House duty/fatigue bill passes by wide margin

 - November 2, 2009, 8:32 AM

The U.S. House of Representatives passed sweeping legislation last month that could profoundly affect how regional airlines do business. H.R. 3371, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, passed the House by a vote of 409 to 11. It would require first officers hired by any Part 121 airline to carry an air transport pilot (ATP) certificate and for the first time since 1969 directs the FAA to review and redefine what training an ATP should mandate.

The requirement for an ATP in effect means that new hires must have accumulated at least 1,500 hours of flight time. However, it does contain a caveat that allows the FAA to consider certain academic training hours “that may increase the level of safety above the minimum requirements” as practical flying hours toward an ATP license.

The bill also requires the FAA to ensure that pilots receive training on stall and upset recovery, and that airlines provide remedial training for pilots who haven’t shown enough proficiency in those areas.

Other highlights include the establishment of “comprehensive” pre-employment screening of a prospective pilots’ skills, aptitudes, airmanship and suitability for func- tioning in the airline’s operational environment; a requirement to establish so-called pilot mentoring programs; the creation of a database to provide airlines with fast, electronic access to pilot records; and a mandate that the FAA implement a new pilot flight and duty time rule and fatigue risk management plan to better track scientific research into fatigue.

The bill’s sponsors, Reps. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), have expressed the belief that the more stringent requirements, particularly as they relate to the ATP license, will indirectly force the airlines to pay higher salaries to attract the talent they need.

Of course, the criticism directed at the industry since the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 has centered on the question of whether the airlines have allowed economics to trump safety, and not just when it comes to pilot fatigue. Within the ranks of the regional airlines, in particular, what some would consider ludicrously low pay rates for first officers have long raised a point of contention. The rates of pay, argue some, have resulted in less and less qualified individuals occupying regional airline cockpits. And as long as major airlines continue to “outsource” flying to their regional partners, first officers with thousands of hours who once flew for the majors will remain on furlough or simply leave the profession while far less experienced pilots flying for regional affiliates, in effect, take their place, testified ALPA president John Prater during a House aviation subcommittee hearing held September 23.

“Code share and fee per departure agreements mean that mainline carriers exert enormous pressure on regional airlines to provide their flight operations as cheaply as possible,” said Prater. “What do many airlines do to win this race to the bottom? They replace experienced pilots with less experienced pilots who fly for low-paying operators marketed under the mainline brand. They consider short-staffing to be standard practice, and pilot ‘pushing’ is the result.”

Prater, who led a dozen ALPA representatives to the FAA industry summit on June 15 and served as the pilot moderator at the first of 12 meetings that constituted the agency’s Call to Action initiative, complained that some regional airlines haven’t embraced the spirit of voluntary disclosure programs and continue to punish pilots who call in too sick or too fatigued to fly.

“Sadly, we continue to encounter managements and sometimes even FAA inspectors who remain convinced that the way to deal with safety issues is to punish employees for their mistakes,” said Prater. “I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: ASAP and FOQA programs will fail if they’re used as disciplinary measures rather than intended, to advance safety.”

On that score, most every airline member of the Regional Airline Association has already implemented the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP)–the FAA program that encourages employees to report safety concerns voluntarily by guaranteeing limited immunity from disciplinary action. But until recently regionals in general have not wholeheartedly embraced Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA)–the voluntary program under which most major airlines use quick access recorders and ground analysis software to monitor and analyze various flight and systems data to help craft a training curriculum, for example, or, more controversially, to apply corrective action. Again, FAA rules prohibit the use of the data for any enforcement action, but they don’t protect against its use to determine criminal or deliberate acts.

In a letter dated June 24, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt also urged all air carriers to adopt policies aimed at ensuring pilot applicants release all of their records while the agency works with Congress to update the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996 (PRIA). Further, according to the letter, the FAA expects all carriers that haven’t yet put in place FOQA and ASAP to do so.

As part of the so-called Call to Action, Babbitt’s letter asked for written commitments from all Part 121 carriers and their unions “to adhere to the highest professional standards” and sought specific comments on certain “key topics” such as pilot records, establishment of programs to monitor flight operations and safety and the development of professional standards and ethics committees by labor organizations.

“While I haven’t heard from everyone at this point I will use my bully pulpit to gain their cooperation,” said Babbitt during the September 23 hearing. “So I am prepared to make those who were unresponsive known to the public by the end of September.” [All 31 RAA member airlines responded to the Call to Action. –Ed.]

