The Wall Street Journal has suddenly realized that a lot of regional jets may wind up parked, and marginally profitable airline companies may become even less so. Many a small town may find itself without airline service, and the reason is what many in the industry say is the wrong fix. Congress passed a law that said new air carrier first officers must have at least 1,500 hours total flight time and an ATP rating. They also stipulate that some of that time must be in air-carrier environments, which is really tough to be exposed to in light GA aircraft.
My crystal ball is always muddier than most, but in the November 2010 Safety Pilot column, I wrote:
The law grew out of the tragic Colgan Q400 accident in Buffalo, New York, in 2009 where the NTSB determined “that the probable cause of this accident was the captain’s inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover. Contributing to the accident were (1) the flight crew’s failure to monitor airspeed in relation to the rising position of the low-speed cue, (2) the flight crew’s failure to adhere to sterile cockpit procedures, (3) the captain’s failure to effectively manage the flight, and (4) Colgan Air’s inadequate procedures for airspeed selection and management during approaches in icing conditions.”
Crew fatigue because of extensive commuting, a captain with a weak training record, both before and after he came to the airline, Colgan’s poorly implemented training to rapidly transition crews into new aircraft types, and a lack of appropriate oversight by the FAA for transitioning pilots round out my list.
Nowhere in any of this are the first officer’s flight-hour qualifications mentioned as a cause or a factor, yet a law has passed addressing a non-issue. This non-sequitur was caused by the understandable grief and outrage of the families who lost loved ones on the flight. They somehow were led to believe that the FO was under-qualified and she was a proximate cause.
The unintended consequence is that many aircraft will likely be parked until the training system somehow catches up. This may come as a shock, but the pay and lifestyle of regional airline FOs is somewhat less than sumptuous. Yet the required and expensive training comes with no expectation that upon satisfactory completion of all the hurdles, a reasonably stable and well-paying job awaits. Quality of training and proper air carrier oversight is essential, not simply requiring an arbitrary number of hours. Delaying potential airline candidates by another year and significantly increasing the cost is going to result in too few qualified people in critical seats.
The Colgan accident was tragic and avoidable. There was a systemic failure that needed to be addressed, but this result is disappointing. A blunt instrument was used when a scalpel would leave fewer scars and promote faster healing. Sometimes even good intentions result in an unintended and undesirable outcome. There are better ways to address the Colgan disaster. If you’re interested, read the full story in the November 2010 Safety Pilot column.
For those planning an airline career, be patient and persistent. For airline passengers hoping for a seat—the same message applies.
Most airline pilots get their start in general aviation. A strong GA pilot population feeds a strong airline population, and that’s good for both industries. With a contribution to the AOPA Foundation, you can take part in our efforts to help grow the pilot population and ensure a thriving industry for us all.