternate solution.


  12. SMR is exactly correct,

    First Gary has zero knowledge on training pilots.

    Second Gary clearly does not know the majority of new pilots at the regionals are either from the military or come thru a part 141 program, so 1500 hours has zero affect on these pilots.

    Lastly he clearly has never met any of the Colgan family members , they are probably the most effective group of lobbyists I have ever met and any politician that opposes them is going to be in for a difficult election.

    PS it’s true no accidents since the rule changed in the USA , maybe it’s just luck … or maybe it’s not.

    Give it up Gary

  13. @rj123456. It may not have mattered with the Colgan crash alone. Other rule changes went into place such as FAR117 but the 1500 rule has still made the sky filled with more professional pilots. No one on that Colgan air flight died in vain. No one. Each life lost may have saved 10. Shouldn’t have taken that … but we needed some rule changes and it’s so sad it takes a crash to make it happen. Now that we are in such a safe period .. idiots who have no idea what they are taking about want rules relaxes until we pay in blood.

  14. Military pilots have well less than 1500 when we are fully qualified. But the high quality of the training (extremely expensive) is not even vaguely comparable to virtually all civilian training.

  15. There are other requirements included in 61.159 such as 500XC (200 for restricted), 100 night, 75 instrument, etc. But I believe actual instrument time should be a requirement (not just simulated), and definitely more of it. Recent Flights on IFR flight plans should be required for this cert. Spin training and other items if you weren’t a CFI.. not enough is taught or experienced at the edge of the envelope.
    But you do learn a lot in 1500 hours if you do it right.. (CFII, MEI, 135. Etc.)

  16. I agree its quality not quantity. but the airlines are stepping up and running their own pilot development programs, something long overdue. As for the criticisers have they not seen the rest of the world where Ab-initio training is the norm, everyone starts at 0 hours just some get better trained and developed.

  17. This blog has different themes which reflect the different personas of the author. I like “miles and points Gary”. I like “trip report Gary”. I do not like “free market Gary”.

    “Let’s remove all regulation and the free market will punish the airlines whose planes start falling out of the sky”. No thank you.

  18. I’m glad the pilots have to have more training. Good to know where the requirement came from. I always have wondered if American airlines had minimal training would they also have had 737 MAX crashes.

  19. As an Airline, Civilian, Military instructor this is a bunch of crap. More experience doesn’t make you less safe. There are multiple aspects that make pilots safe. Professionalism, excellent training(less rote scripts), individual desire to be better and not accept good enough. As someone who has been in the pilot training field over 30 years this article holds no water. Too many lawyers in the aviation industry, and too many accountants and executives who care about the dollar. I could go on!

  20. You state that the 1500 hour rule reduces safety. That implies that having pilots with less than 1500 hours is more safe.

    Maybe you should have had someone with critical thinking skills to proof read this for you. This article is trash all the way around. Did you not get through flight training or something?

  21. Regional jets are parked because pilots are leaving to go for more $$ at the majors . These pilots are captains , not FOs. Killing two birds with one stone here. You’re wrong on all levels !

    So decrease the 1500 to something lower and you get more FOs you don’t need. Republic for example is only hiring direct entry captains. You can also see the bees for integrated seniority and pay at the majors level is the only thing that can stop this from happening , not ALPA telling pilots to take concessions. Wow man. You don’t see any big pictures. Just keep the blog to points and miles. You’re good at that.

  22. As a retired military pilot I’ll pile on here. It’s certainly possible for someone to be able to provide informed opinions on something they haven’t actually done. However it’s much more difficult, since the typical armchair quarterback doesn’t know what they don’t know about a subject. Even more dangerous are the dunning kruger effect folks who don’t grasp how little they know.

    So let’s talk about the 2013 FAA report Gary used to form his “expert” opinion. What Gary doesn’t know he doesn’t know is that the vast majority of pilots in the era that report refers to were HIRED with more than 1,500 hours. And since someone hired with, say, 1,200 hours is a 1,500 hour pilot only 300 hours later and then stays on to fly thousands and thousands more hours, the vast, vast majority of the part 121 hours flown were flown by pilots with more than 1,500 hours. Add that to a very low mishap rate, the fact that no mishaps were caused by pilots with less than 1,500 hours statistically tells you almost nothing.

