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Viewpoints: Standing firm on the new pilot training standards

By Dan Carey
Special to The News

When Americans board a plane, they deserve the best trained pilots with the most experience to deliver them safely to their destinations. Being a good pilot takes knowledge, skill and judgment – and experience and training builds all three. Pilots rely on that training to respond in an instant. In those moments of split-second decision-making, there is no classroom substitute for actual time in a cockpit.

However, some in Congress, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., are trying to weaken standards for pilot training and experience by amending the Federal Aviation Act. This idea is alarming to us and our fellow pilots.

We were glad to see FAA Administrator Michael Huerta affirm FAA’s support for current airline pilot training and experience requirements. Unfortunately, some in Congress seem intent on disregarding that expertise and playing politics with airline safety. We’ve seen what happens when rigorous standards are not in place. For 25 years before the tragic crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009 – and before new standards were put in place in 2010 – U.S. commercial air travel experienced several heartbreaking incidents, particularly regional airlines. Before 2010, weaker pilot training rules were in place, with substantially lower minimum experience requirements to operate as a first officer.

And yet, some politicians and aviation organizations are aggressively pushing the fiction of a “pilot shortage.” This misguided and ill-informed effort has the potential to derail the significant progress made in air safety by pursuing unnecessary changes to reduce minimum flight experience requirements for commercial airline pilots.

Senator Thune’s proposal seeks, in part, to replace actual flight experience with “unspecified” training to allow pilots to earn their Airline Transport Pilot License (ATP) – the gold standard.

Onboard our aircraft, and for the flying public, “unspecified training” is not an acceptable substitute for experience.

And that supposed shortage? There isn’t one. Today, no major U.S. airline is anywhere close to experiencing a shortage of qualified pilots. Even among regional airlines like Envoy, Piedmont and PSA, there are more than enough qualified pilots for each position. A study by the widely respected RAND Corp. comes to the same conclusion: There is not a pilot shortage now, and there is not likely to be one in the future.

Enrollment in flight programs at major universities is up significantly. New pilots are pouring into the profession, and positions at major airlines are as competitive as ever.

Today, innovative airlines are increasing opportunities for prospective pilots by providing cadet programs, training reimbursements and direct pathways to major carrier jobs.

By claiming such a shortage, however, regional airlines can pressure lawmakers into lowering experience requirements, thereby allowing regional airlines to lower pilot pay. In effect, regional airlines want to create a tiered system of pilot expertise in which pilots who primarily fly to smaller locales would have less experience. Would we accept a system in which patients in small towns had to rely on doctors who only received “unspecified training,” while patients in major cities were treated by doctors who graduated medical school? Of course not.

In an ordinary marketplace, consumers wouldn’t stand for such a degradation in service; they’d simply shop somewhere else. But because of airline consolidation, regional airlines are the only game in town for many parts of the country. We don’t have a pilot shortage. We have an airline services shortage.

Instead of changing the FAA’s minimum pilot experience requirements, Congress should look at expanding airline service, especially in rural areas. One way to do this is by fully supporting the Essential Air Service, a program that helps make it cost-effective for airlines to serve rural communities.

We’ll be the first to say that the cost of becoming a professional pilot is high and, without access to affordable funding, is beyond the reach of many people. Even those who are looking to change training standards agree that this must be addressed. Let’s make that happen. We also believe that creating more awareness of the pilot profession is important. We need a program to help guidance counselors steer students to the cockpit, particularly in rural areas.

All stakeholders must take responsibility for maintaining safe, efficient and universally accessible air travel in the United States. Pilots are happy to hold up our end of the bargain: getting passengers where they need to go, safely and efficiently. We do it every day. Congress and the airlines should take responsibility for their end as well: Make regional air travel work for all Americans, without weakening training standards or sacrificing passenger safety.

Dan Carey is a pilot and president of the Allied Pilots Association, the largest independent pilots union in the United States, representing the 15,000 pilots of American Airlines, the world’s largest passenger airline.

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