It took quite a while, but the FAA finally did the right thing—to a point—when it announced that it would give passenger-carrying airlines two years to institute new flight/duty time rules that set new, stricter rest period requirements and flight-time limits. Of course, it punted when the air cargo lobby insisted the cost would prove prohibitive to the likes of FedEx and UPS, doing nothing but encouraging those carriers to voluntarily adopt the new rules.
But for the nation’s regional airlines, which already face a potentially crippling new law aimed at increasing pilot hiring minimums as much as six-fold, to 1,500 hours, the latest FAA rule on flight and duty time limits appears more worrisome than some in the industry might care to admit.
To his credit, newly elected Regional Airline Association chairman and president of American Eagle Dan Garton actually sounded an alarm about how the new minimum hiring requirements and the new flight time, duty and rest rule will exacerbate an expected pilot shortage in the association’s newsletter, Regional Horizons. The refreshingly candid commentary finally contained an acknowledgement that the regional airline industry faces some real trouble, not only as a result of changing demographics and a “faltering global economy,” but also because of stricter regulations.
The fact remains that regional airlines face “challenges” from a number of sources, including their own mainline partners. Now managing barely positive profit margins, the majors have not only finally addressed their overcapacity issues, they’ve driven much harder bargains with their regional airline partners, depressing yields among the RAA’s member airlines to levels not seen since fee-per-departure agreements came into fashion. Meanwhile, the 50-seat jets that still dominate many of the regional fleets cannot make money as fuel prices stubbornly hover just below $130 a barrel.
Now, the regionals face the likelihood of far higher pilot costs driven largely by the new rules. Prospective pilots simply won’t invest the time and money needed to compile 1,500 hours for the meager $18,000 salary that regional airlines have become accustomed to paying new-hire first officers. That, along with the fact that the airlines will need to maintain larger crew staffs to compensate for the longer rest periods mandated by the new regulation, could finally end the practice of regional airlines acting as a sort of training ground for their mainline counterparts.
For its position on the new duty-time rule, the RAA referred AIN to a somewhat noncommittal written statement crafted carefully for public consumption:
The Regional Airline Association recognizes a science-based rule on pilot flight and duty time will advance guidelines for airlines, and RAA is reviewing the comprehensive final flight and duty time rule released today by FAA.
“The cornerstone of our efforts continues to be safety. This final rule is a culmination of considerable effort by FAA, pilots and airlines, which began with the Aviation Rulemaking Committee established in July 2009 and with RAA and airline member participation,” said RAA president Roger Cohen. “While we are still reviewing the rule, it does open the door for additional research, including our own efforts on a ground-breaking fatigue study of multi-segment operations by Washington State University.” With its continued dedication for safe, professional and reliable operations, and the need to balance critical safety initiatives, RAA also encouraged FAA to publish the First Officers Qualifications (FOQ) new rule. “Safety experts underline the importance of structured training programs, and the best and safest path to becoming an airline pilot is through rigorous, multi-dimensional professional and academic training—one based on quality versus quantity,” said Cohen. “Safety requires consistency and certainty, and therefore airlines and all stakeholders need an expedited FOQ rulemaking,” he added.
To the RAA, one need only look at the recent accident record of U.S. Part 121 carriers for evidence of the industry’s “dedication” to safety. In fact, since a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 crashed on approach to Buffalo almost three years ago, no one has died in a Part 121 airliner accident in the U.S. However, one can fairly debate whether or not the RAA’s efforts over the past few years to answer former FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt’s “Call to Action” might have come too late. Of course, the RAA argues it has always put safety first, but it can’t deny the Colgan crash marked the culmination of a six-year period during which regionals accounted for five of the six fatal accidents involving FAR Part 121 operations.
Unfortunately, the so-called One Level of Safety rule, which in 1997 mandated that all Part 135 commuter airlines flying airplanes carrying 10 or more passenger seats meet Part 121 standards, couldn’t force regional airlines to pay their pilots a living wage and work under conditions that promoted enough rest.
Maybe the new FAA mandate will force a change in culture that for too long has failed to sufficiently discourage the kind of irresponsible behavior sometimes exhibited by underpaid, overworked flight crew. The traveling public deserves at least that much.