Interim FAA bill includes new pilot training rules

 - September 3, 2010, 5:16 AM

Faced with leaving for vacation without passing an FAA reauthorization bill that would tighten pilot training rules, lawmakers stripped those provisions from the main bill and added them to the 15th short-term extension of funding, taxes and programs for the agency.

Families of victims of Colgan Air's Flight 3407 have been lobbying arduously for improved pilot training since the regional turboprop crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., in February last year.

Lawmakers said the latest extension, which expires September 30, will boost pilot-training programs, combat pilot fatigue and dramatically increase requirements for airline pilots to have more flying experience by mandating a minimum of 1,500 hours–up from the current 250–before they can fly "commercial aircraft." 

But some are predicting that the new requirement for airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates and a minimum of 1,500 hours could trigger a pilot shortage even though U.S. carriers will have three years to meet the conditions. The FAA and industry groups contend the most important factor is the type of training that is provided, rather than the total number of hours behind the controls.

Congress has been laboring for nearly three years to pass a new long-term FAA reauthorization package, but has been frustrated by controversial provisions such as union organizing at FedEx and approval of long-distance flights from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, said the extension addresses the immediate need to extend the FAA's authorities and includes significant aviation safety reform that lawmakers championed in the Senate.

"Without this FAA extension, we would have put our nation's aviation system at risk," he said. "At the same time, we are 

taking long overdue action on these safety provisions to ensure that the flying public can truly expect one high level of safety in our skies."

H.R.5900, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, was introduced by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I), and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, who negotiated with the Senate to add the safety language.

The bill includes key components of H.R.3371, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009. In March, similar safety language was added to H.R.1586, the primary FAA reauthorization act, which is still in negotiations to resolve unrelated differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

"I want to be clear that this should in no way detract from our efforts to finish the FAA bill," said Costello. "I am committed to completing that process, which is now in its fourth year, as it is critical that we provide stability to the FAA and our national aviation system by passing a multiyear reauthorization."

Among the safety provisions added to the FAA extension are mandates for more and better pilot training. Pilots would now be required to have an ATP certificate, which currently is required only of airline captains. The ATP requires a minimum of 1,500 flight hours and additional aeronautical knowledge, crew resource training and greater flight proficiency training.

H.R.5900, which President Obama has signed, creates stronger ATP qualitative minimum requirements such as flying in adverse weather conditions–including icing–and mandates the FAA to create and maintain an electronic pilot records database. The bill also requires all Web sites that sell airline tickets to show, on the first Web page display, the name of the air carrier operating each flight segment of a proposed itinerary.

The fatal flight was listed as Continental Flight 3407, although Colgan Air, a division of Pinnacle Airlines, was the actual operator of the Bombardier Q400 turboprop twin. Costello praised the families of the Colgan victims, calling them a "powerful, driving force" behind the legislation.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the T&I committee, said the inclusion of the significant and bipartisan safety initiatives in the FAA extension is the right thing to do. "I particularly want to commend the families of Continental Flight 3407 and congressman Chris Lee [R-N.Y.], in whose district the airplane crashed."

Both the Air Transport Association and the Regional Airline Association pledged to work with the FAA on new training rules. Regional airlines have been involved in the last seven fatal U.S. airline accidents, according to Costello, and pilot performance has been implicated in four of these accidents.