Bipartisan proposal in U.S. Senate moves to address pilot shortage

A proposed amendment in the United States Senate to a bill reauthorizing the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration partially eliminates training requirements that have contributed to the current national pilot shortage.

The amendment, proposed by Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota, makes other forms of flight instruction count toward the 1,500-hour requirement that originally only counted actual flight time. If the amended bill passes in the U.S. Congress — both Houses of which are controlled by the Republican Party – it would expand the training programs and allow pilots-in-training to swap flight hours for classroom time, significantly lowering the barriers to entry for a career as a commercial pilot.

“We have to have new solutions that provide high-quality pilot training and hours building,” said Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (RACCA) chair Tim Komberec, who has argued that other kinds of training are equally valuable, and sometimes even more effective. “These legislative moves show not only how important the issue is, but how communities have been impacted.”

Ever since public law 111-216 was enacted, raising the required minimum hours from 250 hours to 1,500, carriers have been lobbying with limited success to reduce the time requirements. In some cases, now, classroom time can already be swapped, lowering required flight hours to 1,000, but Sen. Thune’s proposal expands the opportunities for this sort of flexibility.

With estimated training costs reaching the US$200,000 zone, North American pilots can expect to pay around $15 billion in training costs over the next decade.

Families of Continental Flight 3407 – an organization that lobbied extensively to raise the requirements on pilots in the wake of the 2009 crash of a commuter plane that was caused, in part, by improper pilot training and fatigue – said that the amendment would, “significantly weaken the stronger regional airline pilot experience requirements.”

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Democratic Party minority, who authored much of public law 111-216, which raised the minimum-hours standard, has vociferously resisted any efforts to amend the law. “Each and every time this issue has come up, we’ve successfully beaten back special interests’ attempts to water down safety standards, and I will work tirelessly alongside the families of Flight 3407 to ensure we’re successful again,” Schumer said.

It’s important to note that both pilots involved in the 2009 crash had logged more than the 1,500-hour minimum set by Schumer’s legislation. RACCA President Stan Bernstein said the bill currently has bipartisan support from both major political parties, and called the developments “progress toward enhancing safety while addressing the pilot shortage.”

But even if the bill passes, the regulations would not change immediately. The FAA would still have to commence with rule-making, a process that can take a while.

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