FAA seeks comment on pilot certification rules

 - February 18, 2010, 5:38 AM

Following the NTSB’s February 2 report on the Colgan Air accident, the FAA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) asking for public comment and recommendations by April 9 on possible changes to regulations relating to the certification of pilots conducting domestic, flag and supplemental operations.

Two days later, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who announced an industry-wide “Call to Action” in June 2009 to gather information from the airlines and labor organizations to ascertain industry best practices and seek voluntary compliance with a number of safety programs, told the House aviation subcommittee that the ANPRM is intended to help the agency address the issue of varying pilot experience.
As a former airline pilot, Babbitt does not believe that simply increasing the number of hours required for a pilot to start airline flying is appropriate. “As I have stated repeatedly, I do not believe that simply raising quantity–the total number of hours of flying time or experience–is an appropriate method by which to improve a pilot’s proficiency in commercial operations,” he told lawmakers.

Certification Rules
The ANPRM asks the public to comment on basic pilot certification in four key areas:
• Should all pilots who transport passengers be required to hold an air transport pilot certificate with the appropriate aircraft category, class and type ratings, which would raise the required flight hours for these pilots to 1,500 hours (compared with the current 250)?
• Should the FAA permit academic credit in lieu of required flight hours or experience?
• Should the FAA establish a new commercial pilot certificate endorsement that would address concerns about the operational experience of newly hired commercial pilots, require additional flight hours and possibly credit academic training?
• Would an air carrier-specific authorization on an existing pilot certificate improve safety?

The FAA’s “Call to Action” aims to strengthen pilot hiring, training and performance, and combat fatigue and improve professional standards and discipline at all airlines. The FAA is pursuing both rule changes and voluntary safety enhancements.

One proposed rule, which will enhance airline pilot training programs, recently received more than 3,000 pages of public comments. The FAA is now developing a supplemental proposal that will be issued this spring. The agency also said it will propose new rules this spring to address pilot fatigue.

Toward One Level of Safety
While the Colgan Air crash was the impetus behind the “Call to Action,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) reminded that the disparity between the experience and training of mainline pilots and regional airline pilots was first visited in 1995 following a spate of accidents involving commuter aircraft operating under Part 135.

On Dec. 20, 1995, the FAA issued a final rule to establish “one level of safety,” requiring scheduled commuter (now called regional) airlines to operate under the more stringent Part 121 airline regulations.

“But the crash of Colgan Flight 3407 serves as a reminder that we must maintain constant vigilance over airline safety,” Oberstar said in his opening statement. “We must ensure that there is ‘one level of safety’ in actual operations.”

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, emphasized that Babbitt deserves a great deal of credit for focusing attention on pilot and aviation safety, but cautioned that given the rulemaking history on fatigue and other issues, legislation is necessary to enact these changes in a comprehensive and timely manner.

“My concern is not simply that the FAA is a few months behind on any one rule…As I have said before, I believe that unless congressional intervention or legislative mandates are in place, the time it takes the FAA to address the most critical safety issues raised by the accident is too long,” Costello said. “That is why we introduced H.R.3371.” The House passed H.R.3371, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, in October.