Airline pilots and hours

After the crash of Colgan flight 3407, much was made of the relative lack of experience of the crew, both in sum and in the aircraft that they were flying. Both had minimal experience in icing conditions, and even though ice did not play a role in the accident, it easily could have. Both were clearly uncomfortable in an environment that, by airline standards, was routine.

Subsequently, Congress passed legislation that dictates the requirements for future airline new-hire pilots. The law mandates 1,500 hours and an ATP certificate. There has been much discussion about the merits of the law, with most arguments against it centering on the statement that a minimum number of hours does not guarantee a competent pilot. I agree, except that we now have minimum number of hours required—250—and we also have no guarantee of a competent pilot. another argument against a 1500-hour requirement is that the training industry will suffer tremendously. I disagree.

In the last decade, when the regionals were doing their most recent round of hiring, pilots were routinely getting hired with as few as 300 hours. Many of those pilots did not pursue a CFI certificate because they knew that they would not need it. Raising the time requirement will essentially force more pilots to become instructors, and the fact is, being an instructor does wonders for your abilities. Not only do your stick-and-rudder skills become better, but you are forced to engage in difficult aeronautical decision making processes, and you are forced—often for the first time—to test your mettle as a pilot in command. With the rigid structure at large flight schools, students do not often make a decision entirely on their own, especially when it comes to mechanical irregularities and weather cancellations. And there is nothing quite like have to decide whether or not a student is ready to solo or take a checkride.

Having flown with and trained a number of low-time pilots, I can speak to this: A pilot with 300 hours is almost never ready for airline flying. The academic knowledge that has been established is strong, but there are huge gaps between part 91 flying and part 121 flying. Further, there is very little “aviation life experience” to draw from (and often very little actual life experience), and the decision-making skills are nascent at best for such an environment. The situation does not much improve with 500 hours, or even 800 hours. The actual flying skills are also not as developed as they could be, though they usually come along in time. In recent years, the amount of training that regional airlines have had to perform with new hires to get them line-qualified has reached record levels.

So, what is the answer? The hour numbers are not as arbitrary as they might sound. For the most to be made of that time, it should consist of a combination of long cross-country flights (the kind that force fuel stops, and go beyond the comfort zone of the pilots’ local geographic area, to include overnight trips); flights into Class C and B airports in order to develop radio communications proficiency; night flights, including long cross-country flights; flights in a variety of airplanes, including something fairly fast; high-altitude flying (at least 10,000 feet), and as much IMC time as possible, including night IMC. Everything in that list is what a professional pilot will face on a daily basis. When IMC time is hard to get, then simulated IMC time in an airplane should be substituted. Further, at least 300 hours should be of the multi-engine variety, (if not 500) and finally, several hundred hours of flight instruction should be mandated, unless a pilot can prove that he was in a job that required true PIC decision-making skills (such as flying cargo, air taxi, aerial mapping, etc.).

While PCATD’s and simulators are great for learning skills, they are simply no substitute for real-world experience. Knowing that you can crash a sim and walk away is not the same thing as knowing that a crash in a plane will kill you. Your performance in the sim can not be viewed as a truly accurate barometer of how you will do in the plane. A certain number of the cross-country hours should also be solo, so you don’t learn to depend on someone else to hold your hand. While certain academic studies will probably be included in the requirements, the fact is that you simply can’t teach experience. You have to go and get it.

Would this make the pursuit of an airline career more difficult? Only if you let it. Would it make it more expensive? Yes, but in the end, that is a small price to pay. Bear in mind as well that the more experience you are required to get before you get the job, the more likely the airlines will be forced to pay you more to entice you to not only pursue the career, but to also come to their particular carrier.

In the end, I might be the one that has to train you—or recommend that you be let go because you simply aren’t ready. And it might be my family on board when you take the runway. I want you to have as many hours as possible when you get hired, both for your confidence and mine.

–Chip Wright






13 Responses to “Airline pilots and hours”

  1. thomas boyle says:

    Chip,

    I would say that it’s a fair bet that the training industry will suffer tremendously, as it gets swamped with a bunch of wannabe airline pilots willing to teach for food, who will make it impossible for actual professional instructors to make a living.

    For many years students complained that their “flight instructor” is nothing more than a wannabe airline pilot building hours, with no actual teaching ability or interest. And they were right.

    In recent years, with airline flying less of a draw, some people have actually begun to treat flight instruction as a proper profession in its own right.

