Some U.S. airlines are decrying an ongoing shortage of qualified pilots as a major impediment to business, but the world’s largest pilot union is calling baloney on those claims. For years, regional carriers have been lobbying regulators to reduce flight hour requirements for entry-level first officers as a way of expanding the shrinking labor pool. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), however, insists that there are plenty of qualified pilots for airlines willing to offer competitive wages.
The contentious legislative debate stems from FAA regulations put in place following the deadly crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February of 2009. The new rules required even copilots to complete at least 1,500 hours of flight time before becoming eligible to fly commercial flights. While some regional airlines have blamed the relatively new rules for a shortage of qualified pilots, labor groups have championed the stepped-up training requirements as a critical safety enhancement for the flying public.
The debate has heated up again in recent days as lawmakers consider an amendment to the “FAA Reauthorization Act” which would substantially reduce the flight hours for newly hired first officers. While some congressmen have complained that airline trade groups have been playing hardball to ensure that language reducing training requirements is included in the bill (in some cases allegedly threatening to eliminate flights in specific congressional districts), regional carriers insist that flights are already being trimmed because of a very real shortage of qualified pilots.
Captain Todd Insler, Chairman of the United Airlines Master Executive Council, wrote a blistering open letter demanding that Congress not “trade proven safety enhancements for profits.” According to Insler, the regional carriers complaining the loudest are simply unable or unwilling to offer competitive wages. “There is no pilot shortage,” he said in his letter.
The captain asserts that FAA statistics back up his position, noting that there are now more than two times as many certified pilots looking for work as there are unfilled positions at US airlines.
“Failure to compete in the marketplace should not be cause for some regional airlines to compromise airline safety in any way,” Captain Insler writes. “These carriers must stop hiding behind this fake pilot shortage and Congress must stop putting today’s hard-won safety record at risk.”
The ALPA has taken perhaps an even tougher stand on the issue than its outspoken captain at United Airlines. The union is clear in its belief that the rules put in place following the tragic 2009 air disaster have saved lives.
“After 9/11, airlines began to lower their standards in order to attract more pilots, which led to an increase in accidents and a reduction in overall safety,” the ALPA said in statement opposing the rollback of the safety regulations. “While some may point to a single accident in 2009 that led to a change in first officer qualifications, the FAA has identified 31 accidents over a 10-year period that were addressed.”