The FAA can’t win. Long reviled for inconsistently applying its own regulations, the agency is now being questioned for trying to standardize the way initial training is conducted for newly hired Part 135 charter pilots. The fact that FAA Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) haven’t been applying these rules consistently for many years is a big part of why many charter operators are unhappy with the FAA. Many FAA inspectors allowed previous training received by new pilot candidates, including temporary (contract) pilots, to be used to meet the initial training requirements of Part 135. Of more concern to some operators is that the newly interpreted standards cost operators a lot of money for little, if any, safety benefit.
The FAA’s standardization effort comes in the form of a draft notice that proposes to require that FAA inspectors review Part 135 operators’ training programs “to identify and correct those programs which erroneously issued credit for previous training or checking.” By incorrectly allowing credit for previous training, the FAA inspectors made it easier for contract pilots to fly for multiple operators. This in turn also made it less expensive for a charter operator to hire a pilot who flies the exact same aircraft type and had just recently concluded training with another operator. According to the FAA draft notice, “Regulations do not permit the crediting of such training.”
A comment from Henry Schubach, president and chief pilot of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Schubach Aviation, summarizes this issue succinctly: “I recently attended FlightSafety International in Long Beach for a GIV initial type rating, and 135.293 and 135.297 check. I attended with a friend of mine, who happens to work for a competitor on this same airport. We took the same class, on the same days, with the same course content, from the same instructors, took the same simulator training from the same instructor and took our check rides together from the same check airman. Before the changes contemplated in the action referred to in this letter, either he or I could walk across the ramp, take some company-specific training on the company’s [Part 135] certificate and go flying in each other’s airplane. After the change contemplated by this ‘clarification,’ each of us would now be required to take the exact same training again at significant cost with no reasonable or rational need, to fly on the other company’s certificate. The fact is this change will result in no realistic operational or safety benefit.”
Schubach continued: “What this change won’t do is increase safety or eliminate any existing risks or problems. What it will do is impose undue economic hardship on numerous [Part] 135 operators who use contract pilots for either all or some of their crewing requirements, and impose an unbearable economic burden on those pilots, who will be faced with having to pay for the same training over and over again. It seems to be an attempt to bring training appropriate to Part 121 operations to the Part 135 arena, where it clearly does not fit. The example cited above clearly illustrates the absurdity of this.
“The existing application of the rule has worked effectively for all concerned for at least the 25 years I have been in the Part 135 business. The changes proposed do absolutely nothing to enhance safety or efficiency of operations, but they will adversely affect costs and limit operational flexibility. In the difficult economic climate we are all operating in, the cost of the non-beneficial burden these contemplated changes will impose should be considered, and the proposed changes abandoned.”
The draft notice also, however, offers a small consolation, in the form of “guidance on constructing reduced-hour training programs based on previous experience.” The new notice shows how operators “may then also apply for a reduced new-hire curriculum for pilots who have previous experience as a crewmember in Part 135 operations and/or in the particular aircraft and duty position.” The notice “would cancel and replace FAA Order 8900.1, Volume 3, Chapter 19, Paragraph 3–1111.”
Prior Training Credit
According to Jacqueline Rosser, director of regulatory affairs for the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), “From our viewpoint, the FAA is taking this action because it is concerned that certain certificate holders have not been sufficiently and actively involved in ensuring that a crewmember is properly trained to conduct commercial operations for that carrier.” Carriers have to train and check each pilot they hire, she explained, and not all carriers are the same; “there are important distinctions that the carrier is responsible for ensuring the crew is trained for correctly.”
The reason that the FAA is cracking down on Part 135 operators’ training practices, she explained, is that “Headquarters became aware of credit being given for prior training and checking and [the agency was] concerned about its prevalence. In its view, such ‘credit’ is not authorized by the regulations or existing guidance, particularly with regard to credit being given for a prior evaluation or check.”
Rosser agrees with operators that allowing training credits doesn’t appear to have compromised safety. “We are not aware of any specific safety concern held by the FAA, such as a documented accident directly tied to crediting prior training or checking, but rather the need to emphasize the responsibility the air carrier has to ensure the capabilities of their crews.”
To resolve this situation, NATA submitted comments to the docket suggesting that the FAA “establish a rulemaking committee to address these issues.” NATA doesn’t agree with the FAA that it is necessary for pilots to complete a full initial new-hire training course for every operator where they are employed. But with regard to the draft notice, Rosser added, “we appreciate the FAA’s recognizing that the prior experience of the pilot can reduce the initial training required while still satisfying the carrier’s obligations for ensuring qualified crews are operating their flights.”
“I think this is going to open a hornets’ nest,” said Bob Oliver, general manager of TWC Aviation and a Gulfstream G550 pilot. “Smaller operators are the ones that are going to get hit. We [large operators] need relief just like the little guy, but we can’t not be in compliance until such time as there is a reissue of the policy and clarification comes out. We’re hopeful that more reasonable minds will prevail and there will be relief. Right now, we took a hard-line stance of compliance with the exact letter [of the law] with the hope in the future that we can get [the FAA] to relax it and allow us to continue to look for credit for training.”
Notwithstanding what the draft notice proposes, the implementation of the FAA’s decision will still be the responsibility of fallible FAA inspectors in FSDOs throughout the U.S. Some will decide to implement the rules one way, some might choose another way, and the endless debate about why the FAA can never standardize its approach to regulation and oversight will drag on into the future.