Putting Public Safety Over Politics and Preserving The 1,500-Hour Pilot Training Rule

By Reps. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), Nick Langworthy (R-N.Y.), Joe Morelle (D-N.Y.), and Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.)

Editor’s note: “Putting public safety over politics and preserving the 1,500-hour pilot training rule” was first published in The Hill and is reprinted with permission.

On Feb. 12, 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, N.Y., killing everyone on board and one person on the ground. The tragedy was a turning point in American aviation history. Thanks to the efforts of the families of Flight 3407, the loved ones of those who passed away, Congress enacted major flight safety reforms after the crash in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. A pillar of these reforms is the “1,500 hour rule,” which requires first officers to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight training time. Since this rule was implemented in 2012, our skies have never been safer. But as the 2023 FAA reauthorization bill is debated, regional airlines and special interests are calling to roll back this hard-fought requirement—a decision that would only put the flying public and our pilots at risk.

The NTSB found that the Flight 3407 crash was preventable and caused by pilot error. The victims’ families didn’t blame the pilots, though; they, too, were victims. Instead, they blamed the system that allowed inadequately trained pilots to fly. Turning tragedy into advocacy, the Flight 3407 families worked with Democrats and Republicans to establish the 1,500-hour pilot training rule, among other measures, to ensure that no community experienced another tragedy like western New York knows.

Every American who steps on an airplane deserves to fly with one level of safety on both regional and major airlines. Following the Flight 3407 crash, the NTSB identified serious deficiencies within the airline industry, including exhausting schedules, inexperienced pilots, and insufficient training. Prior to the implementation of the 1,500-hour rule, first officers were only required to have a minimum of 250 flight hours in their training.

In the 10 years since the 1,500-hour rule was enacted, we’ve experienced the safest period in American aviation history. In the last 14 years, commercial aviation fatalities have decreased by 99.8 percent, and more than 10 billion passengers have traveled safely on our airways. According to ALPA, prior to the passage of the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, the passenger airline industry experienced about 1,100 deaths related to airline accidents over 20 years. The numbers are clear—pilot experience is a matter of life and death.

Thanks to our high standards and strong oversight, the United States is considered the gold standard for airline safety. However, that benchmark has been tested over the past few years. Attempting to persuade regulators to roll back training and safety regulations, airlines have argued that the 1,500-hour rule is causing a pilot shortage, but the numbers tell a different story. According to the FAA, a total of 15,591 new air transport pilot licenses were issued and 9,671 pilots retired between 2019 and 2021, giving a surplus of 6,000 pilots ready to serve airlines across the country.

Recently, regional airlines have attempted to circumvent the 1,500-hour rule. In 2022, Republic Airways requested an exemption to allow pilots graduating from the carrier’s own training program to qualify for a commercial license with just 750 hours of training, which the FAA denied. Recently, SkyWest applied to the FAA to conduct scheduled passenger operations as a commuter airline, which would allow SkyWest to operate at a lower level of safety using first officers with substantially less training. Any exemptions to the 1,500-hour rule would set a dangerous precedent that could result in lower safety standards overall. Allowing these exemptions doesn’t serve the best interests of the flying public and jeopardizes the safety standards we’ve fought for and achieved for nearly 15 years.

We can’t compromise safety to appease the bottom lines of airlines. The 1,500-hour rule has played a critical role in maintaining the safest period in American aviation history. For the sake of the flying public, airline pilots, and the families of Flight 3407 who have continually fought to protect this rule, we can’t go backward.

Brian Higgins represents New York’s 26th District, Nick Langworthy represents New York’s 23th District, Joe Morelle represents New York 25th District, and Claudia Tenney represents New York’s 24th District.

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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