We’re currently dealing with a major pilot shortage in the United States, which has been particularly bad for regional airlines. During the pandemic many senior pilots at the major airlines accepted early retirement packages. With demand roaring back, lots of pilots from regional airlines have been able to land jobs at the major network airlines, leaving regional carriers without qualified pilots.
Fortunately we’ve seen huge pay increases at regional airlines, which is long overdue, and will likely lead to more people wanting to pursue the pilot career in the long-run. However, actually getting trained to become a pilot is a long process.
Back in May 2022, one of the biggest regional airline in the United States asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to lower the minimum number of hours required to become an airline pilot. The FAA has now responded, and it’s not good news for the airline.
Republic asked for exemption to 1,500-hour rule
Republic is an Indianapolis-based regional airline that operates nearly 220 Embraer E170/175 jets on behalf of American Eagle, Delta Connection, and United Express. You may have flown with Republic without even realizing it, given how the marketing of regional airlines works.
As it stands, the FAA requires pilots to have at least 1,500 flight hours before they can work at an airline that’s a Part 121 operator (operating scheduled flights with planes that have 30+ seats). There are a couple of exceptions in place, including that former military pilots can get that requirement cut in half, to only 750 hours.
Republic’s logic for the request was that the airline runs its own pilot training academy, called LIFT (which stands for “Leadership In Flight Training”). The airline argued that:
- The training pilots receive at LIFT is just as good as they’d get in the military, and arguably even better for the purposes of flying a commercial jet
- This would help airlines deal with the pilot shortage, which is a problem right now
- This would make becoming a pilot more economical, as it would make the cockpit more diverse, including for people who historically couldn’t afford to become pilots
FAA rejects Republic’s request for lowering flight hours
The FAA has this week rejected Republic’s request to lower the number of flight hours required to become a pilot. In the response to the airline, the FAA wrote the following:
“The FAA finds that the supporting materials and LIFT historical data does not sufficiently support Republic’s claim that the Republic R-ATP Program is sufficiently comparable to the training program of a military branch to warrant a reduction in flight hours.”
The response went on to say that “the FAA lacks statutory authority to regulate based on a perceived shortage of pilots,” and that “lowering pilot qualifications through the exemption process is not the proper vehicle to recruit talent from diverse communities.”
Should the 1,500-hour rule be eliminated?
The 1,500-rule is one of the highest requirements you’ll find anywhere in the world, as other countries will let pilots fly airliners with just a couple of hundred hours experience. However, arguably the US takes this requirement to the extreme.
First it’s worth considering the origin of this rule. In 2013 the requirement for new airline pilots was increased from 250 hours to 1,500 hours, which is a massive increase. This was done following the 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, which crashed primarily due to pilot error.
The catch is that both the captain and first officer on that flight had over 1,500 hours, so that wouldn’t have even been a factor there. While I can appreciate the logic of wanting to make requirements to become a pilot more stringent (250 hours was arguably too low), I’m not sure what exactly this was intended to address.
On the surface, the desire to find avenues that allow pilots into the airline cockpit with fewer hours makes sense to me:
- Lots of hours as such doesn’t make someone a good pilot, but rather it comes down to the training that they’ve received; in other words, someone spending 1,000 hours on a Cessna giving people first time flight lessons isn’t necessarily going to make them a better airline pilot
- If these flight academies have good programs and a rigorous process for certifying people to get into the cockpit of a plane with passengers, then I’m all for it, regardless of whether a pilot has 750 hours or 1,500 hours; however, it sounds like the FAA wasn’t pleased with Republic’s academy in that regard
- If the FAA believes it’s safe for pilots from the military to fly with 750 hours, then there should be a similar pathway for civilians to do this, in my opinion
- Becoming a pilot is expensive, and that excludes a lot of people who may potentially be interested in this as a career path; if becoming a pilot can be made more affordable without compromising safety, I’d consider that to be a great thing
Interestingly keep in mind that airline pilot unions generally oppose lowering the hour requirement to become a pilot. It’s pretty clear that’s because they want there to be a pilot shortage, so that they have a lot more leverage to negotiate higher wages.
With a significant pilot shortage, Republic asked the FAA to waive the 1,500-hour rule for hiring pilots. Republic has its own aviation academy, and the airline argued that after 750 hours, pilots would be more than qualified to get behind the controls of a regional jet.
This request was rejected by the FAA, as the FAA argued that the academy’s historical data doesn’t sufficiently support the claim that the training is comparable to what pilots get in the military.
What do you make of Republic’s request, and the FAA’s denial of it?