The federal government is considering banning air carrier operations that diverge from the model of American Airlines, United, and Delta in order to operate niche service from small cities and private terminals. And the only reason they’re doing this is as a concession to lobbying by unions and an incumbent airline – groups that don’t want to compete with more pilots and innovative business models.
The FAA is considering requiring carriers currently operating as scheduled charters to instead operate as scheduled air carriers, effectively putting upstarts out of business. The loudest lobbying voice with the ear of the powerful wins?
The 1,500 Hour Rule For Commercial Pilots Is A Joke
No one actually believes that the 1,500 hour rule for commercial pilots has anything to do with safety. For the past dozen years commercial airline pilots have had to have 1,500 hours in order to fly, though military pilots can have 750 hours; those with a B.A. in aviation can fly with 1000 hours; and those with an Associates degree in aviation can fly with 1250 hours. That was an increase from 250 hours.
Forcing pilots to build up hours means clear air touch and go landings in a Cessna, flying through the same airspace and in and out of the same airports. It’s lazy flying, not real world flying experience relevant to life in the cockpit of a commercial airline. Pilots aren’t dealing with stalls, storms, de-icing, or numerous other problems that you want a pilot to be experienced in during this training.
In fact airlines have to re-train the bad habits out of pilots that were acquired during this phase of their experience.
No other country in the world has adopted similar standards, because they do not improve safety. In the U.S. they were adopted in response to a need to ‘do something’ after the 2009 Colgan Air crash where the pilots had far more than 1,500 hours (the captain had 3,379 hours). Congress needed an action, and the Air Line Pilots Association had its hobby horse that would limit entry into the profession, improve their bargaining position and drive up pilot wages by creating scarcity.
European aviation is just as safe as U.S. aviation without this rule. So is Canadian and Australian aviation.
And U.S. pilots do not fear flying over Europe, where most pilots around them haven’t trained under these requirements. Nor do they fear flying in the U.S. where foreign pilots are allowed to operate their airlines’ aircraft.
The FAA itself says that 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.
And 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….
We may see pilots flood the comments here who want to defend their financial interest by maintaining a moat and keeping people out of the profession, and who don’t want to admit that training they’ve had to go through and spend richly for was wasteful and counterproductive.
Not All Air Carriers Are Subject To The 1,500 Hour Rule
Scheduled air charters, where one business sells tickets and pays another to fly, have been able to operate outside of major commercial airline rules for pilot training, among other limitations. Contour Airlines and JSX are examples.
JSX has senior captains, recently retired from American and Southwest, mentoring co-pilots who can have fewer hours like in most of the rest of the world. This is a way to train the next generation of pilots under real world conditions, enhancing overall system safety, and allow pilots to earn a living doing so rather than going into six figures of debt.
The FAA has not expressed concerns – let alone safety concerns – over any of this. Each carrier operates legally, and has been subject to safety oversight. By all accounts the FAA has been happy. It’s only once special interests began making noise that they agreed to open a regulatory docket.
When regional carrier SkyWest proposed to operate a subsidiary, SkyWest Charter, under these rules on small community routes ALPA balked and began lobbying to have the rules changed. (They also pushed cities to reject the service in favor of inferior products.)
The Biden Department Of Transportation Says They May Change This
To the Air Line Pilots Association, the 1,500 hour rule was a hard-won victory and is sacrosanct. But they’ve seen an increase in flying, and in proposed operations, exempt from the rule. They didn’t realize the extent of the carveouts in the law they’d helped to pass. And they were livid.
After intense lobbying by ALPA, joined in by other unions and by American Airlines (which faces competition from JSX, both based in Dallas), the Biden Administration is considering putting smaller carriers benefiting from their exemption out of business – requiring them to follow the same rules as major airlines.
The FAA has published a “Notice of Intent to Consider Revisions” to Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 110.
The FAA is considering issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking that will seek comment on removing the exceptions for part 380 public charter operators from the definitions in 14 CFR 110.2 and delink FAA’s safety regulations from DOT’s economic regulations. If the FAA were to remove the exceptions, operators would then conduct public charter flights under the operating part applicable to their operation based on the same criteria that apply to all other non-part 380 operators, including the size and complexity of aircraft they operate and the frequency of flights.
Were FAA to amend its regulatory framework, some operators conducting public charter operations would need to transition from operating under part 135 to part 121.
This puts new air carrier models out of business. It raises their costs and makes them no longer viable, operating small planes with a limited number of passengers. But it puts a lid on competition for major airline union pilots, and competition with a better product that American Airlines doesn’t want to see.
“One Standard” Compromises Safety
The Air Line Pilots Association says they believe in “one standard” for aviation, that all pilots should be subject to the same rules. This isn’t actually true because they haven’t expressly lobbied to ban most private aviation, where the rule doesn’t apply. To ALPA, private-style aviation is fine if you’re wealthy but shouldn’t be available to everyone else.
Just as there are different standards for individual drivers licenses and commercial drivers licenses – driving big rigs and school buses – it’s also not appropriate for every commercial pilot to have the same level of experience. You don’t need the same experience for short hops on a 50 seat regional jet as you do long haul international flights on a Boeing 787 or Airbus A350. The union actually agrees with this assessment and is one reason that seniority dictates eligibility for widebody aircraft flying at major carriers.
Requiring small operators to abide by the same pilot training rules as major commercial carriers doesn’t improve safety, since the standards themselves don’t. It’s also one reason we’ve seen a disappearance of small market air service.
A pilot with sufficient training to work for a major will go do so, unless they’re paid as much at the smaller airline. But it’s one thing to amortize the cost of a $200,000 – $500,000 per year pilot across 150 to 300 passengers per flight. It’s another thing to spread that same pay across 25 passengers on a half full regional jet. It’s a major reason why “American, Delta, and United together ended flights to 74 cities between 2020 and this May.”
ALPA wants to see all flying done by its members, and flying only done by those at premium pay. But that means that some flying simply will not happen. And that’s what we’re already seeing today. This compromises safety.
Fewer flight options (and in some cases no flight options) out of small airports means that potential airline passengers either make hours-long drives to a larger airport or forego air travel entirely in favor of cars. And flying is much safer than driving.
The FAA Should Focus On Real Risks, Not Get Distracted By Fake Ones
In response to union lobbying, the Biden Administration is considering shutting down innovations in air travel and limiting air service to small cities. This limits consumer choice, and compromises safety.
The FAA needs to address real threats to air system safety in their own back year, like shortfalls in their own air traffic organization, not fake threats conjured up by interest group politics.