    Now, presumably, those people will find it impossible to make a living as their market is once more flooded with wannabe airline pilots.

  2. Ryan S says:

    I’m going to disagree a bit with this opinion piece. The best instructors I’ve met on average are the guys instructing who are motivated teachers, not aspiring airline guys. That’s not saying that the airline guys are bad, just that the more guys who don’t intend to go to the airlines tend to be more committed to the training process and their long-term reputation. The real problem I see is that if we have a large number of wannabe airline pilots trying to get 1200 hours by instructing, at some point you reach a critical mass of instructors – who will likely be fairly desperate to try and get enough hours. That will have the positive benefit for some students who may get better instructor rates, but will likely hurt the instructor industry in general by making it harder for the more long-term, professional instructors to charge enough to make a decent living – something that a lot of instructors already find challenging. In the long run, this may also make it harder for the airlines to hire enough pilots as well.

  3. Greg Brown says:

    Chip, I am with you on this 100%. Greg

  4. Wyatt Dardano says:

    In response to the Airline Pilots & Hours article: Become an Instructor! There is nothing more rewarding than passing knowledge to an individual who aspires to master what you are teaching. The hours will come. I believe instructing will make you a better aviator. I also believe that if you truly love flying, education is the place to be………..If God allows, it will be the route I will someday take……….;

    Wyatt.

  5. Michael Shaw says:

    While in general I support the idea of more flight experience, I still have a problem with un-managed experience. I believe that experience is often one of the worst teachers! We learn that we can get away with it, what ever poor judgement “it” is, or poor skill, etc.

    Without a managed process to develop experience with simply become comfortable with our poor habits.

  6. Kevin Collins says:

    Chip, I understand the points you make about acting as an instructor and flying a wider variety of missions preparing one better for life as an airline pilot. From an economics standpoint, however, I think you are being optimistic. I don’t see how raising the minimum requirements for an entry-level position will force airlines to pay more for that position. As long as the supply of applicants is adequate, the airlines will have no incentive to change their salary scales. Do you think the supply will dry up due to the increasing difficulty and cost? Or is it possible that the pilot unions will use this to force management to increase entry-level pay?

    WRT the impact on student pilots, I have seen both sides of the coin but think the overall impact will be negative. The instructor for my primary training was a young guy who aspired to flying for the airlines, but he was also a good, enthusiastic teacher. I can’t say the same about the several other airline pilot hopefuls I have seen instruct. Like Ryan, the best instructors I have seen want to be great instructors, not great airline pilots. In addition to thousands of flying hours, they have thousands of hours as an instructor. That gives them a wealth of knowledge upon which to draw when deciding how to best get a student past a particular problem.

  7. Cary Alburn says:

    I agree that more “real world” experience is desirable, but I also think that more “make and model” experience should be mandated–with an experienced old hand in that make and model in the other seat. I don’t like that Congress is doing the mandating, though–they’re about as unqualified to determine pilot qualifications as my deceased aunt!

    For instance, I have my Comm, Instrument, CFI, & CFII and some 2200 hours in singles, with roughly 3/4 of that in Cessnas, and that’s further divided down into all of the Cessna single line with more in 172s and 182s than in the others. The other 1/4 is divided among several other singles. I’ve been told that I’m a good pilot, by both passengers and instructors, and some have questioned why I haven’t gone for my ATP, since I generally fly to ATP standards. I’ve also instructed in 172s and 182s, so I’ve learned how to avoid being killed by students.

    So let’s assume that I decided to get my multi, and I then amassed some 300 hours in a Seneca. Then I would be a 2500 hour pilot with SE & ME, CFI, & CFII. Then I get type rated in a regional turboprop at some school of the ATP sort. That makes me a qualified left-seater for a regional, right?

    I don’t think so. Because in reality, while I have lots of experience in all sorts of weather in light singles, my multi and my regional turboprop experience would be pretty minimal–I would still be just a 300 hour pilot in ME and a rank newbie in the turboprop. No matter how well I could handle that airplane, I would still be a newbie.

    Obviously, moving from newbie to experienced Captain takes time (both calendar and hours) and maturity–and all of that is hard to judge in terms of readiness to do the job safely. So just adding total hour times and ratings isn’t the total answer, by a long shot. Careful examination, judging not only skill but maturity and judgment, needs to be the goal, not just hour accumulation.

