Recently, lawmakers correctly emphasized Congress’ transformative investment in the aviation workforce during the pandemic, as well as the enormous dividends it generated in stabilizing the US airline industry. Another aviation workforce investment made by Congress in 2010 was the tightening of qualification and training requirements for new airline pilots. We remind policymakers that these requirements have transformed flying safety as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
To be an effective leader on the flight deck, one must be an aircraft master. This includes all of its component systems, as well as its crew, passengers, and cargo, as well as the ever-changing environment that surrounds it. Safety is paramount for airline pilots, whether in an extraordinary emergency or under routine conditions, and the ability to ensure safety begins with training and experience.
Unfortunately, not everyone in our industry agrees. In fact, as Americans resume flying, some special interests are actively working to reduce pilot training and experience requirements. While passengers flying on US airlines today can be confident that their pilots have the qualifications, experience, and training required to perform their jobs safely, this has not always been the case. The Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010 is largely responsible for this country’s current exceptional flight safety record.
Congress acted to protect airline passengers after a series of fatal airline accidents, each of which was caused in part by pilot inexperience and inadequate training. The resulting federal regulations tightened requirements for airline pilot qualification, training, and experience. Credit is given for military or aviation academic training and professional pilot flight training, so that only those without an aviation degree or military aviation background require 1,500 hours of flight time to pilot an airliner.
Despite the fact that the FAA has issued credentials to a record number of new pilots — on track to exceed 10,000 this year — some in Washington are working to circumvent these first officer qualification requirements, while others propose weakening them to make it easier to become a pilot. If successful, such efforts would compel captains to return to their former roles as on-the-job flight instructors, teaching basic skills to an apprentice, rather than pilots-in-command who can rely on a fully qualified and experienced copilot.
The federal government recently rejected one such safety-improvement scheme by denying Republic Airways’ request to apply lower first officer qualification standards than the law requires. Republic claimed to provide in-house pilot training comparable to that provided by the US military and requested that the FAA allow its first officers to fly with half the experience of their peers. As veterans, we know that no civilian flight training can compete with the excellence of U.S. military flight training — implying otherwise is an insult to those who have served and continue to serve.
While the government rejected the Republic bid, another regional airline is preparing to exploit a legal loophole in order to apply reduced pilot qualification and training requirements to some of its small-community service instead of the current standards. SkyWest Airlines, which receives taxpayer subsidies to serve small and rural communities under one set of safety regulations, is now requesting to fly the same routes, with the same aircraft, and with less-experienced pilots under a different set of safety regulations. The airline received government contracts under one set of rules, but in order to avoid the higher safety standards, it is requesting a rule change mid-flight. The Department of Transportation must also reject this airline’s bait-and-switch scheme.
Other unnecessary policy measures are being proposed in the context of a record-breaking year for producing new fully qualified and trained airline pilots — all to boost airline profits. Some are requesting that the United States raise the mandatory pilot retirement age, which would go against the International Civil Aviation Organization’s age limit standard, raise safety concerns, and exacerbate the existing pilot training backlog.
With a better representation of Americans today, the United States can attract more pilots to the profession without jeopardizing safety. By expanding opportunities and removing barriers, Congress can help the United States maintain its position as the world leader in aviation safety and build a workforce that is more diverse and inclusive.
Airline pilots are the last line of defense on the flight deck. We don’t take off until we’re confident that the flight can be completed safely. When it comes to ensuring a safe pilot workforce, Congress is the last line of defense for passengers, crews, and cargo against special interests working to evade, weaken, or repeal regulations that have reduced passenger fatalities by 99.8 percent.