WASHINGTON – Five years after Continental Connection Flight 3407 fell from the sky and three and a half years after surviving families forced Congress to pass a landmark aviation safety law, their handiwork faces a wave of unexpected turbulence.
Thanks to those families, newly hired co-pilots on the nation’s commercial airlines now must have six times as much flight experience as they needed a year ago – leaving some regional airlines short on pilots and forced to cut back on service.
And thanks to those families, as of Jan. 4, all passenger airlines must give their pilots the amount of rest that research says they need to fly safely – but some airlines are griping that those new rest rules make it tougher than ever for them to staff their flights.
Those new rules took effect amid an emerging pilot shortage that industry experts blame on a wave of retirements and growing demand for pilots worldwide.
To hear the industry tell it, the pilot shortage – which primarily affects small commuter airlines – is about to create pain in many parts of the country.
“All of our members, large and small, are having trouble finding qualified 1,500-hour pilots,” said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. As a result, Cohen added: “Every community, large and small, if you’re not concerned about losing some or all of your air service, you should be.”
But to the Flight 3407 families and their supporters in Washington, those new rules are the price the airline industry must pay to ensure that what happened in Clarence five years ago Wednesday never happens again.
“We just want our regional pilots to have the same training and qualification standards as the major airlines,” said Karen Eckert, who lost her sister, 9/11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the crash. “Of course, we want communities to have air service, but we don’t want to sacrifice safety for it.”
Flight 3407 crashed, federal investigators said, because the crew let the plane fly too slowly, prompting a stall warning that the pilot mishandled, thereby crashing the plane into the ground. All 49 people on board died, as did a man on the ground.
That 2009 investigation, conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, revealed that in the regional airline industry, flights were sometimes flown by inadequately trained or poorly rested pilots who toiled for as little as $16,000 a year.
Soon after the crash, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 vowed to change all that. And in August 2010, they prodded Congress into passing a law that called on the Federal Aviation Administration to draw up new rules on pilot experience, training and rest.
The most controversial part of that law, then and now, requires co-pilots to have the same Air Transport Pilot license – and the 1,500 hours of flight time it requires – that pilots must have.
That requirement took effect last August. And for some regional airlines that have been accustomed to hiring pilots with as little as 250 hours in the cockpit, the change seems to have come as a shock to the system – even though they had three years to prepare for the new rules.
Most dramatically of all, Great Lakes Airlines, a Wyoming-based carrier, has seen its number of pilots shrink from 304 to 98. Some of the airline’s pilots didn’t qualify to fly anymore under the new rules, and the airline said it has struggled to find replacements.
As a result, the airline announced late last month that it is suspending service to six small communities in North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan. The move was “due to the unintended consequences of the new congressionally mandated pilot regulatory requirements,” said the airline’s CEO, Charles Howell.
That move followed a wave of suddenly canceled Great Lakes flights that left passengers stranded and two senators from Nebraska furious.
“Are we going to see some changes in that 1,500-hour rule – the flight duty rule, as well?” Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asked Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta at a Senate hearing last month. “Are you going to be flexible and accommodating with us?”
In response, Huerta noted that Congress established the 1,500-hour rule in statute in 2010, and that the FAA already has eased the rule somewhat by allowing military and educational credit to be counted against the 1,500 hours.
In other words, Huerta indicated that the 1,500-hour rule is here to stay. And both Cohen, of RAA, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer – a New York Democrat and strong advocate of the rule – agreed.
To pilots such as Patrick Smith, who publishes the popular “Ask The Pilot” blog, that’s a good thing. He noted that before the boom in regional airlines in the last two decades, even the regional airlines routinely hired pilots with an Air Transport Pilot license and the experience it requires.
While the 1,500-hour requirement may cause some short-term pain, “in the long run it’s better and safer for all parties involved,” Smith said.
In the short term, though, the rule means that regional airlines are having trouble hiring qualified pilots, said aviation consultant Kit Darby, who predicted that more regionals will have to trim their flight schedules because they won’t have enough people to fly their planes.