    Cary

  8. Jason says:

    All of the above arguments are fine and dandy. No one how ever has directly pointed out the students to instructors ratio required to get an “airline wannabe” to 1500 hours. Ryan S mentioned it with critical mass but he was talking about career instructors trying to compete with guys willing to instruct for food.

    Pay rates aside, there simply wont be enough students to go around. A private pilots can get his license in 60 hours. (Yes I know regs allow for less but in the real world where some stuff takes longer than the Jeppessen syllabus Ive seen an average of 60ish hours.) Only 50ish of that is with the instructor when you count solos, solo cross countries, stage checks etc. So if an instructor is only going to get 50 hours per student then he’ll need about 25 students to get him up to 1500 hours (obviously he wont have student paying for the time he needs to get his own ratings…usually 300ish) Other students give less time than that. Every single multi student I had we done in less than 10 hours. By the time a student gets to a multi rating they are typically beyond the point of quitting, they will get their CFI’s (I got my CFI before my multi-rating actually) and need students of their own to get them to 1500ish hours.

    Soon you’ll reach a point where there are too few students for too many instructors (because a high precentage all the students will gone on to be instructors) and soon youll have a bunch of airline wannabes who are gonna get stuck trying to have to pay for even more flight time (or worse a great majority will just falsify their logbooks)

    The jobs that used to be in between CFI and airline pilot just arent there anymore. The internet has gotten rid of check carrying, 135 cargo jobs are rare enough now that theres not even enough of those for all the airline wannabes.

    Airline wannabee are gonna get stuck taking out medical school sized loans for a job that starts at 30k (at a good regional)and wont break 50k for a long time until you sit in the left seat. That doesnt make much economic sense. Airline wannabes are going to all but disappear.

    Some say “well…the starting pay will go up”. I say in the age of travel websites where the majority of customers still click the lowest fare regardless of number of connections, regardless of number of connections or amenities offered on the flight, a regional operation unfortunately cant pay guys enough to take out a student loan like a medical student would. Oh by the way, who would lend a guy several hundred thousand dollars when hes going to be making regional airline pay for at least a decade.

    I understand the need for safety, I understand the need for well trained pilots, I would love for my pay at my regional to go up. Unfortunately the current economics of the airline industry do not support it. The economics of the industry need to change and then the ability to pay regional FOs enough to make 300k in student loans worthwhile enough for people to want to enter this industry.

    As a final note…when was the last crash that was directly caused by an inexperienced FO? I cant think of one either. Yes the FO at Colgan was hired with few hours but didnt she have 1000+ at the time of the crash? Wasnt it much more the fact they werent paying attention and stalled the aircraft..? If I remember stall are more or less fight lesson 2 or 3. Its a stall is not something you learn about only with lots of experience, its on of the things that is taught first.

  9. Chris says:

    Even as a lowly Student Pilot (whose aspirations are limited to becoming a safe, proficient Private Pilot), frequent passenger on commercial flights, and current employee of a very large government agency, I can easily appreciate the desire for the Ideal ATP Newbie. But, unless our goal here is to increase airline safety by ensuring more people choose Greyhound or Amtrak, I don’t think this is the way to achieve it.

    I firmly believe these new requirements will have little if any net positive effect on the airline industry because the notion is based entirely on a narrow, academic view of some Utopian ideal. At Utopian Air, overhead is low, profits are high, competition is friendly, customers are always happy and cooperative, flights are always on schedule, and there is an endless stack of resumes from 1500-hour Chuck Yeager clones that are happy to work endlessly for peanuts. At Utopian Air, everything is so great that literally the only thing they need worry about is safety.

    But, in the real world, overhead is painfully high, competition is fierce, and profit margins are razor thin. And, now the government has, once again, arbitrarily inflated the overhead that airlines must overcome. Aside from any gains (real or perceived) in the quality of candidate pilots, increasing the minimum hours required will result in two things. First, the number of ATP hopefuls that will actually make it to eligibility will drop simply because they cannot justify the tremendous investment of time and money. Second, those who do make the cut will be arriving at the starting gate not simply as young, brash pilots desperate for a job that gets them in the cockpit, but as older, more seasoned aviators with debts to pay, and (in many cases) families to support. They will demand higher salaries because they have no choice and airlines will have no choice but to pay them because they will have to compete with other carriers in a smaller applicant pool and because pilot unions will insist on it because it will make their younger members happy and their older members will then be in a position to demand a raise for themselves. And, meanwhile, real-world passengers will continue to lament the cost of flying and will either seek more ways to force airlines to compete or they will simply seek other modes of travel. (Remember, the security line at the train station is already shorter.)