Babbitt also testified that the FAA has “prioritized” the creation of new flight and rest rules based on fatigue science. An Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) charged with recommending new rules began meeting in July and completed its work by the September 1 deadline. “Our experts are now reviewing the ARC’s recommendations; we have an aggressive timeline for completing the NPRM and we’re on track for it,” said Babbitt.

The RAA meanwhile, in cooperation with Washington State University and the Flight Safety Foundation, has begun identifying the elements of a separate study that would focus exclusively on the kind of flying done by the regionals.

“Most of the research being done has been on long-haul operations,” said RAA president Roger Cohen. “We believe that there’s a gap and that research gap needs to be filled.”

On the issue of fatigue, Cohen drew sharp rebuke from Costello for testimony that characterized pilot commuting as a matter of “lifestyle choice” rather than an economic necessity.

“That to me is an incredible statement, that it’s a lifestyle choice,” said Costello. “And when I look at first officer [Rebecca] Shaw, on the [February 12] Colgan crash, she left Seattle on February 11 at 10 o’clock [p.m.] eastern time, arrived in Memphis after getting on a FedEx flight at 2:30 eastern time in the morning, left Memphis for Newark at 4:18 eastern time in the morning, arrived in Newark at 6:23 a.m. eastern time, and then the flight left Newark at 9:19 p.m. eastern time–24 hours later. She was commuting most of that time. It’s hard for me to believe that that’s a lifestyle choice and it’s not driven by economics.” Shaw drew an annual salary of  $16,200, it was revealed at the hearing.

Speaking with AIN following the hearing, Cohen admitted he could have chosen his words more carefully, but he refused to concede that pilot commuting necessarily leads to fatigue or should fall victim to more regulatory restriction.

“Clearly, commuting needs to be studied,” said Cohen. “It is an element of Costello’s own bill. We strongly support that.”

On the issue of pilot training and qualifications, Cohen joined a chorus of “quality over quantity” rhetoric as it relates to the number of hours a pilot candidate should have to accumulate before he or she sits at the controls of a regional airliner carrying passengers.

Cohen and others argued that the number of hours a pilot has flown does not necessarily correlate with his skills or experience in a variety of flight scenarios. They also argued that the ATP requirement would discourage pilots from entering high-quality university-based programs from where they typically graduate with between 250 and 350 hours of flying time, far short of the amount needed for an ATP–in favor of the shortest route to 1,500 hours, which, detractors of the ATP requirement say, often means repeating the same flying hour in a single-engine piston airplane a thousand times over.

In fact, those concerns led to the provision of the bill that allows the FAA to count academic course work as flying time.

“Arbitrary numbers don’t necessarily translate into safety; it’s the type of training and I think that’s where everybody’s focus ought to be,” said Cohen.

Of course, raising the minimum requirement to 1,500 hours would shrink the available pool of potential hirees, raise the specter of another pilot shortage once economic conditions turn and potentially increase the amount an airline would have to pay to attract the experienced talent required under the regulations. Cohen, however, reminded AIN that by the time the rule would take effect in three years, most pilots flying today for regionals will have reached the 1,500-hour threshold due to the simple fact that so few airlines need new pilots during the downturn.

Nevertheless, said Cohen, “We’ve already made it difficult and expensive and the system has been geared to discourage young people from entering the profession, and you never want to set the entry level bar so high that it discourages people with a passion for aviation…I mean, what if you told every kid who ever picked up a basketball ‘Don’t even bother unless you’re going to make it to the NBA’ ?”

On the other hand, the counterargument from the likes of Jeffrey Skiles, the first officer in the cockpit of the US Airways A320 that successfully ditched into the Hudson River in January, must sound compelling to those who believe regionals have acted as a sort of training ground for the mainlines.

“It is apparent from the available information at the NTSB hearing that the actions of the Continental Connection [Colgan Air] pilots during the performance of their normal duty led to this tragedy,” said Skiles. “But I would submit that they were as much victims of the state of the nation’s airline industry as the passengers who entrusted their lives to Continental Airlines. They were simply asked to fly a sophisticated aircraft in challenging conditions for which their limited experience had not prepared them.”

Skiles charged the airlines with purposely seeking to limit pay by encouraging the use of inexperienced crewmembers. “In an effort to attract pilots at poverty-level wages, minimum hiring requirements have dropped to the lowest bar possible,” said Skiles.

“The flight hours that the FAA requires to qualify for an airline transport pilot [certificate] allows the pilot the opportunity to develop judgment and critical decision-making abilities that simply aren’t possible in a tightly controlled training environment.” he said. “Airmanship skills are developed only from exposure to challenging conditions and honed over time.”