Perhaps it is mere coincidence that the Federal Aviation Administration published its new rules on pilot qualifications less than a week after a fatal crash in San Francisco. After all, even in February, the FAA was saying it hoped to have those rules completed in July and new training rules ready by October.
Still, the coincidence – if it is one – is startling. Saturday’s crash, like the 2009 crash in Clarence Center that prompted the new rules – was blamed in part on low airspeed. Pilot readiness was identified as one of the key issues in the 2009 crash, which killed all 49 people on the airplane and one person on the ground. Those issues and others were detailed in a 2009 series in The Buffalo News, “Who’s Flying Your Airplane?”
It took the relentless efforts of family members of the Clarence victims more than a year to push Congress into passing new flight safety laws, but since then the FAA has dragged its feet. The agency approved pilot fatigue rules in 2011, but it took until Wednesday to complete the qualifications rules. That makes it 11 months late. If the training rules are completed by October – which the FAA still promises – it will be more than two years late.
The delays are due in large part to pressure from the airline industry, which, one would hope, fully comprehends its compelling interest in flight safety. Certainly, the former owners of the now-defunct Colgan Air, operator of the plane that crashed in Clarence, have learned that lesson, though in the hardest way possible.
The industry objected to the new law’s requirement for 1,500 hours of flight time for new co-pilots, fearing it could cause a pilot shortage. The FAA relented and set that requirement lower for certain well-trained pilots. Still, the president of the Regional Airline Association, Roger Cohen, acknowledged that more than 8,000 pilots have taken steps to acquire an air transport pilot certificate, which the FAA will now require for first officers as well as captains.
The new regulations will take effect as soon as they are published in the Federal Register. They also require that:
• Pilots have a minimum of 1,000 flight hours of experience as co-pilots before becoming captains.
• Pilots and co-pilots get an air transport pilot certificate, which in addition to the 1,500 hours of flight experience or its equivalent also demands 50 hours of experience on a multi-engine plane. Exemptions from the 1,500-hour requirement will be allowed for military pilots with 750 hours of flight time, graduates with a bachelor’s degree in aviation with 1,000 hours of flight time and those with an associate’s degree with an aviation major who have 1,250 hours of flight time.
• First officers have an “aircraft type rating,” which involves additional training and testing specific to the type of aircraft they fly.
These are all valuable changes that will help to make flying safer in this country. So will the 2011 pilot fatigue rules, which were also a response to the crash of Flight 3407. Next up are the training rules, which are expected to include new training regarding stalls, which occur when airspeed falls too low.
Separately and importantly, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., are pushing for heightened international standards on pilot training. They noted the similarities between the 2009 crash in Clarence Center and last week’s crash in San Francisco of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777. They want other nations to improve their own flight training rules or face limitations on their ability to land in this country. The FAA should push for that requirement.
The Families of Flight 3407 – the survivors of the crash victims – have fought diligently for these changes. It has been a brave and critical campaign, facing down Congress, the airline industry and the FAA to win changes that will make airline travel safer for all. They are converting terrible loss into public benefit, and for that, all Americans can be grateful.