    Since when do one or two (or even three) cases an epidemic make? The last time I checked, flying by commercial airliner was still (statistically speaking) far and away the safest form of travel. Has this changed? Did I miss a memo? Absolutely *nothing* that mixes human beings, complex man-made machines, and dodging the will of Mother Nature at high speeds and high altitudes can *ever* be 100% guaranteed safe at all times. So, what are we hoping to achieve here?

    More importantly, what was the last commercial sector that actually thrived (rather than merely evolved and survived) under arbitrary government restriction and regulation? Do we really think that (particularly given the rather fragile state of GA) encouraging further government intervention in aviation is really the way to “improve” things?

  10. Don says:

    I’m a private pilot working towards my instrument with hopes of commercial & multi. Despite my age (55) my goal was to make it to a regional carrier but with the change in regulations the odds of me making it are now slim. At best it seems the best I’ll be able to do is instruct (which is fine) or fly for a Part 135 operator ( which again is fine). Jason’s scenario on the number of students needed to complete the required hours plus the cost for the ratings really hits home. Where I live there isn’t that much demand and I doubt the flight school I train at has much more than 30 students divided amongst 6 CFI’s. Aviation unfortunately is one of the fields that costs a lot to get into with little return for many years along with the uncertainty of steady employment. If it doesn’t happen for me that’s okay. My primary goal has been reached and after instrument maybe a multi and call it good.

  11. James says:

    Of course more time and experience can’t hurt. I am in favor of the proposed rule, but also I think it doesn’t get to the heart of the real issue (as I see it).

    The real issue is weeding out pilots who don’t have the skills whether they be stick and rudder skills or poor decision making ability. The current certification system allows for anyone who wants a certificate bad enough to get one. Whether that be endless chances at obtaining a certificate or the certification process itself. There are those instructors that care more about their pass rate than their student’s skills. They make sure these students take their practical test with a “Santa Claus” examiner that issue marginal applicants certificates.

    The current DPE program rewards designated pilot examiners that pass nearly every applicant they meet. Examiners that administer a “true” practical suffer because instructors don’t send their students to them. Santa Claus examiners schedules are booked and they make plenty of money. Examiners who value holding the “keys to the kingdom” suffer for lack of work. This entire system is flawed and should be fixed.

    The FAA doesn’t correlate the part 91 world with the part 121 world. Part 121 gets most of the focus because when they crash, a lot of people sadly get injured or lose their lives. When the small GA aircraft goes down, the loss of life isn’t nearly as great and it isn’t a national story. In my opinion, the bulk of the money and time of the FAA should be spent on pilot certification and training. Ensuring that only those truly qualified hold a pilot certificate.

    I worked for eight years as an instructor at a large aviation university and saw plenty of VERY low time pilots get regional airline jobs. Some were up the the challenge and others were not. I took a job with a regional airline and held an ATP certificate when I took a first officer position. Listening to the captains complain about all the low time pilots and hear the stories of the things they would do was shocking to say the least. If the passengers only had a clue!

    We were all low time pilots once so I’m not saying that being new and learning is a bad thing. However I don’t think the time to be learning basic skills is when you have 50, 70 or more passengers sitting behind you.

    Having an ATP certificate won’t ensure that only the best get airline jobs. Hopefully it will help to make sure those new hire pilots have had time to learn basic skills and had time to make important ‘go/no go” decisions on their own.

    The current system of a multi-pilot crew works because you have a 50/50 chance that at least one pilot knows what they are doing. The danger doesn’t come only from the new hire, low time FO. A first officer that slipped through the cracks that was able to keep on “slipping” their way to captain is.

  12. Chip Wright says:

    I would like to address several of the comments that were given to the original post. Much was made of the opinion that those thinking of pursing flying as a career will be unenthusiastic due to the new hour requirements. To that I say good riddance. If a pilot planned on buying a job with an investment in a commercial certificate and two hundred fifty hours of total time (and this is what happened at a lot of schools in the prelude to the banking crisis and economic tumble), but feels that having to work toward 1500 is “too hard,” then, quite frankly, none of us really wants that individual in our plane. They will not appreciate where they are if they didn’t have to show some true dedication and grit to make it to the front office (and no, making a loan payment every month does not count in this case as dedication and grit). A good pilot is more than just a control manipulator, and he does not feel a sense of entitlement just because he took out a huge loan to attend the University of Learn to Fly Here. He is passionate and loves to fly for flying’s sake, and he will look at the ATP requirement as both a challenge and an opportunity, not just as a barrier.

