Pilot Qualifications Raised by U.S. FAA to Improve Safety

Airline pilots will need to have more experience and pass more rigorous tests under the most significant increase in commercial flight-crew standards in decades, the U.S. government announced today.

The biggest changes will come for co-pilots, who will have to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time to be hired, up from the current minimum requirement of 250 hours, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The regulation, required by Congress in 2010, would grant some exceptions to the 1,500-hour standard. A military pilot would need 750 hours of total time and someone holding a bachelor’s degree with an aviation major could qualify with 1,250 hours of flight time.

“We owe it to the traveling public to have only the most qualified and best trained pilots,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

The FAA projected a $6.4 billion cost, almost entirely because of the 1,500-hour requirement. The agency estimated $2.3 billion in savings because of the exceptions, such as the 750-hour standard for military pilots.

Congress passed the law requiring the regulation in response to the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of a regional turboprop plane operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s former Colgan unit that was blamed on pilot errors.

The accident, near Buffalo, New York, killed all 49 people aboard and one man on the ground. It was the last fatal airline accident in the U.S. before the July 6 Asiana Airlines Inc. crash in San Francisco.

Colgan Families

Under current rules, a co-pilot may fly in an airline cockpit after reaching 18 years of age and accumulating 250 hours in the air, or less with aviation academic training.

Captains, who have the final word in the cockpit, must be at least 23 years old, have 1,500 hours flight time and pass a flying knowledge test designed for airline operations known as the Airline Transport Pilot license, or ATP.

The FAA last year proposed setting minimum hour requirements of 750 hours for pilots trained in the military and 1,000 hours for those receiving an aviation degree from an approved four-year university.

That formula was supported by the Families of Continental Flight 3407, which represents relatives of the Colgan victims, and the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, a Washington-based trade group representing independent pilot unions at airlines including United Parcel Service Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. Colgan was flying under contract for Continental Airlines Inc.

Airlines for America and the Regional Airline Association, Washington-based trade groups for airlines, and the Air Line Pilots Association union, the largest pilot union in North America, supported allowing pilots to work with as little as 500 hours experience with academic or military training.

They said flight time by itself was a poor measure of a pilot’s skills, according to an advisory report to the FAA.

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