“Some communities will see reduced air service, and some will lose their service altogether,” Darby said.
As if to prove that point, United Airlines announced earlier this month that it is reducing its service out of its Cleveland hub by about 60 percent. In a memo to staff, United CEO Jeff Smisek said the cuts mainly stemmed from persistent financial losses on those routes, but pilot shortages at United’s regional partners played a role, too.
“Several of our regional partners are beginning to have difficulty flying their schedules due to reduced new pilot availability,” Smisek wrote.
While aviation industry sources said the 1,500-hour rule was posing the biggest challenge for airlines, the new pilot rest requirements also make it harder for carriers to staff their flights.
Kent Lovelace, who chairs the Department of Aviation at the University of North Dakota, said that regional airlines he’s spoken with have said that the new rest rules have forced them to increase their pilot staffing by between 3 and 7 percent.
And while that’s having a greater impact at the smaller regional airlines, even JetBlue – a major carrier with huge operations in New York, Boston and Florida – says it has struggled with staffing its flights under the new rest rules.
JetBlue shut down operations in New York and Boston amid a huge storm in early January, and airline spokesperson Tamara Young said last week that the new rest rules were “a factor, not a driver” in the airline’s early January problems.
Others wonder why it should have been a factor at all.
One source within JetBlue, who asked not to be identified by name because he is not authorized to speak for the airline, called it a “sunny-day airline” whose operation is so concentrated in New York and Boston that a storm there will paralyze the airline’s operations with or without any new FAA safety rules.
And the Flight 3407 families wonder why any airline would have trouble complying with the new rules, given that they had years to implement them.
“The airlines knew this was coming and need to step it up a bit,” said Kevin Kuwik, another leader of the Flight 3407 families group, who lost his girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, in the crash.
More travel demand
Still, airline industry experts believe that some airlines are sincerely struggling with the new rules – not necessarily because they’re too tough, but because they’re taking effect at an inopportune time.
In December 2007, Congress passed a bill extending the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots from 60 to 65. That move delayed a wave of pilot retirements that resumed last year.
Meanwhile, the economic recovery has resulted in greater demand for air travel in the United States just as booming Asian airlines are starting to hire away American pilots.
Add it all up, and it’s a recipe for a pilot shortage that’s likely to grow over time, airline industry experts said.
“There’s no quick fix,” said Lovelace, who noted that fledgling pilots now must pay to earn experience at other types of flight operations before applying for jobs at the passenger airlines.
“You can’t create a 1,500-hour pilot within six months,” Lovelace said.
But that pilot shortage is a complicated one. The Air Line Pilots Association – which still has 1,154 members on layoff – denies that it even exists. And industry experts acknowledge there’s no real shortage at the major airlines, where six-figure salaries and comfortable benefit packages generally await any pilot lucky enough to be hired there.
Instead, the shortage plagues the smaller regional airlines, which pay their co-pilots as little as $20,000 a year five years after the Flight 3407 investigation revealed that that flight’s first officer was so poor that she took a second job at a coffee shop for a time.
“There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay and benefits,” said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the pilots union.
“But thousands of highly qualified and experienced U.S. airline pilots are either furloughed or working overseas and eager to return to U.S. airline cockpits – under the right conditions.”
In the meantime, the Flight 3407 families worry that instead of increasing pay and benefits for their pilots, regional airlines will try to cope with the pilot shortage by doing what Great Lakes Airlines has done. The airline has asked the FAA to reclassify some of its commercial flights as charters, which are governed by less-restrictive pilot qualifications rules.
“I’m sure that some of the airlines will be looking for a workaround” that would allow them to escape the new rules,” said Kuwik, of the families group. “We’ll be there to fight it, to make some noise and to make it painful.”
Schumer said he would be there fighting for the families, too.
“We’ll have to watch this like a hawk” to prevent airlines from finding ways to circumvent the new rules, Schumer said.
“But the whole reason we had the tragedy of 3407 is that there weren’t adequate rules. Now we have them.”