RAA won’t concede defeat despite costly rule changes

 - October 27, 2010, 7:05 AM

From a distance, the reason regional airlines would oppose a new law passed by Congress that sets a 1,500 flight-hour minimum for Part 121 first officers might seem obvious: The pool of pilots from which airlines can choose prospective employees will inevitably shrink. The rules of supply and demand dictate that the cost of hiring first officers will therefore rise. In an environment where major airlines, through CPA cost concessions, have gradually managed to squeeze profit margins at their regional partners to their lowest point since such “cost-plus” contracts became fashionable, the price of the new legislation that now certainly will become FAA doctrine in three years appears utterly exhorbitant.

But to Regional Airline Association (RAA) president Roger Cohen, the reasons go far deeper than naked economics. Safety, he insists, has always stood at the top of the regional airline industry’s list of priorities, and to characterize Congress’s passage of H.R.5900 as a loss for the RAA would do the association a disservice. “I don’t think you can look at safety and improving safety in terms of wins and losses. This is not a ballgame,” said Cohen.  

In fact, said Cohen, several H.R.5900 provisions resulted from elements of the RAA’s Strategic Safety Initiative, such as a study of pilot commuting and research on identifying and managing fatigue in airline crew scheduling. “Virtually everything in there is things the regional airlines have been doing, had already done, were addressing or even had recommended, such as a single database of pilot records…We’re not in favor of [the 1,500-hour requirement] because we don’t think it advances safety. Collecting hours flying around in a Cessna does not constitute quality training; it doesn’t train anybody how to be a commercial airline pilot. We’ve said that from the beginning, as has the FAA, as has the Administrator, as has the NTSB chairman.”

Although the RAA says it supports all legitimate avenues to becoming a pilot, potential employers value the experience that comes with attending a four-year aviation school, where the typical graduate accumulates between 200 and 300 hours of flight time. But if applicants need another 1,200 to 1,300 hours of flight time before an airline can hire them as first officers, they’ll likely reconsider attending such schools, or worse, choose entirely different careers because the cost of acquiring 1,500 hours becomes so enormous, argues the RAA.

The industry did manage to convince Congress to remove some of the sting of the new minimum flight hour and ATP requirements, however, in the provision of the bill that allows the FAA Administrator to grant credit against the 1,500 hours for qualified training programs. Precisely how much credit the Administrator might grant remains under review, “but that’s where we are,” said Cohen.

Rethinking Passenger Protections
Add to the new pilot certification requirements a proposal to extend “enhanced” protections to airline passengers and an NPRM unveiled on September 10 that calls for new pilot duty time limitations and rest requirements (see article in AIN, October, page 20) and one might understand why the cliché “challenging” fails adequately to describe the regulatory environment regional airlines now face.

While the RAA tends to agree with the spirit and intent of such proposals, the comments it submits in response to NPRMs such as that titled Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections reflect some fundamental disagreements. For one, it asked the Department to withdraw “certain elements” of the proposed rule until it thoroughly evaluates the effects of the tarmac delay rule, implemented on April 29, and completes a satisfactory cost-benefit analysis. Only after such analysis, the RAA argues, could the DOT properly assess the  appropriateness of further regulation.

The Department should resist imposing industry-wide rules in reaction to aberrational behavior or rare incidents caused by weather and other circumstances beyond the control of carriers, continued the RAA. “The marketplace and media provide a more powerful antidote to those occurrences than does regulation,” it asserted.

“We’re all about serving the customer,” said Cohen. “But we think that further slicing and dicing these arcane kinds of rules is only going to further confuse the consumer and really not benefit them at all. There’s such a thing as TMI [too much information]…I think that you need one gatekeeper for many of these consumer issues and it ought to be the carrier from which the customer purchases his ticket.”

The RAA lists as “of major importance” to its members that the DOT revise requirements for customer service plans to reflect the Department’s recognition in its tarmac delay rule “that some of the subjects proposed to be addressed in the customer service plan would apply only in the context of the relationship between a seller of the air transportation and a buyer, and it would thus be not appropriate to mandate that carriers that do not offer their own reservation services or ticket passengers adopt a plan for addressing these elements.”  

Notwithstanding this apparent recognition, the proposed rule fails to expressly exempt regional carriers from the requirement to include such provisions in their customer service plans.

In fact, in the tarmac delay rulemaking, the Department acknowledged that the following elements do not apply to an airline that does not hold out, market, sell or ticket its services:

• offering the lowest available fare
• allowing reservations to be held or ­canceled without penalty for a defined amount of time
• providing prompt ticket refunds
• disclosing travel itinerary, cancellation policies, frequent-flier rules and aircraft configuration.

According to the RAA, of the 13 subjects listed in proposed Section 259.5(b), more than half do not apply to non-marketing carriers and other regulations address the remaining subjects. Therefore, the rule should exempt non-marketing carriers from the requirement for customer service plans, said the RAA.

Meanwhile, the RAA also takes issue with the proposed rule’s new requirement for tarmac delay contingency plans, which would extend the requirements to small and non-hub airports. Under the proposed rule, the DOT would require covered carriers to have in place contingency plans for all U.S. airports with at least 10,000 enplanements per year. “RAA believes the department got the scope right the first time by limiting the requirement for tarmac delay contingency plans under the existing tarmac delay rule to those airports where the most delay occurs,” the RAA asserted in its September 23 comments to the DOT.

Of course, the association never supported the original tarmac delay rule because, according to Cohen, it would simply lead to more cancellations and disruptions. “We’re still looking at the numbers, but I know cancellations during the first month were significantly up, because no one is going to want to accept that fine.”

Now, under the new rule, regional airlines in effect would have to coordinate contingency plans with each small and non-hub airport they serve, including diversion airports. “Indeed, one RAA member estimates that it would have to coordinate with 273 additional airports as a result of this proposed extension,” the association said. “Many of these airports have never experienced a single tarmac delay of more than three hours and some of these airports are served by only a few daily departures.”