AIN Blog: Safety Carries a Cost for Everyone

 - March 14, 2012, 3:48 PM
Pilots in cockpit
The new rule stiffening pilot hiring requirements will cost regional airlines dearly. (Photo: Fotolia)

At a time a shortage of pilots has prompted regional airlines to contemplate relaxing their experience minimums to attract new first officers, the proposed rule issued recently by the FAA to require an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate for first officers—along with its accompanying 1,500-hour flight-time minimum—must keep human resource managers awake at night. It also puts alphabet organizations such as the Regional Airline Association in a serious bind.

To the general public, the RAA cannot show anything other than an unassailable commitment to safety, regardless of the cost consequences to its membership. To its airline members, its responsibility lies not only with projecting a positive public image but also with cost containment, which, in effect, translates into lobbying for less regulation, not more. Meanwhile, the members of the association serve another master—their major airline partners—whose interests sometimes conflict with those of the smaller airlines on which they depend for passenger feed or low-cost supplementary service.

In a way serving cross purposes, the RAA finds itself in an unenviable position. As a result, rather than taking a definitive stance on an issue, it must walk a fine line between projecting a commitment to public interest and delivering on its obligations to its members.

So when AIN asked for a position from the RAA on the new pilot qualification NPRM, the fact that it declined comment beyond a somewhat non-committal written statement on its website seems understandable given the circumstances. In effect, it did little more than restate its commitment to safety and emphasize the need for further study.

Unfortunately, all the study in the world won’t change the laws of supply and demand for the nation’s airlines. Fewer qualified pilots will mean a smaller pool of recruits from which to choose. Costs will inevitably rise for everyone.

In effect, safety cost-benefit analyses place a value on a human life. And we, as a society, accept a certain level of risk for cheap airline tickets. Unfortunately, it took the loss of 50 lives in the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air Q400 to expose the level of risk all of us had accepted for too long.

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As a professional pilot for more years than I care to remember I think this is a good thing for two reasons. First of all, no amount of argument will ever convince me that lowering of experience levels for aircrew in an increasingly crowded and complex airspace, can be justified on the grounds of economics.

Second, people are coming to expect that air travel should become cheaper and cheaper than it already is. They almost regard it as being like getting the bus to go down town. This is the reason we are seeing more and more start up low cost carriers. I think this NPRM is just the check aviation needs. It might weed out a number of the low cost carriers and let the remaining ones operate at a half reasonable profit.

There is one other consideration. Industry is trying to justify lowering the crewing standards based on the level and reliability of automation in aircraft. My comment on this is that automation can only handle text book failures.

The RAA obviously is trying to protect its own interests. In reality having separate "airlines" to control costs (i.e. pay employees poorly) only drives up the costs of doing business.

If the mainline airline took over the flying that it attempts to outsource to save money, there would not be a need for redundant management, HR, training, and maintenance. If there are 10 airlines involved under the "United" umbrella with 10 sets of redundant management, how is this more economical than having a large airline with one set of management and enough employees that actually move passengers?

I routinely see unnecessary delays watching passengers trying to connect on American to its affiliates American Eagle and American Connection. Many times planes are not allowed to park at an open gate because it is not "their" gate but "belongs" to one of the others mentioned. How is this serving the customer?

Southwest has been successful without the need of a "regional partner." The truth is that it would drive up the overall cost to move passengers from A to B.
Southwest is successful because it does not waste money on 25 Vice Presidents and multiple redundant managers. It invests wisely in what it needs to move people efficiently and safely from A to B.

The RAA's self interest is to reward and promote redundant management teams at the cost of providing stable and fairly compensated positions for aviation professionals.

I don't see why the Colgan air crash had anything to do with time. The pilot from what I have read came from 737's and had plenty of time. If you ignore the stick shaker and pull back when you are stalling it doesn't matter if you have 500 hours or 15000 hours, you are going to stall and crash. Just look at the French Airbus 330 crash off of Brazil for example.

As for Andy's comment on Southwest. Southwest only serves city's with over a million emplanements a year. Without the airlines like American serving smaller cities, a large percent of the flying public would be driving long distances to a big airport. Southwest only serves one city in my state and it is a 3.5 hour drive away. While Southwest does a great job serving a niche market, if they were the only game in town a large percent of the public traveler would suffer.

How are new pilots going to get 1500 hours? Banner towing? Flight instruction? I think once you get 500 hours flying around in a cessna 150 you are just as good a pilot as a guy with 1500 hours in a cessna150 doing flight instruction. The airlines paying guys 18000 a year to start is a disgrace. What other occupation do you spend so much money obtaining ratings and time to receive so little pay?

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