Even with support from special interest groups such as the Regional Airlines Association, or other regionals, like Mesa Airlines, Republic Airways’ bid to gain exemption from the 1,500-hour rule might be an uphill battle—or short-lived. In fact, all the discussion around it suggests that the next few years of airline travel in the U.S. could be on shaky ground.
After all, regional airlines in the U.S. operate 41 percent of all scheduled flights in the U.S. While they say their inability to attract pilots has forced numerous cancellations, requests to be exempted from the 1,500-hour requirement are being brushed aside.
The FAA hasn’t officially taken a position, though CNBC reports they have at least acknowledged the request.
Strong Union Pushback
In response to Republic’s recent appeal, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA)—the world’s largest airline pilot union, which represents more than 62,000 pilots at 38 airlines—as well as the Allied Pilots Association (APA)—which represents pilots for American Airlines—pushed back sharply.
In a statement, APA president Capt. Eric Ferguson chided Republic’s claim, which he described as “foolish.”
“Regardless of Republic Airways’ claims that its training program would provide an equivalent level of preparation, it cannot realistically compare to the training that U.S. military aviators undergo,” Ferguson said.
In its initial appeal, Republic requested an exemption that allows selected civilian pilots who complete its rigorous “Republic R-ATP” program to apply for an airline transport pilot certificate concurrently with a multiengine airplane type rating with a minimum of 750 hours of total flight time as a pilot.
The airline said its Republic R-ATP would resemble the military-based training pathway more closely but would be even safer than the military’s version with a revised civilian approach.
However, citing a compromise in safety, Ferguson objected.
“Anyone who doubts the value of the 1,500-hour rule should be reminded of its dramatically positive impact on the safety record of U.S. airlines,” he said. To drive his point, Ferguson added that “the period preceding the rule was marked by a series of fatal accidents. Since the rule took effect, major U.S. carriers have experienced a total of one in-flight fatality. The 1,500-hour rule must be preserved for safety’s sake.”
Voicing its support, ALPA tweeted, “We couldn’t agree more.” Contrary to Republic’s claim, it said the U.S. had produced a surplus of pilots.
We couldn’t agree more. The rule was created to increase #aviation safety and has done just that with a 99.8% reduction in airline fatalities while the U.S. has produced more than enough, even a surplus of, #pilots to meet U.S. airline hiring demand. https://t.co/BOWxFiIaL7 https://t.co/mVZ9GWvVfH— Air Line Pilots Association (@ALPAPilots) May 18, 2022
Leaders Can’t Get on the Same Page
That notion is also where some of the confusion lies. Arguing its case, ALPA has said despite claims of a pilot shortage, “there are currently about 1.5 certificated pilots relative to demand, according to Federal Aviation Administration and Bureau of Labor Statistics data.”
Instead, it has charged airline executives with mismanagement and a penchant for wanting to “skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay.” Plus, even though many pilots opted to retire going into the pandemic to help airlines cut costs, ALPA charged that airlines were positioned sufficiently for growth coming out of the pandemic. Instead, it said they are using the 1,500-hour requirement as a scapegoat for “bad business decisions” for why they have to cut routes.
All this is continuing to be quite a head scratcher, and it’s hard to say who is right. Played out a different way in a recent U.S. Senate hearing that featured the aviation subcommittee, stakeholders across the industry gave testimonies about developing the aviation workforce for the 21st century.
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With some of the mentioned players present, it seems the tale of the six blind men and the elephants has taken another form—with each identifying a different element. For instance, ALPA’s representative, Paul Ryder, a first officer and master executive secretary for the United Airlines union unit, said the focus should be on “aligning federal funding for pilot academic education and training.”
However, in other testimony, Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and CEO of Mesa Air Group, a regional carrier, came from another angle. While he didn’t call for an outright repeal of the 1,500-hour rule, he suggested that provisions of quality over quantity could be made in light of advances in training technique and technology.
Ornstein pointed out what seems to be an inconsistency of reasoning that more flight hours were the best measure of competence when framed against the operations of foreign carriers who also operate in the U.S.
“While the U.S. is generally considered a leader in aviation safety, it is interesting to note that no other country in the world has these regulations. Not a single one,” Ornstein said. “Every day, foreign pilots who would be deemed unqualified to fly for a U.S. carrier fly wide-body international aircraft into JFK and LAX.”
What’s more, major airlines have relaxed their degree requirements, which is a provision that would generally allow pilots with 1,000 hours to earn the R-ATP.
Altogether, these events are setting the stage for an epic tug of war with the only rule being that every person is for themselves.
Good News for Pilots?
Where does that leave qualified pilots seeking to get into the industry? If the shortage worsens while airlines try to grow, what seems like a tailwind of better compensation will be more like a jet stream. One clue of that came from JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes, who spoke Tuesday at the Bank of America Securities 2022 Transportation, Airlines, and Industrials Conference.
“I think you’re going to see pilot wage inflation over the next several years until the supply-demand equation is in better balance,” he said.
With all the other major airlines pilot union groups in labor talks to improve their contracts, pilots could experience a pay bonanza. This suggests that the pushback against lowering the entry requirements for pilots to increase supply might be more related to wage protection.
Kit Darby, the aviation consulting expert who tracks compensation, seems to think so. Darby published his recent Major Airline Pay Summary report this week, suggesting that now was the time to re-engage with the industry, even for dormant pilots. After all, being a pilot remains an excellent way to make a living.
So, where does that leave Republic? It’s hard to say.