Most would argue that aviation safety should be a priority for everyone involved. As far as airline travel is concerned this generally rings true from the cockpit to the boardroom, but after a tragic crash, some questions were raised about the airline industry sparking the first comprehensive aviation safety bill to pass Congress in the last 20 years. The bill, now in the rule-making phase, has seemingly come under fire from all sides. The bill, known as the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 includes provisions requiring airlines to hire more experienced pilots by requiring all pilots to have ATP ratings and requiring the FAA to establish regulations on pilot fatigue and a system by which airlines can more easily verify applicants training records.
Most of these provisions can be traced directly to the crash of Colgan Airlines Flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York in February 2009. The tragedy of Flight 3407 exposed some of the darkest corners of the airline business and launched regional partners of major carriers, like Colgan a regional partner of Continental Airlines, into the spotlight. The NTSB report cited pilot error and fatigue as the causes of the fifty fatality crash. In direct contrast to success of US Airways Pilots in the “Miracle on the Hudson,” as it is often called, the Colgan pilots, having little experience with bad weather and fatigued after long commutes, flew into icing and lost control of the aircraft on approach.
In the resulting investigation a number of questions arose about the practices of regional airlines and the qualifications of the people behind the cockpit door. Major airlines, such as US Airways and Continental Airlines, typically hire pilots that have an ATP rating and more than 1500 hours of flight time and training. Regional carriers like Colgan, often seen as a step toward a major carrier, typically hire pilots with little more than a Commercial Pilot Certificate and 250 hours. That’s a huge difference when you consider that regionals handle more than 50 percent of all airline traffic.
This increase of more than 80 percent in required flight time has recently been called into question by and advisory panel. The panel, which is composed of individuals from the aviation industry at large, indicated that the requirement could be lowered by as much as two-thirds without compromising aviation safety. Unfortunately, while the proposal has merit, the families of those lost in the Buffalo crash have been sold a magic bullet by their representatives who are pushing hard to keep the 1500 hour requirement intact.
It is important to point out that both sides of this argument can see their goals met by a compromise, but this is unlikely given the state of negotiations. The goal of the Flight 3407 families to provide “one level of safety” really has very little to do with the amount of training versus quality. After all, the Colgan pilots would likely have performed similarly with 1500 hours of plain vanilla straight and level flight instead of specific training on flight in icing conditions. The fact is, the bill does not appropriately address the quality of training, because more specific training, such as in depth training on flight in icing, will increase pilot skill more than a generic 1500 flight hour requirement.