Have you recently had a flight delayed or cancelled due to various factors? There is a growing trend that accounts for delays and cancellations in the airline travel industry: pilot shortage and the “ATP Rule”. Several high profile airline crashes have occurred within the last fourteen years that have promulgated changes in the industry that, while may have been sponsored by good intentions, are slowly having a detrimental effect on the reliability of airline travel.
February 9, 2009, just a few seconds prior to 10:17 pm, Colgan Airlines flight 3407 crashed short of the runway at Buffalo, New York. All 49 people aboard were killed, as well as one on the ground. The probable cause according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was the captain’s inappropriate response to an aerodynamic stall.
December 20, 2008, Continental Airlines Flight 1404 crashed just after takeoff from Denver, Colorado. No fatalities occurred, but 46 people received either minor or serious injuries. The NTSB determined that the pilot’s improper crosswind technique resulted in loss of control of the aircraft.
November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in a residential area of Belle Harbor, New York. 260 people on the airplane and 5 people on the ground were killed. The probable cause, according to the NTSB, was in-flight separation of the vertical stabilizer as a result of loads beyond ultimate design caused by the co-pilot’s improper rudder pedal usage in response to wake turbulence.
Any industry will evaluate training programs after several high-profile accidents. The aviation industry is no exception. However, too much oversight and input from those who know nothing of the training procedures can have a detrimental effect on the industry.
For example, one of the specific requirements of the ATP rule mandates that pilots for an air carrier must have 1,500 flight hours. Prior to the rule going into effect, the flight time requirement for obtaining an ATP certificate was 1,500 hours, so nothing has changed in that regards. Further scrutinization shows that the pilots of all three accidents had well over 2,000 hours of total flying time. How would the new rule have prevented those accidents?
Another requirement of the ATP rule is for all crew members to receive ground and flight training in recognizing, avoiding, and recovering from aerodynamic stalls, as well as training in recognizing, avoiding, and recovering from unusual flight attitudes. This is a good idea. However, this requirement was in place for many years prior to any of those accidents. In fact, prior to obtaining a private pilot certificate, students must go through that same training, and continue to show proficiency in such maneuvers throughout their flying careers. Again, the new rule most likely would not have prevented those accidents, since those pilots had already received that training.
The final requirement for purpose of this article addresses remedial training for pilots who have shown deficiencies. Once again, this has been policy for most professional operators for as long as anyone can remember.
So, how has all of this created a so-called pilot shortage? Mainly cost of training. Right now, the cost to obtain a commercial pilot certificate (250 flight hours) is in the $50,0000 range. That alone deters many people, since loan options for flight training are severely limited. Once a commercial pilot certificate is obtained, the pilot still has to find a way to obtain 1,500 flight hours. There are options, but the airlines are no longer one of them. Statistics have also shown a steady decline in the U.S. student pilot population. Less student pilots equal less professional pilots to fly our airplanes. We are now seeing a growing trend for international students to come to the United States for training. Those students go back to their respective countries, that, coincidentally, have growing aviation infrastructures supported by their governments. Furthermore, Congress has mandated that airline pilots must retire at 65 years of age. As they retire, the pilots who have worked their way up in the smaller airlines now fill the gaps at the major airlines. There are insufficient pilots to fill the ranks at the smaller airlines, hence the delays and cancellations.
In summary, the “ATP rule” will make flight training prohibitively expensive so that the industry sees a void where individuals are willing to spend large amounts of money in order to make less than $30,000 for their first several years, as reported in my earlier article, “Pilot Salaries”. I am not against increasing safety, but many times, the private sector operates much more efficiently when allowed to consult its own experts, rather than a bunch of elected lawyers.