11/13/2012

Federal Government increases the required training for pilots by six fold. No obvious safety reason, will drive up pilots' wages

Was there an obvious problem with pilot safety that needed to be fixed? The Wall Street Journal notes:
Congress's 2010 vote to require 1,500 hours of experience in August 2013 came in the wake of several regional-airline accidents, although none had been due to pilots having fewer than 1,500 hours. . . .
The law came about after the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 on February 12, 2009 in which 49 passengers and crew were killed.  The pilot, Captain Marvin Renslow, had 3,379 hours of flight experience.   First Officer Rebecca Lynne Shaw had over 2,200 hours, including 772 flying the type of plane that crashed.  So the particular rule would be irrelevant to that case.  Part of the problem seems to be pilot unions making it very difficult to fire troublesome pilots.  In this case, Renslow had a slew of problems.  From the WSJ:
Capt. Renslow, 47, joined Colgan in September 2005 after graduating from a pilot-training academy, employment records show. He had a history of flunking check rides -- periodic tests of competency that are also required anytime a pilot begins flying a new type of aircraft. Before joining Colgan, he failed three proficiency checks on general aviation aircraft administered by the FAA, according to investigators and the airline. Colgan's spokesman said the company now believes Capt. Renslow failed to fully disclose that poor performance when applying for a job. 
Once at Colgan, he failed in his initial attempt to qualify as a co-pilot on the Beech 1900 aircraft, and also had to redo his check ride to upgrade to captain on the Saab 340 turboprop, according to investigators. Repeated check-ride failures raise red flags, and large carriers rarely keep pilots who require such extensive remedial training, according to numerous industry officials. Colgan's Mr. Williams said Capt. Renslow's last unsatisfactory check ride occurred 16 months before the accident, and he subsequently passed six consecutive competency tests and completed three regular training sessions. . . .
Increased training requirements is simply a way to restrict the number of people who become airline pilots, thus driving up their wages.  The unions also push for classifying any crashes as involving fatigue as another way of restricting the supply of pilot hours and further increasing their hourly wages. Indeed, even in the Colgan Air crash, there has been a strong push to have it classified as due to fatigue.

The costs of this training is huge.  The first 250 hours involve a flight instructor and cost about $200/hour.  The next 1,250 hours don't require an instructor and will run about $150/hour.  That comes to $50,000 plus $187,500 for a total of $237,500.  These are the costs of training on a single engine plane, and the costs of multi-engine aircraft rentals will be higher.  Multi-engine training or training with jet or turboprops might be necessary to become an airline pilot.  The training itself can take a couple of years.  While there is no hourly restriction yet on the number of hours that one can fly in a particular week, fatigue limits how long you can fly and weather conditions will also limit flight time.

What often happens now is that people will get the first 250 hours of training and then become a flight instructor.  It usually takes someone about 400 to 500 hours of flight experience before they are hired by a commuter airline.  The new rule will effectively increase training by 3 to 4 times, but worse it will dramatically raise the costs of people becoming pilots because there is simply no way that all the new entrants can be  instructors for the new required amount of time.  

Currently this 1,500 hour training requirement even applies to military pilots.  Why make the requirement for experienced military pilots three times what it used to be for civilian pilots?  It isn't clear why military pilots need much training at all, but to have it be three times what used to work for civilians when there wasn't even a problem there seems unnecessarily costly.
The FAA is trying to soften the blow. It has proposed a rule that would lower the requirement to 750 hours for military aviators and 1,000 hours for graduates of four-year aviation universities. But the exemption, if it goes through, may come too late, and it isn't expected to help most aviators in training anyway, because they come from other types of flight schools. . . . 
The 1,500-hour mandate "has only discouraged a future generation of prospective pilots to pursue this career," said Mr. Cohen, from the regional airline group. Those who persevere "will try to get the 1,500 hours the fastest and cheapest way possible," he said. "Flying around in empty airspace or towing banners doesn't give you the training you need to fly a complex airplane." . . . 
One pilot for a major airline who I talked to said that the rules are definitely to drive up the wages of pilots.

All the responsibility for any errors here is mine, but I appreciate the comments from Tracy Price and Bill Clayton.

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