Faced with the tragedy of the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y., the Regional Airline Association (RAA) found itself in the unenviable position of serving as a strong advocate for its members during the FAA reauthorization process while not appearing unsympathetic to those who lost family or friends in the February 2009 accident.
In an effort to bolster safety, the House-passed version of FAA reauthorization calls for a minimum of 1,500 hours training and an ATP rating for all airline pilots as part of several provisions inserted into that body’s bill in March. The Senate version calls for 800 hours, unless the FAA fails to take action by the end of next year, in which case first officers would need to earn an ATP. That requires 1,500 hours.
Faye Malarkey Black, RAA vice president of legislative affairs, said the association couldn’t help but fall into a Catch 22, of sorts. “We have been lobbying, but we have to be really careful,” she said, “because anything we say just looks like ‘there you go, that’s the industry with a knee-jerk reaction against safety.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Black said that RAA continues to work with Congress for the best safety outcome. “This really is the crux of what we are doing,” she explained. If Congress strikes a compromise between the numbers of hours in the two bills, RAA members might not be happy with that. Conversely, if the association appears happy with it, then Congress might infer it must not be stiff enough.
“We’ve made the case on the Hill that we are not arguing against an increase in safety standards,” she said. “We are pointing out that just an arbitrary increase in the hours required for a first-officer hire would be contrary to improving safety because it has no focus on the quality of those hours and instead focuses on quantity.”
RAA suggests that accruing those hours would prove difficult. Instead of learning in a structured training program or a university flight school, potential pilot applicants would go out and perhaps do crop-dusting or tow a banner along a beach to build up those 1,500 hours. The result could be an exclusion of high-quality flying.
“We would like to see pilots go through the current training programs that are so effective and come out with the appropriate quality experience,” Black said. “What we are facing is the challenge to try to fulfill our role in advocating for our members, and that is what we are doing.”
Two Years of Work
RAA worked with legislators on Capitol Hill during the latest FAA reauthorization deliberations, which have been dragging on for more than two years since the previous reauthorization act expired in 2007.
“We’ve always been straight shooters on the Hill,” Black said. “We’ve always said the truth and nothing more or less. We don’t fundraise; we don’t write checks. We don’t have a political action committee. All we’ve ever had to trade on on Capitol Hill has been our good reputation.”
Black said that RAA was asked early on what it thought would be critical components of safety legislation, and the House version contained language based on the association’s safety initiatives. The association also provided to the Senate Commerce Committee an “unprecedented” amount of information on how its member airlines operate.
“The reason we did so is that we have a great safety story and I think some of that got lost [after the Colgan crash],” she opined. “I think the Senate and the Senate Commerce Committee were appreciative of that information and found it educational.”
As for the non-safety elements of FAA reauthorization, the RAA is “absolutely happy” with the bills, which are “long overdue.” Black noted that both contain funds for NextGen air traffic modernization, and “if you want to talk about improving safety, that is probably the most important thing we could do.
“We are appreciative that the Senate version of the FAA bill does not include a [passenger facility charge] increase; the House version does,” Black noted. “So that will be something to be worked out in the conference committee. But we are appreciative that the Senate did not impose that additional tax on carriers, especially at this point when we are all trying to recover.”
The association managed to get a lot of what it wanted in the Essential Air Service program, including a directive to the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue longer-term contracts to regional airlines to provide the service. Currently the DOT offers only two-year contracts, which makes it difficult for the airlines to plan ahead.
“More and more of my carriers are saying they would be able to get better financing for their aircraft and other operations if they were able to undertake longer-term contracts,” Black said.