FAA rejects airline's request to hire less experienced pilots

Federal officials rejected a request by a regional airline facing a pilot shortage to hire co-pilots with half the usual minimum amount of flight experience, saying it would reduce safety.

Republic Airways has requested permission to hire pilots with at least 750 hours of flight time if they complete the airline’s training program. However, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was in the public interest to maintain current standards, which generally require 1,500 flight hours for a co-pilot.

Smaller airlines, called regional airlines, were allowed to hire co-pilots, called first officers, with as little as 250 hours of flight experience. But the low was raised after a 2009 Colgan Air plane flying for Continental Airlines crashed near Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 people on board and one on the ground.

While the minimum is 1,500 hours, pilots with military experience or a degree from an approved college program may qualify with less experience. Republic argued that its program, run by a wholly owned subsidiary, would be comparable to military flight training.

“After full consideration of Republic’s waiver request and public comment, the FAA has determined that the requested relief is not in the public interest and would adversely affect safety,” the FAA said.

Republic CEO Bryan Bedford said he was disappointed but not surprised by the FAA’s decision. He said the agency did not give the airline’s application the review it deserved.

“Despite rhetoric to the contrary, our proposal would improve safety by providing students with a highly structured, mission-specific approach to training,” Bedford said in a statement. He said Republic’s approach would increase the number of pilots and help offset the reduction of air service in small and medium-sized communities.

Republic and other regional airlines argue that the FAA should consider new licensing standards for pilots, beyond counting their flight hours, because of the difficulty and cost of racking up 1,500 hours in the air. Republic estimated the cost of flight training and tuition to earn a degree at a public university at around $171,000, compared to $75,000 at its academy.

However, the FAA said it is “overly simplistic” to think granting Republic’s request would address “a perceived pilot shortage.”

The nation’s largest pilots’ union disputes the idea of ​​a shortage, saying there are enough qualified pilots if airlines did a better job retaining pilots and if regional airlines raised wages and eased grueling work schedules. The union praised the FAA’s rejection of Republic’s request.

“This decision is a huge victory for aviation safety and for the flying public,” said Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. He promised that the union will oppose “any other effort that seeks to evade, undermine, weaken or abrogate first officer qualification, experience and training requirements.”

The FAA received nearly 100 comments on Republic’s request, split between supporting and opposing it.

Republic uses smaller aircraft to operate mostly shorter routes for major airlines under the Delta Connection, American Eagle and United Express brands. The airline is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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