Executive Managing Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2018
A 2010 regulation heightened the in-flight hour requirements for ‘First Officers’ (i.e., copilots) from 250 hours to 1500 hours. Advocacy for this regulation came from the families of Colgan Air Flight 3407, a fatal jetliner crash which the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined was caused by pilots failing to respond to warnings that the airplane was about to stall. However, years into the implementation of the 1500 hours rule, the regulation has shown only questionable increases in flight safety. Critics argue that debatable increases in passenger safety do not offset the sharp increase in costs associated with pilot training. Instead, airlines have figured out a way to circumvent this questionably inefficient regulation by sacrificing commercial efficiency.
The 1500 hours rule and debate over resulting efficacy
As noted in an earlier post, the 1500 hours rule drastically increases the costs associated with training first officers. Section 217 of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act 0f 2010 was part of comprehensive legislation that sought to protect passenger safety by increasing pilot training requirements for commercial airlines. Families of the Colgan Air Flight 3407 victims tirelessly advocated for the passage of this legislation, raising the requirement for in-flight training for First Officers from 250 hours to 1500 hours before obtaining their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license. However, there has been a debate whether there has been any resulting effect on passenger safety in the air. While the heightened training requirements clearly indicate support for well-trained pilots, many dispute whether the effects on safety have counterbalanced the increased costs associated with the increased training regimen of first officers.
Airlines forced to reduce flights with fewer eligible First Officers
After the passage of the Airline Safety Extension Act, airlines were immediately unable to utilize many of their young First Officers—for the simple reason that they did not have sufficient hours to meet this heightened standard. Many smaller regional airlines, typically employing younger pilots, were not able to maintain their full schedule of flights. The result was a severe pilot shortage, and airlines struggled to service their existing flight operations.
Airline operation under 14 CFR § 121 and 14 CFR § 135
Most airlines operate under the 14 CFR Part 121, which subjects the airlines to the 1500 hours rule, where every first officer is required to have at least 1500 hours flying time. However, 14 CFR Part 135 applies to carriers operating smaller aircraft with fewer than 10 seats, and does not require first officers to have the 1500 hours of flight time. The rules for airline operation under Part 135 are much less restrictive than Part 121, and allow First Officers to get up in the air much sooner than if they were flying a large-scale commercial aircraft.
Rather than having salaried pilots and airplanes sitting on the ground—or worse yet retiring airplanes and cutting service—airlines that operate smaller aircraft have removed many of the seats in order to allow their fleet to operate under the less restrictive regulations of Part 135. For instance, Beechcraft 1900Ds would normally have 19 seats, meaning that Part 135 does not apply to them. The airlines’ solution has been to remove the 10 extra seats to allow their pilots with less than 1500 hours flight time to fly these planes. However, reducing the passengers on a plane is contrary to a mainstay of the airline industry: the efficiency of air travel. Airlines have always tried to get as many passengers as possible onto planes to maximize profit, reducing the legroom for passengers and adding extra seats. The 1500 hours rule forces airlines to adapt against their own self-interest.
Fighting inefficient regulation with inefficiency is not a long-term solution
Critics of the 1500 hours rule suggest that the rule itself is ineffective at increasing safety of air travel. A pilot shortage means fewer people flying, and more traveling by car or bus, on unsafe roads. Furthermore, the pilots of Colgan Air 3407 both had over 1500 hours of flight time. The only cost-saving consequence of these inefficient regulations is that the weight load of the planes is reduced when seats and equipment is removed, allowing for reduced operating expenses. However, the margins of air travel, and regional airlines in particular, are low. Reducing the number of passengers on board severely cuts into the bottom line of these airlines. The severe cost of the increased flight time training for pilots is prohibitive for airlines and also prevents new pilots from entering the industry. A future pilot shortage is seemingly inevitable, and operation of seemingly “empty” aircraft under Part 135 is merely a temporary solution to a broader issue.