    As for the concern that the best instructors are teaching because they love to teach, and not because they are targeting bigger things, I agree whole-heartedly that a love of teaching is a benefit to all involved. I’ve had both airline-oriented and non-airline-oriented CFI’s, and I learned much from both. The ones that did not want to make teaching the end game were still good instructors, even if they had made clear that teaching was not their first love. However, while this concern has some validity to it, I also believe that the severity of it on the whole is over-blown. Most CFI’s strive to do a good, honest, and fair job. If there does indeed turn out to be a glut of CFI’s, then the lousy ones will find their clients—not students, but clients—looking elsewhere on the airport, the same as happens now. The good CFI’s won’t want for work, especially if they effectively market themselves (another topic for another day).

    Let’s talk about the economics of the situation. Two comments stood out. First, “I don’t see how raising the minimum requirements for an entry-level position will force airlines to pay more for that position. As long as the supply of applicants is adequate, the airlines will have no incentive to change their salary scales. Do you think the supply will dry up due to the increasing difficulty and cost?” Yes, I do. Just like anything else, supply and demand will rule the day here, especially as the age 65 rule begins to drain pilots from the major airlines in the next eighteen to twenty four months. The fact is that right now, at this point in time, many pilots and pilot wanna-bes will look at the new requirements and focus their attention elsewhere. Why? Because they get no more of a return on the investment of their time and/or their money in either the short or the long term. This goes back to what I said about the sacrifices required. Some will simply decide that the cost to learn to fly, and then to work to earn the necessary hours to earn $20,000 in their first year isn’t worth it. The airlines, specifically the regionals, will be forced to pay more to entice people to choose the career. Second,”[o]r is it possible that the pilot unions will use this to force management to increase entry-level pay?” This too is true, but for several reasons, and yes, the desire to earn more for entry level positions is one of them. But the unions also feel that this is a safety issue as well. To attract the best prospects, and thus ensure the safest operation, the pay will have to reflect that. We will ALL benefit: pilots, passengers, the flying public and the airlines.

    Keep in mind that personal economics in part played a role in the Colgan accident. The pay for the crew was such that each was forced to commute to work. The FO specifically had to commute across the country. While the final report listed the single probable cause as pilot error, it also talked about fatigue. The fatigue was, in this accident, more attributable to the economic stresses placed on the crew than were the working conditions of the airline. The significance of this can not be overstated. Higher pay—or, if it can ever be made to happen, COLA adjustments—would have made it more feasible to either live near Newark or get a hotel room in a safe neighborhood the night before the trip. It would not have guaranteed they the crew would not have crashed, but perhaps in a well-rested state, they would not have made the errors they made. This sort of speculation is not really fair, but it is hard to avoid.

    I’d like to point something else out about pilot staffing issues. I got into aviation in the early 1990’s. Braniff and Eastern had gone belly up, and the pilots of Continental had gone on strike. Getting a job was almost impossible. The pilots at my home field routinely talked about needing 5,000 hours total time and 500 multi just to get an interview for a commuter job. It sounded insurmountable. One of the respondents points out that the old piston twin air taxi jobs or nightly check runs are not so prevalent. That’s true. They are not nearly as prevalent…but they are out there. Pilots will have to wear out some shoes and cell phone batteries making contacts, knocking on doors, etc. The jobs, the opportunities, the “lucky breaks” are definitely hard to find. But they are there, and the creative individuals will make their own opportunities.

    Last, but not least, Congress did not break down what that 1500 hours must look like, and I doubt if the FAA will either. In that respect, not much has changed, except more experience overall is required, that that alone is a good thing. Will pilots be deterred from pursuing an airline career? On the whole, I don’t think so. Keep in mind, the rule does not fully go into effect for a while, but like everything else, time will tell….

  13. JB Pilot says:

    Thank you for this article, Chip, and even so for responding to the comments/concerns of your readers. I am definitely with you on this that to raise the requirements to become a pilot should be highly considered by the respective authorities. That these “adjustments” will not deter aspiring pilots and instead make them more vigilant in choosing their flight school. It would definitely cost more money and would take more time for pilots to earn their ratings, but flying planes (especially for commercial airlines) is not about numbers, rather it’s about the safety of the passengers and their capability to overcome real-life situations.

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