Not exactly the intended destination

November 14, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

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.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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18 Responses to “Not exactly the intended destination”

  1. Bruce Ziegler Says:

    I always wondered if crew scheduling could have made any difference in the Colgan crash. I’m not familiar with all the details, but seems like a new captain was paired with a new FO.

  2. Mark Jones Jr. Says:

    I’m not sure it’s “the training system” that needs to catch up.

    I think change needs to start at the top–leaders in every corner of the aviation industry need to change the way they lead organizations. They need to lead with character.

    We, as pilots in leadership, need to grow organizations that are worth working for.

    After that, the pay rates will and working conditions will follow. We’ll be on the other side of the supply curve where we have highly qualified candidates competing with each other for jobs with salaries that the market can support.

  3. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Mark….

    I agree with you. The starting pay in many of the regionals is not a living wage especially in any of the high cost areas. I wrote about all of this in November 2010 column referenced above.
    There must be a balance between paying workers fairly and meeting shareholder expectations. Up to this point I’d say that the workers have gotten the short end of the stick but this law is not the way to address that IMO. Thanks for your comments

  4. Eric Says:

    Here’s the other side of the coin – The problem I believe in having these low quality pilots (Captain failed multiple checkrides, FO had low time and couldn’t afoord to live locally near her base), is the abysmal pay scale for a very demanding job. The pay is low because everyone wants to be a pilot and the airlines are hiring the people that can afford to live on $20,000 a year. WIthout time in the regionals, it is very tough to get a (slightly) higher paying major airline job.
    Many pilots in the military would like to fly for an airline except for the pay scales that are party driven by the airlines to keep costs low and also by the unions that care not about the quality of the pilot, but how long they have been hired. Why would a 45 year old retired military pilot with thousands of hours in heavy aircraft want to start at the bottom of the pay scale? They instead choose to leave flying and find something else or get lucky and fly PT 91.
    I am a multi engine ATP, have 2 type ratings (one in a wide cabin jet), and I simply can’t afford to work for a regional airline as much as I would like to.
    The answer is for the airlines to increase the pay of pilots and provide the quality of pilots the paying customers demand. The cost of the crew is very small compared to the costs of maintenance and fuel. Being cheap with pilot salaries is simply “nickel and diming”.

  5. Dennis H. Vied Says:

    The primary reason, IMO, that pay in the regionals is so poor, is that pilots will do anything to gain experience, and do it for free. The regionals are only taking advantage of that. This new law makes this situation worse, because there is even more pressure to acquire experience and ratings. This law needs to be repealed. Is there anything in it that is helpful to safer flying?

    The previous comment about crew scheduling pairing a new captain and a new FO is right on the money. They need to factor that in to their crew scheduling.

    by
    Capt. TWA (ret)

  6. Matt Nowell Says:

    Regional airlines past practice of “max extent of the FAR’s” work rules and food stamp wages are catching up to them. The fix is easy – let the market control the situation. If you want more pilots, pay them better and treat them better. The “shortage” was created by industry business practices, let them fix it with the obvious.

    Mr. Landsberg, this is the RAA’s problem, why is the AOPA concerned? General aviation is far better supported by professional pilots such as myself than by the regional airline industry. Regionals treating pilots as chattel does nothing to promote general aviation.

  7. JOHN KELLER Says:

    Bet you didn’t know this? Section 602 of the FAA Act of 1958, para (c), in part reads…”Certificates issued to all pilots serving in scheduled air transportation service shall be designated “airline transport pilot” of the proper class. So, I think someone had thought of this issue and placed it in the ACT way back then for a purpose. Wonder why it was interpreted as only for the Pilot-in-Command? The wording of the ACT is very specific when it stated, “all pilots.” The copy of The FAA ACT shows a revised date of March 1, 1977. Food for thought??

  8. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Matt…

    The reason for weighing in is that GA is the training ground for the airlines these days. This law has a significant distorting effect that creates lots of instability – bad both for flight schools, universities and career aspirants.

    Without getting into a political discussion, this law is not letting the market control the situation. Arbitrary regulation in the name of safety creates significant expense and complexity without addressing the real safety issues. I’m afraid that has what has happened here.

