Bill would raise pilot hiring, training standards

 - August 25, 2009, 11:35 AM

Acting on calls for more stringent regulatory oversight of regional airlines after the February 12 crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 outside Buffalo, N.Y., the House of Representatives in late July introduced a bill called the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, which, among other things, would require all first officers to carry an air transport pilot certificate to serve in the right seat of any Part 121 airliner. They would therefore need at least 1,500 hours of flight time, compared with today’s comparatively minuscule minimum of 250 hours.

Although neither the FAA nor the Regional Airline Association would directly criticize the legislation, the part of the bill that would require ATP ratings for first officers appears likely to face special scrutiny, even though it wouldn’t take effect for three years after the legislation’s effective date. “As the [FAA] Administrator [Randy Babbitt] was quoted as saying the other day, it’s important to focus on the quality of training rather than the quantity,” said RAA president Roger Cohen. “I think it’s important not to focus too much on arbitrary numbers in aviation.”

The bill, H.R.3371, would require the FAA to establish a special task force that would have to report to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation every 180 days. The task force would be “at minimum, evaluating best practices in the air carrier industry and providing recommendations” in air carrier management responsibilities for flight crew education and support, professional and training standards, performance and mentoring and information sharing between carriers.

The FAA would argue that it has already launched an initiative ostensibly designed to do what Congress wants from the proposed task force; on July 21 it held the first of a planned series of 12 nationwide regional airline safety forums designed to reduce risk at regional airlines. “I’m pleased to report that airlines and unions are responding positively to the recent Call to Action from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and me to push safety initiatives forward now,” said Babbitt.

‘Best Practices’ Examined

The first forum, attended by 65 safety executives representing airlines and unions, focused on airline management responsibilities for crew education and support, professional standards and flight discipline, training standards and performance, and mentoring. The FAA said it will collect effective airline best practices and ideas and share the information with airlines and unions. FAA inspectors would then assess the airlines’ use of the information. The agency last month continued the open dialogue during forums scheduled to take place in Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Anchorage, Miami, Denver, St. Louis, Las Vegas and Boston.

Asked for the agency’s stance on the proposed legislation, an FAA spokesperson said the agency never takes a specific position on a pending bill. However, in a written statement, the FAA noted, “We share the NTSB’s concern about the risk that fatigue can introduce into operations. We have an initiative on a very fast track and expect to issue a proposal for new regulations early next year...” The spokesperson also noted that the FAA recently updated pilot training rules to include more extensive stall and upset training.

Beyond the requirement for the implementation of a task force, the House bill would require that the FAA implement NTSB flight crew training recommendations, which called for specific rules governing stall and upset recognition and recovery training and remedial training programs for crewmembers exhibiting performance deficiencies. It also calls for the FAA Administrator to convene a “multidisciplinary panel” that would report to Congress and the NTSB on methods to increase the familiarity with stick-pusher systems, icing conditions, microbursts and wind shear.

Cohen praised the part of the bill that called for the establishment of an electronic database of pilot records. The database would maintain records of any failed attempt by an individual to pass a practical test required to obtain a certificate or type rating under Part 61 of CFR Title 14. “We’re very supportive of a number of the provisions, particularly those that call for a study of commuting and to create a single database of pilot records,” said Cohen. “That was RAA’s initiative.”

Meanwhile, Cohen’s counterpart from the group that represents U.S. major airlines, Air Transport Association president and CEO James May, voiced implicit concern that the bill threatens to derail progress the industry has made under its own initiative. “The best process for advancing safety involves not just the airlines but also the extensive network of safety professionals in government, manufacturing and our workforce,” said May. “That process, reflected in the ongoing work of the FAA, the NTSB, the DOT/IG and the Aviation Rulemaking Committee established at the direction of the DOT [See AIN, August, page 14–Ed.], is in fact fully engaged in determining the best course of action in response to the Colgan Air accident. We believe in that process and we believe it should be allowed to proceed to a successful conclusion.”

Conversely, one group whose members stand to feel some of the most profound effects from new training and fatigue rules–the Air Line Pilots Association–voiced unambiguous support for the bill. “The bill promises to enhance aviation safety for passengers, crews and cargo by codifying airline industry best practices and making them applicable across the board,” said ALPA president John Prater.