    Let’s do another oversimplified example to show the fallacy of Gary’s reasoning. No major part 121 mishaps have been caused in the U.S. since this report was drafted in 2013 by pilots watching movies on their personal devices while they were supposed to be flying. By Gary’s logic, that makes it fine for pilots to watch movies while flying. Of course, few pilots (but some do) engaged in that behavior during the period in question and there were 0 major part 121 mishaps in the U.S during that period. So again, going by Gary’s logic, I suppose we should allow pilots to do anything that at least a handful of pilots have done in the past 10 years, no matter how otherwise unsafe, because hey, no major mishaps were caused by it. Hopefully even Gary recognizes the fallacy of his line of reasoning.

    Listen Gary, you write about loyalty programs and happen to focus on aviation loyalty programs. This means you know a lot about aviation loyalty programs, however it gives you absolutely no experience in flying planes. The hubris of thinking you somehow know anything about what makes a good pilot is akin to a guy who wrote reviews on hospital accommodations somehow believing they have something relevant to say about brain surgery because hey, he’s “in the medical field”, right? Stick to what you know Gary, it not only keeps you from making a fool of yourself but also demonstrates a level of intellectual humility that you could clearly use.

  23. @Eddie,

    Those pilots that come from low time MPL programs are nowhere near as safe until they get a few thousand hours and get “up to speed”…… They are completely useless to their Captain if operations are anything other than normal. The situation was exactly the same here 15 yrs ago when I’d have to sit left seat to 250 hour wonders. It was dangerous until they eventually gained some experience. Then I would agree they were equally as safe, question is where should they gain that experience? I would rather them not do it in a transport category jet with revenue passengers.

  24. There is no “1500 hour pilot rule.” It does not exist. There is, however, a regulation which requires that pilots flying in airline transport pilot service, hold at a minimum an FAA-issued Airline. Transport Pilot certificate. The minimum number of hours for that certificate vary with the individual and the means taken to get there.

    There is nothing particularly difficult to understand about the requirement for an airline pilot to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate.. The ATP certificate long predates the requirements for copilots, or second-in-commands, to hold such a certificate. The Colgan crash eventually saw a requirement for SIC’s to hold the ATP certificate, whereas previously they could be hired with a commercial certification (minimum 200-250 hours, depending on their path to certification). The ATP certificate is not a new advent, nor are the requirements to obtain it. Only the requirement that a second-in-command must hold one. Is it really so difficult to understand why it’s appropriate for every airline pilot to hold an ATP certificate?

    Since the implementation of this requirement, that all airline pilots hold an ATP certificate, the safety record has improved substantially with fewer mishaps and incidents and fatalities.

    It’s a big disingenuous for a non-certificated, non-pilot who does not work in the industry, to be pontificating about the legal requirements for pilot hiring or certification. Bark into the wind all you like: this requirement was driven like many in the industry: it came at the behest of congress, on the heels of an air disaster. Like many regulations in the industry, this one is written in blood; so many only come on the heels of loss of life. The requirement for all pilots to hold an ATP certificate is no different. Do you really hope to unwrite it?

  25. The real issue that helps solve alot is not being addressed. It’s the experience that sits in the left seat. Theres a mandatory retirement at 65. And THAT used to be 60. Yet it’s far higher in Europe and even Canada. 65 is the new 50….easily. If retirement was mandated by quarterly medicals and say a higher limit of 75, think of all the experience that isn’t pushed out the door at 65. I was a senior Captain at United Airlinesr and I loved being a Captain. I loved helping new first officers get experience and get wiser. Seniors guys and gals helped me get there when I was a first officer and I quickly learned I needed to have that experience sitting next to me; and its why I asked to fly all the most challenging legs. Captains asked me why I wanted those legs and I said “because you’r sitting next to me.” I came to love it even more and the idea of flying into Laguardia during a blizzard with a slippery runway and strong crosswinds excited me. And by 65 I had so much great experience, including multiple emergencies under my belt, and wisdom to pass along, yet I was asked to leave due to an age number even tho I looked and felt 50, was medically fit and had a lot to give the new guys with the 1500 hours or less. I never understood why the unions fought this as well but it’s the best for the majors, the regionals, the new hires and the public.