    I believe that some regional airlines are not treating their people fairly and that’s a discussion where AOPA does not have skin in the game.

    Your comments are appreciated!

  9. Don Kelly Says:

    Describing Congress’s fix to problems identified in the Colgan Air crash as using a bludgeon instead of a scapel is being far to generous to the enacted solution. The fix doesn’t actually do anything to fix the problems, it makes them worse. There’s also more than a little bit of irony in one writer who suggests that more regulation will somehow result in better free market results in the regional carriers. Regional carriers are not a substitute for charter flights, but hurting one segment of the industry is not good in the long term for everyone else.

    I am not a deregulation fan, however the FAA has a death grip around the neck of GA, and the results are obvious. Fewer students entering the pipeline, fewer pilots being licensed, and fewer pilots advancing their ratings. In the name of safety we have nonsensical regulation on both pilots and aircraft. At the end of the day safety IS improved, because fewer planes in the air means fewer potential crashes. It’s like a doctor telling you, “the good news is your dead relative will never get sick again.”

  10. John Says:

    Don Kelly’s points are on target. Just like the NTSB’s new focus on GA safety and the FAA’s effort to steadily trend toward zero accidents, there is a systemic failure to recognize that (a) “GA” involves a lot of people making very personal choices, usually with a thin to non-existant support network [aka "airline dispatch, recurrent training, equipment, and extraordinarily well maintained facilities"]; (b) the flight environment of most of the GA aircraft involved in accidents is in the soup or at least close to the ground as opposed to airlines that fly well above the clouds; (c) the lack of financial resources among many pilots who fly in the highest risk arena [personal pleasure and personal transportion flights] to maintain their equipment with all of the latest gadgets and upgrades; and (d) the generally much lower experience and quals of the majority of GA pilots. The recent study by the FAA that analyzed GA (non Part 121 or 135) accidents between 1983 and 2011 was very interesting. After a relatively rapid increase in numbers with peaks near 150 Total Flight Hours (TFH) for VFR only and 450 TFH for IFR rated pilots, the decline in accidents by TFH is not impressive. In fact, the study discusses counfounding factors that might actually indicate the decline is over stated. Factors included the slow rate that non-professional pilots accrue hours [and presumeably experience], the likely departure from flying by pilots at unknown rates following initial issuance of their certificates, and so forth. Frankly, I find the discussion by the FAA, SAFE, NAFI, and other alphabet groups that on one hand says the “GA accident rate is too high” and on the other “the number of pilots is declining” to be ludicrous. Of course the pilot population is in decline. It’s expensive, incredibly regulated, and requires invasive disclosure of highly personal information on the medical just to play. It isn’t the cost of gas that’s squeezing GA, its the regulatory cost of unrealistic expectations of a perfectly “safe” flight environment. I suggest we rethink our message. Rather than preach “safety”, less start a really meaningful discussion of “risk”. What is an “acceptable risk”, and what is an “unacceptable risk”? More importantly, who gets to make that determination? The Pilot/participant in GA, the FAA, Congress, or someone else?

  11. Jami Higdon Says:

    As a college student studying professional flight, right now is an extremely scary and hopeful time. We keep hearing about a pilot shortage (when majors start retiring their older pilots) and that creates a hope that we will actually have a job in the next few years. Then hearing about the ATP rules scares us because we don’t know if we are actually going to be able to get the experience it takes to get the open jobs. Right now the industry is in a hurry up and wait to see what the government is actually going to do with the ATP rule and possible pilot shortages.

  12. Abigail Thomas Says:

    I’m in exactly the same situation as Jami. For me, this makes me wonder if I’ll ever be able to pay for the training and hours that is now required for me to even be able to get a job. Guess I’ll be a CFI for a long time.

  13. Mike Goldberg Says:

    Problem is pilots. They are such a passionate bunch (about flying) that they will take a low paying job any day. Does this happen in IT? Law? Engineering? Just look around you. New pilots should not be discouraged but make this a rational choice and major in a different subject to hold a job till they have enough hours and a better paying job to transition into this career. For those who have been around and dont have a 2nd job option, there may not be an option but to continue to get rapped by the system. However, IMHO, the next GEN on pilots, irrespective of their hours, should work on building time but at the same time have a second option that pays the bills, allows them to build savings, add hours, and wait for the airline industry to start acting in a more dignified manner towards the pilots.
    Question is, do you have what it takes to be this disciplined?

