Huerta Stands Firm On First Officer Qualifications
U.S. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on Tuesday made his second appearance in three years at the annual Regional Airline Association Convention. This year, however, all the traditional niceties reserved for such a high-profile attendee soon gave way to some pointed questions about the FAA’s role in promulgating the most unpopular rule to take effect since the so-called One Level of Safety mandate in the late 1990s. As the featured speaker at Tuesday’s general session, Huerta spoke of the need for the FAA to ensure the integrity of the Congressional requirement for first officers to carry an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, leaving little doubt that the agency’s advertised partnership with the industry comes with limitations.
Although, he said, the legislation did give the FAA the authority to allow “some flexibility” in how prospective first officers meet the new ATP requirements, it didn’t give it the power to compromise the spirit of the regulation. “We broadened that flexibility as much as we could in an effort to address industry concerns,” explained Huerta. “But Congress’s intent was clear. They wanted to increase the qualification and experience requirements for pilots. We’re open to discussing ideas on strengthening the pilot pipeline, but industry must recognize that the FAA alone cannot solve this issue.”
In a pre-convention interview with AIN, RAA vice president Scott Foose dismissed charges that the shortage of pilots has resulted from the regionals’ low starting pay, and asserted that a pilot’s lifetime career earnings compare favorably with many professions requiring similar levels of education. The problem, he said, lies largely in the fact that regulators did not follow most of the recommendations of an FAA rulemaking committee he chaired that called for a multi-tiered system under which pilots could earn credits in lieu of flight time as they achieved certain educational and/or experience benchmarks. The committee identified 14 different academic training courses for which prospective pilots should earn credits against the 1,500-hour standard. The final rule adopted only three of the 14 recommended criteria. The RAA now wants the FAA to revisit those recommendations.
Huerta met with the RAA board on Tuesday morning and told AIN that he stressed to the members that the FAA took full advantage of the flexibility the law provided to consider military service and educational credit in lieu of flight hours. “It’s a conversation we will continue to have with industry as we look for [answers to] how do we deal with our long-term pilot requirements,” he said. During talks with the RAA, Huerta noted that the sides settled on a credit of up to 500 hours for some combination of educational and military experience. “There are some who feel that maybe we could have gone beyond that,” he conceded. “Our belief was that Congress was quite clear in its intent. They wanted an ATP; they wanted it to be an hours threshold; we believe we maximized the flexibility we had under the statute.”