The pilot shortfall in the US today exists for several reasons – from the “great retirement” that hit aviation and other industries during the pandemic to regulations that have virtually nothing to do with pilot competency and safety.

After an accident in which a Colgan Air flight went down in 2009, Congress arbitrarily raised the minimum number of flight hours for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate from 250 to 1,500 hours of total flight time, the thought being that more experienced pilots might be safer. The National Transportation Safety Board made no recommendation after the accident to change the rules. Still, Congress reacted to the crash, and the victim’s families, with what can only be described as a knee-jerk reaction.  It helped create the pilot shortfall that continues 13 years later.

Of course, the pilots in the Colgan accident had 3,379 and 2,244 hours, respectively, meeting that “magic threshold.”  Unfortunately, one pilot should have been washed out for previously failing check-rides. At the same time, the other was fatigued and ill due to scheduling issues and not living near her operating base. Hours alone don’t make a competent pilot.

There is much more to aviation safety than a minimum requirement for flight hours. Other countries train their pilots ab-initio, from zero experience, to enter the cockpit with many fewer hours, 240 for an MPL in license and about 250 for some European countries.  The difference is that they have a well-established curriculum, building competency and validating those competencies with checks and balances. The requirement for 1,500 hours in the US has no specific requirements – just flight time, even if in a two-seat light sport aircraft rather than a more relevant more complex aircraft.  As a result, the pilot shortfall has been increasing over the last decade-plus since the crash.

Today’s technologies enable airlines to track the performance of their pilots, from hard landings to how well they hold altitude when flying manually. Several factors can and should be measured to evaluate pilot performance. But while such systems exist, they haven’t been proposed to the FAA to reduce the number of hours based on the assurance that students have mastered the required techniques and skills before moving on. Nor has supporting data been collected internationally on how well the specialized training programs actually work – and so far it seems they are working well.

So today, while a US-based student needs to build 1,500 hours, international students are employed, supervised, and evaluated in airline situations while gaining airline experience. A Lufthansa graduate with 400 hours could be in the right seat of a 747 into JFK or a pilot from Singapore Airlines with an MPL License and 350 hours flying in the right seat of an A350 into LAX. Are they any less safe than a 1,500-hour US pilot that had 1,200 of those hours in a small Cessna? Would 100 hours in a jet as second in command provide more relevant experience and expertise than 1,000 hours in a flight training role, which doesn’t require the crew coordination skills essential to airline operations?

Convincing the FAA and convincing Congress are two different things. However, the FAA has the authority to reduce hours if equivalent safety can be demonstrated and documented. Therein lies the rub. Documenting required competencies and demonstrating that those competencies have been achieved.

The industry needs to improve on presenting strong data to the FAA to support better curricula with fewer hours if it is to reduce the pilot shortage.  With the right supporting data, the arbitrary 1,500 hours could be lifted for something better – likely 250-400, or maybe even 500 hours of competency-based training with clear objectives and measurement that the required competencies have been satisfied.

In the interim, some airlines and OEMs are introducing programs to try and bridge the gap – unfortunately, with the 1,500-hour requirement still in place. Some university programs are now authorized to train in 1,250 hours with an aviation degree, which helps but doesn’t solve the problem. Boeing and United have a program attracting minority and women pilot candidates but building an additional 1,250 hours at $100 plus per hour is a financial hurdle as high as an Ivy League degree.

Republic proposed a “military-style” program for the FAA at 750 hours but could not win the day because of a lack of data. Nonetheless, they are buying new Pipistrel two-seat electric aircraft that are much less expensive to operate, at $25 per hour, which comes to only $31,250 to make up the hours’ gap rather than 4-6 times that amount. But without a curriculum or measurement, how is one to know whether the program is truly effective?

The Bottom Line
It is time for the industry to take a fresh look at training and to examine data from countries where fewer hours are required to determine whether the minimum number of flight hours makes a difference in safety and pilot competency in an airline setting. We believe that training focused on the job at hand, including cockpit coordination, is much more valuable than building time in a training aircraft that does nothing to prepare a student for jet speeds or the more rapid decision-making required in complex airspace while flying a complex airplane.

The pilot shortfall should be the right inducement for cooperation between OEMs, airlines, simulator manufacturers, training schools, universities, and international regulators to agree on the required competencies and how it can be determined that they are mastered. With that in place, we could focus on training new pilots directly for the environment in which they will work, developing the competencies and experiences they need, rather than wasting time on irrelevant flying to meet an arbitrary flight hour requirement.

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President AirInsight Group LLC

 


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