  26. It’s not a 1500 hour rule. It’s an “ATP rated pilot required to be a first officer” rule. But that would be too long of a headline and not generate as many clicks for your site..

    You should have probably brushed up on the hours required to earn an ATP, which isn’t necessarily 1500 depending on the training regimen.

  27. Thank God someone finally has the intestinal fortitude to reach out and touch the third rail! I’ve been flying, and training, and investigating accidents and violations for over fifty years and have never seen a subject more pathetically nuanced by political interests. The Colgan accident had everything to do with fatigued commuters (the OTHER third rail that is yet to be addressed) and absolutely nothing to do with accumulated flight time. I served fourteen years as a national manager for FAA voluntary programs (including Subpart Y training under AQP) and can state unequivocally that anyone claiming the lack of accidents since 2009 had anything to do with the 1500-hour rule is smoking something in violation of their FAA medical. Excellent (and courageous) job bringing this to the fore, but you will inevitably suffer (as is readily discernible from some of the other comments) from the ire of the politically motivated idiots!

  28. @David – I refer (as do most!) colloquially to the ‘1500 hour rule’ but link to where I’ve written a longer discussion of it, including the circumstances where lower hour totals apply

  29. @Joel

    No he draws ire from a headline stating “The 1,500 Hour Rule To Become A Commercial Pilot Compromises Safety”…. It might very well not enhance safety but do you really believe the current rule compromises safety as Gary suggests?

  30. I think it’s all about the quality and type of training. When I first started flight instructing I had around 350 hours total time. When my first Chief Pilot had 350 hours he was being launched off an aircraft carrier in a F-4 to fly a combat mission over Vietnam. We both had the same amount of flight time but we were at totally different skill levels.

  31. Wow, what a bunch of self entitled pilots in here. Gary didn’t say the 1500 was overkill, the ntsb and faa did. You know, the bodies that have worked crashes. But hey, yeah, I’m sure some protectionists pilots have the publics safety in mind, not their paychecks. (hint, you don’t make much more than I do, so I promise it’s not wage envy.)

  32. As someone that has flown with pilots with 500 hours and pilots with 1,500 hours I can say that it does make a difference. It’s true that flight quality is very important but you also have to have actual flying experience. Not that long ago, airlines would not consider hiring a pilot unless he/she had 2,500 hours or more. The reason the 1,500 hour mark was enacted was because airlines could not regulate themselves. The most offensive remark in the column is that the 1,500 hours make flying less safe. That is a false statement.

  33. Well, I tend to think this article hasn’t really flew in GA. No matter aircraft type you fly it DOES give a flying experience highly valuable as for airmanship, weather knowledge, flying skills (think about AF 447 pilots behaviour) I am an Airbus 320 line training and TRI and honestly I make the difference between the pilots coming from GA and those who flew play station , Microsoft SIM , etc
    Although the outcome was maybe (rightly raised in this article ) to give a leverage to the pilot unions that’s not the point. Just try the EASA way when for exemple I am flying with a trainee FO clocking 160hrs fresh from the flight school on a commercial flight ops A321 neo into difficult airports such as Sarajevo (LQSA)….and 230 pax behind.
    So at the end yes the safety is impacted.

  34. @Joel Wade: You have clearly been out of the game for some time. Rest periods have most certainly been addressed and revised.

    And it wasn’t yesterday.

  35. @Brandon. Nothing Gary speaks of holds any facts and his opinions weaken the public view of reality. Gary isn’t a miles and points guy anymore , he’s no different than CNN/Fox.

