Monday, March 14, 2016

Regional airports say federal rule on co-pilot flight hours hurts business, reliability

Kirksville, Mo. -- After a Feb. 2009 fatal plane crash that killed 50 people, members of Congress followed with the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.

The law, which took effect in 2013, included a rule that required all first officers, or co-pilots, who fly U.S. passenger and cargo airlines, to have at least 1,500 flight hours in order to receive an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate. Previously, co-pilots were required to have a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 hours of flight time, in order to fly commercially.

As Congress works on the FAA reauthorization bill, regional airports - including Kirksville - are looking to change that rule, saying it’s caused a pilot shortage that resulted in canceled flights and a loss of reliability.

“Being a pilot is a terrific, remunerative career and it’s basically been blocked from lots of great people in the U.S.,” said Andrew Bonney, senior vice president of planning at Cape Air. “We basically just closed down a really terrific career path.”

In Feb. 2009, Colgan Air 3407 crashed into a New York residence, killing 45 passengers, two pilots, two flight attendants and one person on the ground.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the probable cause of the accident was the captain and first officer’s “inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover” along with fatigue, procedural and flight management failures.

In response to the crash, increased flight training, duty and rest requirements were added to ensure that pilots know how to react properly during difficult flight environments.

However, the Colgan Air 3407 pilot and co-pilot had 3,379 and 2,244 of total flight hours, respectively.

“The rule that has basically upended community air service would not have even prevented that accident,” Bonney said.

With the increased hour requirement, Kirksville Regional Airport Director Glenn Balliew said the airport has seen a lot more cancellations over the last couple of months due to crew shortages. The airport, which normally has two stationed Cape Air pilots, has had to cancel 46 flights between last November (24 canceled flights) and December (22 canceled flights), due to crew shortages. In the same months in 2014, there were only 11 canceled flights total.

The frequent cancellations have alarmed Balliew, leading him and other regional airport directors to pursue a change of the hour rule.

“It’s the reason that a lot of people think that Cape Air’s reliability has went down. They’re doing it better than anybody else, but they are also struggling with the pilot shortage,” Balliew said. “We’re seeing the effects of that here in Kirksville (with) canceled flights due to crew shortages.”

“Small community air service works when it’s very reliable,” Bonney said. “Cape Air is very proud (of its reliability).”

Balliew and the Missouri Airport Managers Associations have sent a letter to several Missouri senators and congressmen, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Congressman Sam Graves (R-Mo.), asking for a decrease to the hour rule.

During Graves’ town hall meeting in Kirksville on Thursday, he addressed the flight hour rule, saying he’d also like to the see the hour rule decreased for co-pilots.

“We’d like to see that lessened (and) moved back closer to the way it used to be,” Graves said. “The truth of the matter is when it comes to safety it’s not about the number of hours the pilot has, it’s about how that individual reacts to an emergency situation or crisis situation.”

A 2014 study on the current and future availability of airline pilots, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found mixed results regarding a pilot shortage for regional airports.

Data showed that the number of pilots under age 65 holding active ATP certificates decreased about 1 percent from 2000 through 2012, while the number of new certificates issued annually decreased 17 percent, from 7,715 to 6,396, during the same period.

However, data also showed that the issuance of new ATP certificates has increased since 2010, from about 8,000 to 10,000 annually. It also shows that commercial pilot certificate holders under age 65 increased 4 percent from 2000 through 2012, with an average of about 9,900 new certificates issued each year.

Cape Air first-officer James Barker believes the rule is good in the sense that it helps people feel more comfortable and safer with their pilots, but thinks the rule should focus on the type of training a pilot has.

“To me there is a certain amount of hours that I think you do need in order to become a safe and competent pilot, but there is a point when it just starts becoming redundant and can get you complacent,” Barker said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about how many hours you have, it’s the type of hours and the way you’re getting those hours.”

Barker started off with zero flight hours when he decided to pursue aviation in 2012.

Most aviation students graduate college with a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 flight hours, and then gain experience by accumulating flight hours and passing additional testing to earn an ATP. Before the rule change, regional airlines were permitted to hire first officers who earned their commercial pilot certificate.

In order to reach 1,500 hours, first officers are sometimes left paying for private flying lessons, which can cost around $100 an hour for a plane and instructor.

Bonney said he believes “people are choosing to go do something else” because it’s “erroneous” to become a commercial airline pilot.

Barker has been able to accumulate about 1,300 hours through Cape Air’s “farm team” program, which allows them to hire first officers who then earn their 1,500 flight hours and become a captain. Cape Air also partners with JetBlue for the JetBlue University Gateway Program, which creates a pipeline for aviation students to become first officers for JetBlue.

“It creates a defined path for that sophomore at an aviation university who knows what their career path is going to look like,” Bonney said. “The problem is not every airline can do this.”

After Barker hits 1,500 hours, he said he plans to upgrade to captain, move up in the Cape Air system and fly larger routes to gain more experience.

“If you want to have the type of hours and experience to be a true airline pilot, you need to be able to be exposed to (different flying conditions), because at the end of the day, those people behind you are going to be depending on you,” Barker said. “It’s really going to be, ‘What does your experience entail,’ rather than how many hours you have.”

That career-progression model is what Balliew said he would like to see when it comes to Congress potentially changing the flight rule.

“If you’re going to fly in our little plane, 250 hours is plenty. As you step up and you get more hours and you want to go into a regional jet, maybe that’s 750 or 1,000 hours, and then as you increase and get more hours, then you can move into the bigger planes,” Balliew said. “Right now, it’s all or nothing.”

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