  14. Los Says:

    Thank god someone is smart enough to realize the stupidity of this law, the punishment of young pilots trying to make it in a challanging and expensive field is competely not the issue at hand.. as evident by the arguement you have made here. The only reason this law has made it this far is that is it voted on by non-pilots and people who have no idea about how the aviation field works, the only thing these congress men and women are seeing is the caption of the bill that states “this will make air travel safer” which neglects the possible concequences on such a bill.
    Sorry for the miss spelt words but the thought is what counts

  15. Bob Says:

    There won’t be any pilot shortage. The airlines will just get a waiver to for regionals to fly pilotless aircraft. This will be sold as the safest alternative to no service at all and will also be the proviing ground and stepping stone to advancing to pilotless aircraft on larger aircraft.

    You don’t think this is possible. Right – the same arguments were made when flight engineers were removed from the cockpit. PIlotless aircraft are a fact (not a fantasy) of the future. The oligopoly of air carriers left can ram through any change they want. And they want maximum profit. GA is competition to air carrier service that is why the FAA has been killing it off since the day the FAA began to operate. Sadly most of us still live in the romantic pre-1960′s era of aviation and don’t realize that it is about corporations controlling the skies with the government acting as their (free) enforcement division.

  16. Charles Says:

    Bruce,

    You make the following statements:

    “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.”

    “…outrage of the families who lost loved ones on the flight. They somehow were led to believe that the FO was under-qualified”

    Would the FO’s action of “inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover.” be enough for you to question the pilots’ training/qualifications/hours? And wouldn’t that be enough to outrage any family, when a pilot either through inexperience or improper training kills a plane load of paying passengers?

    “Most airline pilots get their start in general aviation”

    So if you’ve made it through you GA pilot training and have gotten to a Regional Airline, don’t you think it reasonable to expect your pilot wouldn’t hold the stick in their lap, fighting the stick shaker, and kill everybody? Whatever happened to pushing the stick forward to break a stall? Whether or not the plane could be saved is not the point, the point is that the pilot for whatever reason did the wrong things. And if your airline pilots are going to come from the GA then that means you have to train them better. It’s too late after someone has their PPL to say OK now we’ll teach you how to really fly.

    Is the arbitrary 1500 hrs the answer maybe not? I know plenty of people with 3000 hrs that I wouldn’t let be PIC of a local flight much less in the airlines. But I’m sure the hope is that with this number of hours required you will catch the pilot with the, “weak training record, both before and after he came to the airline”, before they have a chance to take a bunch of people with them. Yes we should all know by now that having a bunch of hours does not mean a pilot is capable/good/safe but, untill such time as it becomes the norm to get those pilots out of the cockpit, rather than give them an even bigger aircraft, bad things will continue to happen.

    Hope this helps.

  17. JD Says:

    Hospitals won’t hire a surgeon without an MD and experience…why on earth should airlines hire 250 hour pilots with our families onboard? The reason? Because it’s cheap labor.

    This industry and it’s pathetic compensation is the reason these rules need to change. Not only for safety, but for the ability for pilots to make a standard of living which will allow them to live in their base if they choose and to have successful marriages and happy families.

    The suburbs of NY surrounding JFK/LGA/EWR were once filled with Airline Pilots and their families. Now these pilots have to commute across the country to be able to afford to live in communities they are proud of. Those communities surrounding the NY bases are have been filled with Bankers and Lawyers and Professions who compensate their employees appropriately. I for one, don’t want to work 500/1000/1500 miles from my base because I’m too poor to raise a child and have a family.

    Bring on the 1500 hour rule, bring back some respect to this career and stop flying for free.

  18. David Jack Kenny Says:

    Charles –

    If you read the NTSB report (http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/reports/2010/AAR1001.pdf), the CVR transcript makes it clear that it was the CAPTAIN, NOT the FO, who was flying the airplane and made the “inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker.”

    See in particular pages 18-19 of the full report.

    – DJK

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