As Communities Lose Air Service, Regional Airlines Decry Flight-Hour Threshold for Pilots
As Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Silver Airways became the third U.S. regional airline this month to announce significant service cuts due to what it called a nationwide pilot shortage, the Regional Airline Association amplified its message of opposition to a new rule requiring 1,500 hours of flying experience for new-hire first officers. The “arbitrary” number of hours chosen by regulators does nothing to enhance safety, according to RAA president Roger Cohen. Rather, it discourages young people from entering the profession and disqualifies from regional airline cockpits perfectly capable pilots, leaving member airlines strapped for crew and threatening air service to more than 600 communities around the country, in the estimation of the RAA.
“[The airlines] are being held hostage to a number, an arbitrary number,” Cohen told AIN last Friday. “Everyone was ready [for the rule change]. Every RAA airline met the rule and did everything that was in their control. There was no way to control the number of people in the pipeline, that were in universities or in training, to get them to 1,500 hours. You can’t create time.”
As a result, Silver Airways, Indianapolis-based Republic Airways and Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Aviation all had to cut service, and others have found themselves in a similarly untenable position, according to association vice president Scott Foose. On February 14 Silver announced plans to exit operations in its Cleveland network, retire its five 19-seat Beech 1900s and retrain or redeploy its pilots and mechanics to operate its “core” Saab 340Bs to its “key” markets. Not coincidentally, United Airlines has decided to cut the level of its United Express service out of Cleveland by 70 percent and strip the city of its hub status in April.
“Every member airline is feeling this pinch,” said Cohen. “And because of that every community that those airlines serve is feeling this pinch. You just can’t create pilots out of whole cloth.”
Consequently, Silver issued its required 90-day notice to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to end scheduled service between Cleveland and Jamestown, New York., Bradford, DuBois, and Franklin, Pennsylvania, and Parkersburg, West Virginia, no later than May 15.
For its part, Great Lakes Aviation on February 1 suspending service from Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; Ironwood, Mich; and Thief
River Falls, Minn., “due to the severe industry-wide pilot shortage and its relative acute impact on Great Lakes,” according to a company statement.
Not only small, 19-seat turboprop operations have felt the effects of the phenomenon; in fact, one of the largest regional airlines in the U.S.—Republic Airways—appears ready to institute the most drastic measures to address the shortage. In a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Republic said it will remove 27 of 41 Embraer ERJ-140s from service, 15 of which it flies for American Airlines and the other 12 for United Airlines. “Entering 2014, the company had 41 Embraer aircraft [on lease] which were scheduled to expire during the calendar year. The company believed it was well positioned to extend these aircraft under a fixed-fee service agreement,” the filing said. “Due to the significant reduction in qualified pilots who meet the congressionally mandated 1,500 hour pilot experience rule and the company’s rigorous qualification standards, the company is no longer seeking extensions for 27 of the 41 ERJ aircraft.”
Republic estimates that the rule change will result in the creation of 750 fewer jobs than originally planned at the company this year.
Cohen said he sees the pilot shortage worsening, at least until regulators decide to act on pleas from communities that have lost air service. “Seventy percent of the country’s airports have service exclusively from regional airlines,” said Cohen. “All of them are in jeopardy of losing some or all of their service, and communities much larger…those that have a mix of regional and mainline service are also in real jeopardy of losing some or all of their service. I would say if a community is not in the top 30 airports, [it’s] in jeopardy.”
As an alternative to the 1,500-hour standard, the RAA favors a multi-tiered system recommended by an FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) under which pilots could earn credits in lieu of flight time as they achieved “certain milestones and gateways,” as Cohen called them. “If that majority recommendation had been incorporated into the rules, we would not have this problem today,” he said.
As it reads now, the rule allows pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours of flight time or who have not reached the minimum age of 23 to obtain a “restricted privileges” ATP certificate, which, for example, exempts pilots with 750 hours of flying time in the military. Other exceptions allow for college graduates holding a bachelor’s degree to qualify with only 1,000 hours and aviation majors holding an associate’s degree with 1,250 hours.
However, the ARC identified 14 different academic training courses for which prospective pilots should earn credits against the 1,500-hour standard, including 350 hours for a four-year college or university accredited flight training program, 200 hours for a non-accredited four-year program, 150 hours and 100 hours, respectively, for an accredited and non-accredited two-year college program, 500 hours for military rotary-wing experience as well as the 750 hours for fixed-wing flying, 200 hours for military instructor pilot experience, 100 hours for any initial certified flight instructor certificate and 50 hours for each subsequent CFI certificate. It also recommended 100 hours of credit for a Part 141/142 flight academy training program, 50 hours for any Part 141 training program and no credit for a Part 61 program.
The final rule adopted only three of the 14 recommended criteria. The RAA now wants the FAA to revisit those recommendations.
“We certainly believe that as more people see what the impact an arbitrary number is having, change will come sooner rather than later, before all these communities really get disconnected forever and permanently off the global map,” said Cohen. “Every community ought to notify their members of Congress that this is a concern and then Congress can act accordingly, and I think everybody should let the FAA know about how much it’s impacting them…Because we believe it is within the authority of the FAA to make revisions.”