  36. IATA requirements are 250h for a frozen ATPL (meaning FO only), and 1500h for a full ATPL (Captain).
    It worls everywhere around the world, so why shouldn’t it work in the US?
    Instead, we pilut freshly minted young pilots in highly dangerous jobs, like banner towing, just to build the time they need to fly for the airlines… instead of having them fly for the airlines in a structured system where they have an experienced captain at their side.

  37. @Sncy: because they don’t learn anything about aviating while sitting on a seat at FL370 with the autopilot engaged.

  38. Thank goodness the guy who is the foremost expert on airline miles has a piece of pie to cut with ATP training procedures!

    Scatter over to something you actually have knowledge in, like sitting on a plane while someone who knows what they are doing gets you from point A to point B.

  39. Anyone can come up with “structured” training where you expose a student to all kinds of scenarios and teach them the rote responses, and while that has value, it’s often the problem solving that occurs during UNSTRUCTURED flying that you really learn something from. Having spent several thousand hours flying up in Alaska and subsequently in a piston twin at night delivering boxes, I can tell you with authority I learned a whole lot more from that than some stall recovery or unusual attitude training in a transport category jet in a simulator, like how to avoid getting in those situations in the first place. I could name more than a few accidents where the problem wasn’t lack of training, it was lack of EXPERIENCE and the willingness to use some actual critical thinking and some stick and rudder skills.

  40. Never looked at it from an ALPA position. Now some things are making a little more sense. What I agree with putting a 250 hour commercial pilot in the right seat of a regional? Maybe not. 500 hours plus yes. 1,000 or more hours flying around in a 172 bug smasher even if you’re instructing doesn’t make you a super pilot. Someone with 500 to 1000 hours in different airplanes or experience would make you a better pilot.
    The FAA and NTSB seem to agree that the 1500 hours doesn’t make that much difference in safety. A lot of these high Time pilots on here already getting that pay and have the time. Bet they’re probably ALPA members too, most of them.
    and those Asian airline crashes you can put the blame for a couple of those squirrely on Boeing shoulders. Lack of proper certification and training on the 737 Max. Can you say murder? Just watch the Frontline video story on that.

  41. @ Patrick, I did not mean the most recent accidents , I’m speaking over the last 30 plus years.

    I will point out though the Max issues happened at a US airline before the two accidents and the crew safely got the plane on the ground, experience and maybe a little luck. But definitely Boeing screwed it up on keeping secret the trimming system.

  42. Ok…. Safer to fly than drive. Commercial truck drivers are only required 40 hours behind the wheel training. 1500 hours for a pilot seams extensive. And if its more structured you would get a higher skilled pilot in less than a quarter of the time.

  43. So why not elevate trained people to become CEOs at age 23 or so.??

    Nothing can replace experience. no matter what career pathway in discussion.

    Experience does matter. The foreign airlines absolutely do not have the same safety record as our US based carriers.

    Aeronautical decision making
    (ADM) is acquired, it is not simply downloaded off of the internet.

  44. I’m afraid your assumptions are incomplete, and that makes them flawed.

    To be fair, I agree that the 1500 hr rule falls to address the actual problem. However, putting inexperienced pilots onto airline flight decks with fewer hours is even worse than having them fly piston singles VFR. The vast majority of airline flying is on autopilot. This is mandatory in RVSM airspace per the FAA, and mandatory in other situations based on individual company policies or Ops Specs.

    While hours spent sitting right seat monitoring an autopilot aren’t worthless, they do very little to build fundamental flying skills. At least most Cessnas pilots use to build hours are so old that their autopilots are broken and unrepaired, if there was ever one installed.

    Flying with students presents extremely challenging situations that no pilot would ever intentionally induce.

    The better solution to this whole thing is to mandate better, more specific training.

    You’re right that the arbitrary 1500-hr requirement is overkill, but it’s not any less safe than 1250 hours of piston single or similar flying.

  45. For all the people who keep demanding 1500 hours, just look at the EU & UK where the requirement is still 250 hours. And they fly as safely as the US pilots. Colgan wasn’t caused by lack of flight hours, it was pilot abuse by regionals.

  46. Most countries now require 200 hrs for CPL . If one has a Type rating on A320 or B737 then it ensures a job on priority in major Airlines .

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